The power of precision

Two farmers' experience

For Mendell Elson and Lynn Fahrmeier, the move to precision farming all started with yield monitors. They grew interested in other precision tools as they tried to address why some field locations produced more than others.

Elson, who grows 2,200 acres of corn and seed soybeans near Miami, Missouri, installed a yield monitor on his combine in 1997. He’s spent tens of thousands of dollars on precision add-on equipment since then.

“I’m an early adopter, but if I spend a dollar I expect to make a dollar back,” Elson said. “I’ve more than doubled my money on my investments.”

Fahrmeier, who farms 2,000 acres of corn and beans near Wellington, Missouri, purchased his first yield monitor in 1994. “I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since,” he laughs. But he, too, believes his investments have paid off.

“I’ve seen cost savings, especially with row shut-offs when planting,” Fahrmeier said. Even more than cost savings, he added, he sees benefits from applying fertilizer where it’s needed.

Fahrmeier and Elson use a variety of GPS-based precision farming tools, including:  
•    Yield monitors on combines, which help determine whether you need to make changes to enhance production in certain locations
•    Grid soil sampling, which helps you apply the right seeds and nutrients in the right places within each field
•    Planter row clutches and other tools to control seed population and depth, which helps you save seed, avoid overlap, and allow every seed to reach its potential
•    Auto-steer, which uses GPS technology to guide equipment accurately
•    Swath controls, which shut off fertilizer and chemical application automatically at the end of rows to avoid overlap, and
•    Variable-rate application of fertilizer helps you apply the right fertilizer, at the right rate and in the right place.  

Rick Greene, MFA’s precision agronomy manager, began advising Elson on precision practices six years ago. “Rick’s knowledge helped me gain considerable comfort with taking the leap,” Elson said. “I knew the support would be there.” Matt Stock, an MFA regional precision sales manager, provides service and advice to Fahrmeier.

Extreme weather, like last year’s drought and this year’s wet spring, make precision tools more critical, Elson said. “Our window of time to get things done is shrinking. These tools save seed, fertilizer and chemical costs, lead to a more efficient harvest, and help us cover more acres per hour.”

For Elson, the greatest pay-offs come from swath controls on his planter, anhydrous applicator, and self-propelled sprayer. He can more accurately keep records, plan inputs, and measure profitability. The tools also help him set more precise per-acre prices for the custom planting, tilling and harvesting services that he offers to other producers.  

Elson advises beginners to select user-friendly systems. “I don’t want to push seven buttons to get one answer,” he said. He uses AgLeader, Trimble, Raven and Precision Planting’s 20/20 tools—all add-on systems. He finds add-ons easier to use than systems built-in by equipment manufacturers.

Precision tools are particularly useful to farmers like Elson and Fahrmeier, who farm highly variable land along the Missouri River. Fahrmeier works a lot of hillside seeps where moisture gets trapped in topsoil by thick under-layers of hard clay. “In a wet spring like this year, the soil fills up with water like a sponge,” he said. “We’ve definitely improved yields by adding drainage tile to wet areas pinpointed by the yield monitor. It’s a big investment, but it lasts up to 30 years if properly installed.”

Fahrmeier rents two-thirds of his farmland, and works with landlords to share long-term investments in land improvements. “Anytime you can get a landlord in a combine, it’s good to show him the variability you can see on a yield monitor,” Fahrmeier said. “Twenty years ago, no one realized how much yield variability there was. It’s been a huge educational experience, learning what’s causing it, and how to control it cost-effectively.”  

Fahrmeier and his wife, Donna, keep busy raising crops and their two children, Samuel, 15, and Elizabeth, 13. In the future, Fahrmeier hopes to have more time to analyze data generated by his precision tools. “MFA has always helped analyze the data, and it’s been key to finding areas to improve,” Fahrmeier reported.

Elson and his wife, Anita, have two daughters, and Elson ventures a prediction on what Kayla, in high school, and Abby, in college, might see down the road. “Our equipment is as big as it can get and still allow us to drive on roadways and get under bridges,” Elson said. “In the future, we will be monitoring unmanned equipment from remote locations, and we’ll run it 24 hours a day.”

This is the second in a series of articles on precision agriculture. You’ll find the first, an interview with MFA’s Rick Greene, HERE: Click HERE for the related April 2013 article.

For more information, visit and click on Precision Ag, or call MFA’s Precision team at (573) 876-5327.

Auto-steer helps Elson harvest while beating cancer
Mendell Elson began adding precision tools to his row-crop operation in 1997, but it wasn’t until 12 years later, when he was recovering from cancer treatments, that he fully appreciated the benefits.
Elson found a lump on his throat in March 2009. From June to September he went through radiation and chemo. He received nutrition through a feeding tube, and lost 55 pounds before he was able to begin eating on his own in November.  
“Most of the time, it was all I could do to get up in the morning,” reported Elson. “I had just bought a new combine with auto-steer, and I needed something to look forward to. My doctor told me I could do whatever I felt like doing. By September 1, I was driving the combine.”
He was still weak, but when he hit the auto-steer button on equipment added to his new John Deere, “I could put my arms down, relax, and look to the end of the row instead of sawing on the steering wheel,” Elson said. “I was able to harvest every acre.” Today, Elson is in remission.

