It used to be you could spot a farm “techie” by the yield monitor and GPS receiver in his combine. Not anymore. Now there is hardly a new combine being built without a yield monitor in it. And last year an estimated 40% of corn acres in North America went through a yield monitor, just 10 years after its introduction.

So just how do you tell the farm techies of today? Is it by their use of a pocket PC? Variable rate applicator? Soil penetrometer? Or digital camera?

Yes. And no. The techies use all those tools. But it is how they use them and to what extent that sets them apart from the rest of the farm population, which, by itself, is more high tech than the average group of consumers.

According to Mick Johnston, consultant with The Consulting Company (TCC), a GPS data-processing and consulting service, farmers who are at the top end of the technology curve use site-specific technologies not just as gee-whiz gadgets but as tools to make better management decisions.

“Most farmers are not using these tools for this purpose,” Johnston explains. “They may be using a yield monitor to gather yield data to look at maps. But they are not necessarily putting a computer and receiver in their planter, tractor, sprayer, manure applicator or sidedress machine as a management tool. They could be logging what they are doing when and where, and then taking that information back to the office and compiling it into a summary report to use for management decisions before the next spring.”

Todd Kunau, owner of Kunau Implement in DeWitt, IA, agrees. “It is very common now using GPS for scouting fields and doing yield monitoring with a combine,” he says. “That is very prevalent today. But the people who are going the extra mile to get the benefit from the technology or the data they are accumulating — that is a little more unique.”

Bryan Jorgensen, Dianne Barnett and Rodney Schmidt are three producers who are going that extra mile to get the benefits from using their high-tech, site-specific farming tools. They were kind enough to tell us about the ones they buy and how they use them. Their uses could inspire similar applications on your farm.

Bryan Jorgensen

Jorgensen Land and Cattle
Ideal, SD

Site-specific technologies:

iPAQ Pocket PCs loaded with Navman navigational equipment

Case IH AFS yield monitor

Ag Leader yield monitor

GPS receiver/antenna and laptop computer

Desktop computers

Farm Works' Farm Site Mate data-logging software

SSToolbox mapping software

Farm Business Systems (FBS) accounting, payroll and inventory software

Raven sprayer controller monitor

Outback guidance system and GPS receiver/antenna for sprayer

Ask Bryan Jorgensen what makes him a farm techie and he'll say “all the technology that surrounds me in my office.” Surrounding him are personal computers, business band radios, cell phones, fax machines and docking stations for six iPAQ Pocket PCs.

Jorgensen farms just under 10,000 acres of corn, soybeans, winter wheat, spring wheat, oats, alfalfa and grass with his dad Martin, brother Greg and nephew Cody in Ideal, SD. They also raise 1,000 cows and sell bulls for genetic seed stock. Seven full-time employees help them on the farm.

The Jorgensens work with TCC to collect georeferenced data on their farm. The company equips each person in the field with an iPAQ Pocket PC loaded with data-logging software and Navman navigational equipment. This setup lets them log the date, time and location of all activities performed and all inputs applied, along with the rates.

“When we go to the field and do any kind of application of inputs, whether it is spraying, planting, soil sampling or field scouting — anything that we do in that field that is crop related and that we can in turn correlate with yield monitor data — we log on a spatial level,” Jorgensen says.

How inputs affect yield

The Jorgensens use yield monitors to gather yield data. At the end of the season, they download all of the information collected throughout the year to their office computer and e-mail it to TCC. The company sends back summary sheets of their activities and production.

The Jorgensens use the data to see how each of their field activities and inputs affected yield. “For example, if you record where in a field you have a given hybrid and a certain herbicide and a certain level of nutrient, and if you then put a yield map over that, you can see yield variation based on those inputs,” Jorgensen explains. “Then, if you change any of those inputs and that change affects yield, you have to be able to analyze where that happens and why. And that is what we are doing right now.”

He says the whole point of the data tracking is to help them make better management decisions. For example, they will use the results to determine their input selections for next year.

Production costs

Next they would like to tie their georeferenced field data to their financial records to get a real-time record of their costs of production per field. “Right now, we are taking our field data from Site Mate and manually entering it into our FBS accounting software,” Jorgensen says. “This year we will test a module of the FBS accounting program called Mach 1.0 that will automatically download the field data into our accounting program to reduce data entry.”

