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Precision perspectives

New tech for older iron
Retrofitting existing equipment can help get growers in the precision game.

Bruce Wilson farms by himself, so he’s always looking for ways to save time and labor with his corn and soybean crops near Mexico, Mo. Over the past 15 years, he has found solutions by purchasing precision farming equipment through MFA and adding it to his tractor, planter and combine.

Most recently, Wilson has successfully adopted precision seeding practices after becoming disappointed with a planter he purchased in the early 2000s.  

“The planter still had a good frame, but it just wasn’t doing the job,” he said. “MFA helped me select add-on technology from Ag Leader and Precision Planting LLC that saves time and increases yield.”

Davin Harms, precision agronomy sales manager for MFA Incorporated’s Region 2, has worked with Wilson for the past six years and visits his farm a couple of times a year to consult with the farmer on equipment. He says retrofitting existing equipment can help farmers like Wilson get in the precision agriculture game without buying expensive new machines.

“Bruce’s planter technology is better than what you can buy built-in on a new planter, and his total investment added up to about half of what a new planter costs,” Harms said. “The average farmer might grow 40 crops in his or her lifetime, and about 75 percent of yield depends on planting. Planting with precision technology helps make sure that a farmer produces the most bushels possible.”

The continued economic downturn in the agricultural economy means that farmers such as Wilson are buying less new paint, but add-on precision equipment continues to grow in popularity. According to Gavin Burgess, regional manager for Precision Planting LLC, one of MFA’s agronomy vendors, his company has seen a consistent growth rate of 15 to 30 percent a year for each of the past 10 years. And he sees farmers in MFA country taking to precision planting in a big way.

“In Illinois on a typical 80-acre field, you might have two soil types,” he said. “In Missouri, a 40-acre field might have 15 soil types due to hilly terrain and other factors. Precision technology can help growers account for that variation, use inputs wisely and maximize their yield.”

Wilson farms land originally owned by his great-grandfather and two grandfathers along with additional acreage he’s purchased over the years. He farmed with his father, Kenneth, until the elder Wilson died two years ago. Finding efficiencies is more important than ever as he singlehandedly keeps up with the demands of a growing operation, Wilson said.

“Now that I’m on my own,” Wilson said, “precision technology enables me to keep going without hiring anyone to help.”

After deciding to dive into precision, Wilson said he started with Ag Leader equipment because of the company’s reputation for quality and technical support.

“At first I called Ag Leader for support, but now I just call MFA Agri Services in Mexico—I keep the guys there pretty busy,” Wilson said, specifically mentioning MFA employees Billy Barker and Scott Wilburn. “I really rely on MFA. I know they’ll be there to help me out.”  

Precision planting is just part of the picture. Before Wilson plants a single seed, he works with agronomists through MFA’s Nutri-Track program, which monitors fertility levels across his fields, combining GPS-based soil testing and yield monitoring from past years. Wilson also buys seed from MFA, selecting varieties and hybrids that are proven to work well in his area.

“Bruce is an early adopter in terms of technology, but he uses a sharp pencil to make sure each investment pays off,” Harms said. “He isn’t satisfied with the status quo. He asks a lot of questions, and he’s open to new ideas.”  

Wilson’s experience proves that growers can mix and match add-on equipment effectively. Here are the steps he took to add precision capability to his operation:

