Adoption of technologies that measure field variabilities are on a substantial upswing, according to the 2017 CropLife magazine and Purdue University Precision Adoption Survey.
For example, 10 years ago, only about half of all ag dealers were offering grid and zone soil sampling. Today, 75 percent offer those services. And 78 percent of dealers now provide variable-rate fertilizer application.
One Acre at a Time
What once seemed high-tech is now almost commonplace. That’s true for Brandon Schaapman and his family, who are working hard to cash in on the advantages precision ag has to offer on their 3,600 acres near Quincy, Wash.
“We’re trying to be as efficient as possible with the pieces of ground we’ve been given,” says Schaapman. “We try to squeeze every bit of productivity out of our acres.”
With the help of GPS, the Schaapmans have been soil sampling in 1-acre grids for more than 15 years, so they have ample data to analyze. Helping them interpret those numbers and apply them to nearly daily agronomic decisions are George Smith and Jim Greenwalt, agronomists at CHS Sun Basin who use the CHS YieldPoint® program.
CHS YieldPoint is a precision agriculture program developed by CHS and directed by agronomic specialists, explains Blain Hope, regional CHS YieldPoint specialist from Jerome, Idaho. The specialists assist farmers with soil sampling and analysis, mapping and prescription writing, variable-rate application recommendations, record keeping, and farm planning. The program now even includes a water optimization component for irrigation management.
“We typically grid sample every five years on cash crops,” says Schaapman, who raises primarily potatoes, seed crops and alfalfa. “We’ve been doing it long enough on longer-term land and we feel like our acres are fertility balanced now.”
Even before YieldPoint, the Schaapmans were considered forerunners with precision ag, says Smith. “They’ve been variable-rate fertilizing for 15 years. But now they’ve become even more precise.”
One area that has gotten a lot of recent attention is variable-rate fumigation for nematode control. “With variable-rate technology instead of typical broadcast applications, they’ve cut out thousands of gallons — and that’s saving them a big chunk of money,” Smith says. For the past five years, the Schaapmans have used a rotary spader to fumigate hot spots based on nematode counts from grid-sampling maps.
In addition to furrow irrigation, the Schaapmans run more than 50 center pivots on their operation, located in the semi-arid region of east-central Washington. “Potatoes need plenty of crop nutrients, and we’re able to fertigate through our systems,” says Schaapman, who can control the units using his smartphone. Water is pumped via canals from the Columbia River.
The Schaapmans rely on the YieldPoint program and Smith to make recommendations for their operation, but admit it takes a lot of collaboration to decide what’s best for the farm.
“We’ve always had fantastic service with CHS and like getting the patronage,” Schaapman says. “We like being part of a company that’s owned by growers.”
For Rob Shields, the whole precision ag process changes every few months. Staying on top of the technology at Allied Cooperative, based in Adams, Wis., is a big job, since the co-op services 1,200 to 1,500 growers covering some 750,000 acres.
Allied’s locations span central and west-central Wisconsin, including the Central Sands area, where the sandy soils provide near-perfect growing conditions for vegetable crops including potatoes, peas, snap beans, onions, carrots, sweet corn, seed corn and silage corn.
Shields has headed up the co-op’s precision ag program for almost 20 years and says the heart of it revolves around geo-referenced grid soil sampling.
“We want updated geo-referenced soil maps every two to four years to help us be smarter about our recommendations for customers,” he says.
The precision ag program starts simple and then builds, almost on an a la carte basis, says Shields. “Time is the most precious commodity to farmers of high-value crops, so we start with soil sampling, prescription fertilizing and scouting, then build from there.”
Allied uses fly-over plane imagery. “Satellite imagery is cheaper, but there are image issues if clouds are in the way. Plus we can only get satellite images every seven to nine days, and that’s not enough.
“Planes can fly below the clouds and the images we get are more intense,” he explains. “We charge farmers on a per-acre basis for the service and it’s auto-uploaded directly into our precision ag online program, where they can access it 24/7. With potatoes, we might fly over three times in a growing season.”
Even though drones are becoming more popular, Shields says using them is too labor-intensive and would likely require 20 to 30 people to handle the co-op’s volume of acres. “It’s easier to go the plane route. It works well and we have almost no labor involved.
If Allied makes applications, spreads fertilizer or takes petiole plant samples, the data is all uploaded into the online program, too.
Some of the co-op’s customers use variable-rate or scheduled irrigation with the help of moisture sensors to avoid over- or underwatering, although Allied does not provide that service.
Tuned to Perfection
One of Allied’s premier services is helping farmers get their planters tuned to perfection, a specialty of Bernardo Calo, precision ag specialist at the co-op.
“I remember the first time I was planting radishes and saw the seeding rate variations. That’s when I became obsessed with planters,” he says.
Now he works with farmers on their planters to make sure the equipment is running and performing well. “I want the growers right there so it’s hands-on and they understand how it works.”
That’s been a successful strategy with Wallendal Farms at Grand Marsh, Wis., too. The Wallendals, who were early adopters in precision ag starting in 1988 with a NASA experiment, have been customers of Allied Co-op for three generations and put a high priority on planting accuracy. “We have three planters and planting is job no. 1 for us,” says John Wallendal.
“We plant in part based on electric conductivity zones and smart zone soil maps. We use variable-rate for more accuracy and also variable-rate irrigation application,” says Megan Wallendal. “We even use a drone to get our own NDVI [Normalized Difference Vegetation Index] data that we overlay with our other maps. We have lots of data and we know how to use it. Still, it’s hard to put it all together and Allied helps us do that.
“We look at our whole farm as a test plot and we keep data on every field and every crop,” she says. “We review that data every year before going to the field.”
Their 3,200 acres are planted to a variety of crops, including corn, soybeans, potatoes, kidney beans, pumpkins, watermelons, green beans, sweet corn, alfalfa, rye, sunflowers and milo.
The Wallendals say they’re making more money with precision ag because they’re more efficient, and they have records back into the 1980s to prove it. Those records became much more detailed in 2006.
“Precision ag technology is overwhelming to many farmers, and that’s why our co-op is so important,” says Megan. “We like having that relationship and being able to see how other farmers are doing things.”
Check out the full C Magazine with this article and more.