Jorgensen says the information will help them market their crop by giving them a real-time record of their costs. “Once I know costs, I can estimate what the yield will be and develop a yield cost curve that tells me what I have to sell the crop for to make a profit,” he says. “That will enable us to take advantage of marketing opportunities during the growing season because at any given time I know what my costs are and what we have to sell the crop for to make a profit. And that can lower storage costs, interest and all those things, which really makes the difference in today's margins.”

TCC's Johnston is working with Farm Works, SST Development Group and FBS to develop a budgeting work order module that will let the Jorgensens and other producers log the inputs they plan to apply to each field into their accounting program before the season even begins. “We will load all the inputs into the computer system before they are applied, and do all the farming on the computer before it even happens,” Jorgensen explains. “Simply put, we will be doing ‘virtual farming.’”

For their next technology purchase, the Jorgensens are considering a digital soil penetrometer that will let them probe soil to measure compaction. “You can log that information digitally just like you would a soil test,” Jorgensen explains. “And it becomes just another layer of information. If we see poor yields, it's just another bit of information that would help us conclude why there were poor yields. Maybe it wasn't nutrient related or seed or herbicide related. Maybe it was a soil compaction issue that we need to put into our management plan to somehow try to eliminate that.”

Dianne Barnett

Adwell Corporation
Jacksonville, IL

Site-specific technologies:

iPAQ Pocket PCs loaded with Navman navigational equipment

Farm Works' Farm Site Mate data-logging software

Desktop computer

SSToolbox mapping software

PF 3000 yield monitor

GPS receiver/antenna and laptop computer

John Deere SeedStar variable rate technology (VRT) on planter

Spreader truck with Raven controller

Satellite imaging

Dianne Barnett is the corporate accountant of Adwell Corporation, a corporate farm consisting of 14,700 tillable acres in Illinois. Of those acres, 6,100 are crop-shared tenant acres, and the balance Barnett and Adwell President Michael Rausch farm directly as farm managers. “We supply all the machinery, buy all the inputs and contract individuals to farm those acres,” Barnett explains.

Soil testing

Barnett and Rausch started integrating site-specific technology on their farms in 1998. Their first application of the technology was soil testing for nutrient values and soil characteristics. They wanted a way to map where in the field the samples had been pulled so they could go back four years later and test the same spots to see how nutrient values had changed.

The test revealed that soil pH varied greatly within each field and required different amounts of lime to neutralize the soil. So they invested in a Raven controller on their spreader truck that allows them to apply lime at different rates according to the requirements of each area of the field. The goal is to reduce the overall amount applied and thereby lower input costs.

An in-cab computer loaded with prescription software relays to the controller the amount to be applied at each location. A GPS receiver in the cab provides the location along with the date and time. Based on field tests, they have been able to reduce their lime application, resulting in a savings of $12/acre.

Input performance

In 2000, to integrate GPS technology even further, they contracted with TCC — the same data processing and consulting service the Jorgensens use. TCC equips each person in the field with an iPAQ Pocket PC, logging software and a GPS receiver to log all of the field activities and inputs applied, along with the rates and field location. A yield monitor in their combines measures yield.

After harvest, they download all of their data to a desktop computer and e-mail it to TCC for processing. TCC maps the data and creates summary reports.

“We can correlate yield information back to hybrids, soil type, planting dates and fertilizer levels to help us with hybrid selection, for example,” Barnett explains. “And then we can use the iPAQ and VRT in our tractors and spreader trucks to do variable rate [application].”

Analysis of phosphorus and potassium inputs has revealed that application of the nutrients has done little to change yield. As a result, the farm uses no phosphorus or potassium, resulting in savings of more than $24/acre.

This year they will use their yield data to see what effect tile drainage has on corn yields. They put drain tile in their fields in 2001 after satellite images taken four years before showed the presence of wet spots. “Our farms are in river bottoms, so it is crucial to keep surface draining going,” Barnett says. “So we will be using the data to show our owners the benefits we can get by doing some surface drainage or tiling.”

Inventory assessment

For their next steps, they would like to put variable rate technology on their planter to vary seeding population on the go. They also would like to purchase a software interface that connects their field records with their inventories so that each time a product is used, the record of remaining inventories is adjusted according to the amounts applied.

Barnett says, “In other words, I could bring the georeferenced data back to my financials here and say, ‘We actually used this amount of product in this operation’ and get it down to cost accounting of what inventory is left sitting in the shop.”

