State Of Precision Ag 2014: Guiding Users, Not Just Equipment

GreenStar 2 monitorIn just the two years since CropLife® last visited with a number of retailers for this report, the precision ag landscape has changed noticeably. Variable-rate services and vital improvements in hardware have continued to develop. A new crop of players and technologies have emerged. In fact, companies from outside agriculture have brought fresh ideas and expertise to the table. And exploding wireless capabilities are making information transfer easier than ever.

On one level, you could say it’s all about “The Maps” — yield, variable-rate and the like — and the data needed to create them. But it’s also about the clear road map that many growers still desperately need to make the pieces of site-specific farming work for them.

Actually, CropLife’s editors are seeing that agriculture is solidly “mapping” a return to the promise of core ideas envisioned 25 to 30 years ago. Much of what precision ag users wanted to do back in the 1980s — creating maps, making decisions based on field data, engineering continuous improvement — were not technologically practical then, but they are now.

Clearly, adoption continues to expand. “I would guess 70%-80% of today’s farmers are using some component of precision farming, either on their own or provided by their input suppliers,” says Dr. Harold Reetz of Reetz Agronomics, Monticello, IL. Because of this diverse user base, we wanted to see what some progressive growers are doing with the technologies, many of them taking the reins almost completely for their site-specific programs. Included here are their experiences and comments, as well as retailers’ thoughts.

Wireless Wow Factor

Getting information into and out of the field has gotten considerably easier. “Cell phones are giving way to smartphones, and iPads are replacing the spiral notebook in the farmer’s pocket,” says Reetz. “Once they get hooked, they don’t go back.”

The same could be said for dealers. Retailers and growers both are equipping their teams with smartphones and tablets, especially iPads. Employees can reach home base or “The Cloud,” if needed.

Cody Miller, precision agriculture specialist and CCA with Larsen Cooperative, a part of CHS, New London, WI, says his company is starting to utilize wireless data transfer with AgLeader’s AgFiniti. He feels being able to send prescriptions to application machines in the field is going to be a great time savings.

Grower Kris Tom of Tom Farms, Leesburg, IN, uses JDLink and wireless data transfer to send and receive information to sprayers. His team no longer has to wait until the end of the season to see their records, but rather, they review jobs within a few hours. They can make decisions on-the-fly instead of waiting two to three weeks or a month.

In addition, mobile devices are being used for sales and troubleshooting, for soil sampling, for scouting and even for remote control of irrigation pivots. In fact, Precision Planting has been using tablets as monitors in planter tractors, taking the place of monitors ten times the cost of a tablet.

Thanks to wireless, Central Valley Ag’s Advanced Cropping System (ACS) team, sales groups and customers all have access to moisture probe data — and monitor and control pivots from a smartphone or iPad. “The ability to have information and data available to our employees and customers in the field, at the touch of a button, is helping us make more informed and timely decisions on the farm,” says Glen Franzluebbers, technology director at the Nebraska-based firm.

At presstime, Wheat Growers, Aberdeen, SD, had mobile tablets in 50% of its fleet, which will grow to 100% come fall. Big picture, company managers see huge potential for efficiencies with the tablets, plus custom applicators’ jobs are made easier. “A paperless system means less time doing the things drivers are not necessarily fond of doing (paperwork) and getting across more acres each day,” says Brent Wiesenburger, precision ag manager.

In addition, all 56 of the Wheat Growers’ sales agronomists have tablets, synced with price sheets, marketing materials and training videos. This spring, they’ll be used to release fields for application at several facilities. In the future, plans are to offer complete recommendation documentation on them, with access to historical data as well.

The tablets can hold manuals for every equipment line, says Larsen Coop’s Miller, plus they can be used to create fertilizer orders anywhere.

Mobile phone apps simply help the Larsen staff “do a better job.” For instance, one weather app helps custom applicators get the information they need to fill out reports and allows them to make sure there will be enough time to get a job in before a rainfall. Video calls provide diagnostics on equipment or verify fertilizer orders.

Steve Cubbage, president of Prime Meridian LLC, an independent precision data management company based in Nevada, MO, is particularly pleased with how use of the cloud is moving in to ag. “It will break down barriers to the sharing of data that we’ve had to live with since precision ag’s inception,” he says.

In fact, in the past two years wireless technologies and cloud computing have started to converge, he adds. “I think they are going to work in tandem to do a lot of great things for the industry that we’ve been waiting a long time on.”

Indeed, retailers are moving varying levels of their businesses to the cloud, for access by both staff and customers. “It is rapidly becoming the method of choice for storing information, accessing special software and sharing various kinds of communication,” says Reetz.

Larsen Cooperative stores maps on cloud-based systems so growers can have access to them. Also stored: internal data for soil sampling. It works well for growers who have monitors that are capable of sending and keeping data on cloud-based systems so that data can be retrieved at any time.

Admittedly, if a retailer’s territory is in a rural environment, a service team can be limited by how good the Internet connection is, points out Aaron Grote, GIS manager at United Prairie LLC, Tolono, IL. Even though his company operates in a fairly populated area, reps sometimes still can’t get a good signal. “Without 4G, a lot of Web-based programs become painfully hard to wait on,” he says.

Variable-Rate Continues To Mature

Wireless and cloud technologies have enhanced aspects of variable-rate services.

Miller says his team is writing more variable-rate (VR) nitrogen and seeding prescriptions than ever. In fact, requests for VR planting prescriptions are “exploding,” whereas two years ago, there was hardly any talk of them in his area. Now growers feel they’re necessary to maximize yields. New OEM technology and outfits of older planters with equipment from Precision Planting or Ag Leader have made the prescriptions possible.

At Three Rivers Company, Earlville, IA, precision farming technologist Sam Wilson helps growers outfit their planters with the needed equipment to execute prescriptions, and he assists them in understanding the data and information they will need in order to make a good seeding prescription.

Some retailers are not sure if VR seeding will really pay off, as in the case of United Prairie’s Grote. On his region’s “good central Illinois soil,” water tends to be the largest contributor to yield loss. But some customers with marginal, rolling ground near rivers tried — and now swear by — custom seeding recommendations Grote’s team provided. The growers have actually started planting every acre with the technology.

A number of growers are keeping an eye on variable hybrid planting. Grower Keith Gingerich, owner of Gingerich Farms, Lovington, IL, believes when the technology is available, multi-hybrid planting will help him more than VR seeding, which he just started using last year.

Brian Watkins, Watkins Farms, Kenton, OH says he’s seen a prototype machine and believes the approach makes sense, especially in his part of northwest Ohio where there are two dominant soil types but lots of variation within fields.

This season, his team will be using a sensor-based VR nitrogen program for sidedress applications on corn. “We’ll be going in when we have a canopy using the OptRx system,” he says. “We’ve watched people do it for a couple of years and are going to give it a shot.”

Gingerich says VR sidedress applications have provided a huge return through yield and reductions in cost.

But even with tried and true VR fertilization, Reetz says the industry will need to focus more on the agronomic questions. “We need to revisit the research to define what the optimum rate of each input is and what interactions come into play,” he says.

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