Elson's Timeline

1997—Added a yield monitor to his combine, and started grid soil sampling. This technology allows Elson to experiment more. For example, recently he’s been planting corn in 20-inch rows rather than the usual 30-inch, and his monitor tells him whether the test pays off. Similarly, he’s planting more side-by-side strips with different seed varieties in each field, and the monitor tells him what works best. “AgLeader is far and away the most intuitive for variety tracking,” Elson says.
Elson asked his landlord to ride along and watch the yield monitor to demonstrate how wet spots dropped per-bushel output. “As a result, we worked up a plan for ongoing terracing and tiling improvements,” Elson said. “As I told him, we can document yield losses, but we can’t measure the cost of delays from waiting until the fields dry out enough to plant.”
Also in 1997, MFA started provided soil grid testing and custom fertilizer application on Elson’s fields, starting with the most variable ones. By 2013, MFA provided this service on about half of Elson’s fields, and he hopes to grid test all his fields eventually. “It doesn’t cost much more than a blanket application, but it’s more efficient and leads to higher yields.”

2005—Added four clutches to his planter to avoid overlap on row ends.

2007—Added auto-steer and auto-swath to his sprayer. Auto-steer guides you down precise rows, and auto-swath turns chemicals on and off automatically at row ends. Both prevent overlap.  
“When you’re spraying an almost invisible liquid, it’s extremely difficult to see where you’ve sprayed, especially now that I use an 80-foot boom,” said Elson. “Auto-swath reduced overlap by 20 percent. That’s what really got me interested in this technology.”
Elson follows hill contours to avoid erosion, making for irregular-shaped fields. “The more irregular the shape, the greater the savings from auto-steer and swath control,” he said.  

2008—Added auto-steer to tractor. “I thought if I couldn’t turn that steering wheel on my own, I had no business in the seat,” Elson remembers. “Now, with auto-steer, I have time to look back at the planter.” His favorite saying these days: “You need to look back to get ahead.”   
Auto-steer frees Elson to focus on things besides steering: “I can multi-task and be more efficient.” He still has to turn the wheel at the end of each row, but he can watch the markets and sell grain while passing from one end of the field to the other.

2009—Bought a combine with auto-steer. “Now I have more time to look in the bin and evaluate grain quality,” Elson said. “I do a better job of fine-tuning combine settings, and I get cleaner grain.”

2010—Bought a new planter and added a 20/20 SeedSense monitor. Today, Elson’s planter has 24 clutches—one for each row. Every row turns on and off independently and automatically, helping him avoid overlap more precisely. Elson believes the planter is the most important equipment on the farm. “I would not operate a planter without clutches on every row,” he said.
Elson’s soil ranges from sandy to gumbo clay. He estimates he saves five to 15 percent on seed costs with individual row clutches controlled by the 20/20. If he saves an average of seven percent, that’s a $6.50-per-acre savings on corn seed; when he plants 1,000 acres of corn, he saves $6,500. With beans, a seven percent savings on 1,000 acres saves him $4,900 on seed.
Black dirt is more fertile and holds more water, so it can support a higher seed population than sandy soil. “In the past, I had to pick a population in between, because I didn’t want to stop and change in the middle of the field,” Elson said. “Now, at the touch of a button, I can preset population to vary from 2,600 to 3,600 seeds per acre within the same field.”
In addition, the 20/20’s down-pressure monitor helps him place seed at an optimal depth. “It measures resistance it encounters as it goes along the field—whether the soil’s softer or harder, and wetter or dryer,” Elson said. Based on Elson’s pre-set parameters, the 20/20 maintains a constant seed depth. “It’s all happening automatically while I’m sitting there in the cab,” Elson said. “I just watch the monitor to make sure everything’s going well. I’ve seen down-pressure change by 300 pounds in one pass. It blew me away that there was so much variation.”  
Precision planting also saves time. “I’ve increased the acres I can plant per day by 25 percent,” Elson said.  

2012—Added swath control to his anhydrous applicator. This reduced overage by eight to 10 percent. “I knew these precision tools were good, but when I saved $7,000 on anhydrous in one year, I was stunned,” Elson said.
These days, when it comes to chemical application later in the season, Elson and his two employees spray most of their own, but Elson hires MFA AgriServices of Brunswick to help out during crunch times.


Fahrmeier’s Timeline

1995—Purchased an AgLeader yield monitor. By 1995, Fahrmeier was amazed at the difference in yields he saw with each pass of the combine. He worked with MFA experts to improve nutrients, increase drainage and control pests in problem areas.
For example, about 15 years ago, Fahrmeier’s monitor helped reveal a yield problem caused by a cyst nematode. “Today, almost all soybean varieties are resistant to this, but in those days, a lot of soybean varieties were not,” Fahrmeier said. “So I bought only varieties with resistance. That was a major decision back then, and it paid off.”
“The yield monitor shows how vigilant you need to be with selecting the right variety. It makes a real difference on the bottom line.”

1997—Invested in a Veris add-on to measure electrical conductivity in the soil, and began grid sampling. Since Fahrmeier’s soils vary from clay to sand, this has provided a cost-effective way to assess soil texture. Also this year, Fahrmeier began grid-sampling his soil and hired MFA to apply fertilizer with variable-rate equipment.

2009—Added row clutches to planter. Fahrmeier watched a neighbor work with row clutches before installing his own. “When you can see it in a field close to home, it has more impact than a magazine ad,” he said.

2010—Added auto-steer to his planter. “Since I don’t have to concentrate on steering, I’m able to watch the monitor to see how the planter’s working, and catch problems sooner,” Fahrmeier said. He’s also more efficient when working at night, and suffers less fatigue, allowing him to put in longer hours.

2011—Installed automatic row shut-offs on his planter, and switched to 20-inch corn rows. “These shut-offs have saved me six to eight percent in seed costs at the turnaround point in my headlands,” Fahrmeier said.

2013—Installed E Sets on his planter. This after-market vacuum metering system accurately drops a pre-set number of seeds at a time.

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