  • He began with Ag Leader row shutoffs for his planter. This technology saves costs since he doesn’t waste seeds when turning at the end of the field.  
  • Then he added Ag Leader GPS-based autosteer for his tractor. Today he uses SteerCommand, which reduces fatigue. After 12 hours in the cab, Wilson said he isn’t as tired as he used to be.
  • He couples SteerCommand with Ag Leader’s InCommand display monitor, which allows him to view planting data on an individual row basis with an accuracy rate within 1.5 inches, correcting as he goes. InCommand also monitors yield. He moves the monitor and autosteer equipment from his tractor to his combine before harvest.
  • Recently Wilson added Ag Leader SureDrive, an electric drive for variable-rate planting, section control and turn compensation. Turn compensation allows for optimal seed spacing around turns—often a problem with traditional planters that depend on high-maintenance clutches and chains. While Wilson’s fields are fairly flat, turn compensation also helps producers working hilly ground improve seed placement around contours and terraces, and it better manages planting irregularly shaped fields.
  • Another of Wilson’s new tools is Ag Leader’s hydraulic down force system, which controls seed depth on-the-go based on field topography and soil conditions. This helps overcome soil compaction on individual rows, leading to even emergence and root development. Placing seed at the optimal depth is especially important with no-till, which Wilson practices on 90 percent of his acreage. He said it also works well on the hardpan clay found in many of his fields.
  • Wilson turned to Precision Planting LLC for its eSet seed meter, which assures accurate singulation. This technology allows just one seed to drop at a time and helps provide proper spacing.  
  • He also uses Precision Planting’s Wave Vision sensors, another seed metering tool. Wave Vision differentiates seed from dust and debris, improving counts and allowing him to adjust seed population as he plants, which helps improve yield. “I can ‘see’ the seed going into the ground more accurately,” Wilson said.
  • At the end of the day, Wilson uses Ag Leader’s AgFiniti app to download data from his monitor to his iPad so he can study additional ways to enhance yield.

As for the future, Wilson continues to learn about precision farming opportunities from his MFA representatives and attends trade shows, scours farm magazines for ideas and updates his equipment every few years. He also looks forward to technology that could save time during harvest such as auto-drive equipment, which would help him avoid shuttling back and forth from his combine to his grain cart.    

“Learning about precision methods keeps me interested,” Wilson said. “I enjoy working with it.”

Hydraulic down force - does it pay off?

One of Bruce Wilson’s favorite new precision additions is Ag Leader’s hydraulic down force system. This is his second year using this technology, and he said it helped improve his yield last year.   

“In the past, I had to stop and get out of the cab frequently to make sure seeds were set at the right depth, and then make adjustments,” Wilson said. “Now I just set up the system and watch it perform on my screen in the cab—no stopping.”
Growers are adopting this technology quickly, according to Denton Farmer, an Ag Leader representative who works with MFA.

“Even plant emergence is the first step to record-setting yields,” he said. “It requires three key ingredients—moisture, warmth and air. Moisture and warmth vary with seed depth. And available air is drastically reduced when too much weight is applied to the seed, as in compacted soil. The hydraulic down force system addresses all three issues.”    

Sensors on the gauge wheels read weight in every row, 200 times each second, and adjust down force hydraulically almost instantly, Farmer explained. The operator sees real-time adjustments on the cab monitor as the system responds to changes in soil conditions, planting speed or land contours. The operator can override the system—for example, you can reduce down force during wet conditions.

“The hydraulic down force system pays for itself by improving yield by an average of 10 bushels per acre on corn,” Farmer said, citing independent university studies that measured the technology’s effectiveness. “Proper placement of seed through metering systems such as SureDrive equates to another five-bushel advantage.”

Kick-start your crops
Thad Becker, precision agronomy manager for MFA Incorporated, encourages farmers to consider the next step in precision planting—liquid starter systems, in which planting equipment places nutrients with the seed to encourage germination and growth.

“This will especially show benefits with no-till,” Becker said.

Equipment recently launched by Precision Planting LLC is showing promise with this practice, he said. The FurrowJet planter attachment allows growers to place starter nutrients in the seed furrow when planting, while simultaneously placing a dual-band of fertilizer three-quarters of an inch on each side of the seed. FurrowJet rides in the furrow just above the seed, firming soil along the way.

“This gives the seedling and crown roots immediate and continuous access to nutrients,” explained Gavin Burgess, regional manager for Precision Planting. “It results in tremendous savings for farmers.”

Return on investment is a major focus for Precision Planting, Burgess said.

“When we bring a product to market, our goal is that 90 percent of farmers will see a return on investment within one year,” he said. “Our precision planting equipment can increase profits by 10 bushels per acre, which can mean an extra $30 to $35 an acre. And even small farms can afford the equipment.”

Eyes in the sky
Watch for MFA drones over a field near you.

MFA Incorporated recently purchased six unmanned aerial vehicles—commonly known as drones—and is training staff in their operation. The drones will be used to capture aerial crop imagery that could help agronomists more accurately pinpoint problem areas such as insect and disease infestations and nutrient deficiencies.

“Time savings will be the primary way drones will help our customers,” said Thad Becker, precision agronomy manager for MFA Incorporated. “They may help us diagnose field issues more quickly.”

Becker emphasized that drones will enhance, not replace, MFA’s current scouting methods.

“During our pilot program over the next year, our Crop-Trak consultants will evaluate the drones’ performance as tools that may improve our ability to troubleshoot and quantify problems,” he said. “We’ll follow up with on-the-ground scouting. In some cases we can work with the farmer to take appropriate action more quickly than current scouting methods alone would allow.”

Everyone who will operate MFA drones in 2018 has taken a Section 107 Airman Knowledge Test, received a remote pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration, and will receive training from the drone supplier, Becker said, adding that safety is a top concern.  

A DJI-brand Phantom 4 drone will be placed with a Crop-Trak manager in each of MFA’s five regions. Becker says that Phantoms are the standard drone of choice across many industries for their ease of use, affordability, flight time (30 minutes on each battery), ruggedness and ability to take quality imagery.   

In addition, MFA’s Agronomy Division will operate a DJI Inspire from the home office in Columbia, Mo. The Inspire is a larger drone that carries two cameras and can collect near-infrared imagery to more accurately detect agronomic issues, Becker said.

However, he added, “The drones aren’t where the magic is. Our goal is to gather actionable information. It’s what you do with the information that makes the difference.”

He offers two examples.

  • Drones allow agronomists to get an overview of a cornfield and identify color differences, and then target spots of concern for an on-the-ground follow-up visit to determine if the issue is nutrient deficiency. Drone imagery can quantify the area affected, helping the producer decide whether it’s economically feasible for a rescue treatment.  
  • Agronomists could also use the imagery to quantify areas of soybeans affected by sudden death syndrome and help the grower decide whether to use seed treatments in future seasons to control the disease.

MFA is in a unique position to offer such benefits to producers, Becker said.

“We understand crop production from start to finish, and that’s what differentiates us from others who are experimenting with drones,” he said. “Our crop consultants walk the fields every day, and they have the expertise to use the imagery in a way that’s more valuable to our member-owners.”

 Precision spraying battles weed resistance

While Bruce Wilson sprays some acres on his own, he hires MFA to apply dry fertilizer and spray most of his chemicals. No matter who does the work, he believes that another precision tool—variable-rate application based on GPS-based field maps—comes with substantial advantages.   

Variable-rate technology allows applicators to spread fertilizer or spray crop protectants at the right rate in the right place at the right time, which can save cost and increase yield. This precision practice also helps protect the environment and allows farmers to keep track of the amount of inputs they use.

 “Now I have 20 years of records proving that I’m not putting on more fertilizer and chemicals than I should,” Wilson said. “I also better understand what’s going on with the farm.”

Thad Becker, MFA precision agronomy manager, said many farmers who spray their own fields are using Ag Leader’s advanced spray control systems—especially now that increasing weed resistance makes it more crucial to apply product correctly.

“These systems monitor boom pressure and relay droplet size information to the applicator, which is important for maintaining good coverage while also managing drift,” Becker said.

Denton Farmer, an Ag Leader sales representative who works with MFA, explained how the company’s DirectCommand system works: “You enter your spray tip characteristics, and the system determines the optimal droplet size given the boom pressure.”

Farmer added that it’s important to avoid under-applying when using a pre-emergent or post-emergent herbicide. Precision spraying can help.

“Anyone driving down the road can see field edges where self-propelled sprayers have under-applied as the rate controller struggled to catch up to the machine’s ground speed,” he said. “DirectCommand keeps application rates on target by using two sensors rather than one. And it monitors the relationship between expected and measured flow to detect failures such as broken hoses, plugged filters and failing sensors.” 

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