Rodney Schmidt

Schmidt Farms
Clinton, IA

Site-specific technologies:

Case IH AFS yield monitor

GPS receiver/antenna and laptop computer

Case IH universal display unit

Case IH AFS prescription software

Case IH Concord air cart equipped with VRT

DMI Nutri-till'r 5310 strip-till unit equipped with VRT

Trimble lightbar

SST FieldRover software

Hagie 2100 sprayer with VRT

Custom-built airflow boom with VRT

Raven VRT controller

Perception farm accounting software

Rodney Schmidt, his wife Cindy, son Michael and daughter Michelle farm about 2,500 acres near Clinton, IA, on a 50/50 corn and bean rotation. They also custom apply fertilizer on approximately 2,000 acres for local fertilizer retailers. “Seventy-five percent of our ground is highly erodible, so we do a lot of no-till and strip-till,” Schmidt says.

They started strip-tilling seven years ago, when their georeferenced stratified soil tests showed that most of their fertilizer was on the top 4 in. of the soil structure, while the next 4 to 8 in. were being depleted. To get fertilizer down into the root zone where the corn plant needed it, the Schmidts bought a 12-row DMI Nutri-till'r 5310 strip-till unit equipped with VRT to apply nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium at variable rates.

Early adopters

The Schmidts were the first in their area not only to strip-till but to set up a georeferenced system that allows them to apply nutrients at varying rates on those strip-till acres. They worked with their local implement dealer, Kunau Implement, along with Total Soil Management (TSM) in Catlin, IL, which makes their fertilizer recommendations.

Kunau says the extent to which the Schmidts have implemented GPS technology to increase efficiency on their farm is unique. “There are people who are doing certain parts of what he is doing,” Kunau says. “But Rodney is probably the person who has the broadest spectrum of equipment utilizing the technology.”

Variable rates

Here's how their system works. The Schmidts use an AFS-equipped Case IH 2400 Concord air cart to carry dry fertilizer. The cart blows the fertilizer to the DMI Nutri-till'r 5310 applicator pulled behind the cart. A New Holland 9882 4-wd tractor pulls both units. The air cart has two compartments, which the Schmidts use for phosphorous and potash. A Case IH AFS controller on the cart enables them to mix these products in the field on the go.

Rather than applying the phosphorus and potassium at the same rate across the field, the Schmidts vary the rates according to the nutrient requirements of each area of the field as determined by their soil test results. They then take the spread files from TSM and load the files into the computer in the tractor. A GPS receiver in the cab provides location information.

The computer sends the data to the AFS controller on the air cart, which determines the amount of product prescribed for that location.

At the same time they inject phosphorus and potassium, the Schmidts also apply anhydrous ammonia at varying rates. They pull two anhydrous tanks behind the DMI Nutri-till'r 5310 applicator. By applying all these nutrients at once, the Schmidts say they are reducing their number of trips across the field from two to one. And because they apply them at variable rates, they have been able to cut their overall fertilizer costs by $5 to $12/acre, depending on the field, through more efficient use. Their average yield increase from strip-till is between 6 to 12 bu./acre compared with conventional no-till.

The Schmidts hire their local fertilizer retailer to apply ag lime at variable rates. To fine-tune their lime application, the Schmidts apply pelletized lime in late winter or early spring using a 50-ft. airflow boom behind the Case IH air cart in conjunction with a Trimble lightbar. “We unhook the DMI unit and put in its place the airflow boom that can apply pelletized lime in those 2-acre grids that need it,” Schmidt explains.

Different varieties

When it is time to plant corn, they use a Case IH 7120 tractor and a John Deere 1770NT corn planter to plant directly into the tilled strips or berms. To plant soybeans, they unhook the airflow boom they used for lime and the strip-till unit and hook a 23-row Case IH Early Riser bean planter set on 15-in. spacing behind the cart.

“We fill the Case IH AFS 2400 air cart, which holds 240 bu., with two different soybean varieties that can vary the population of either one simultaneously in the field,” Schmidt explains. “Because of that, we may take a farm and split it between a couple different varieties. And when we come back to harvest it, we will use our yield monitor to determine variety selection for the next year.”

Next year, the Schmidts would like to tie in georeferenced scouting information with their Hagie 2100 sprayer to map what herbicides they apply where and at what rates using the Raven controller and SST Development's FieldRover software. Schmidt says, “It will give us better information where product was applied and how much was applied to see which herbicide programs work best in certain conditions and evaluate herbicide selections for the next year.”

Getting started

Here is some equipment that will help you get started in site-specific farming to make management decisions.

  • Handheld computer

  • Navigational equipment

  • GPS logging software

  • Yield monitor with GPS antenna/receiver

  • Desktop computer

  • GIS mapping software

  • Equipment with variable rate technology

  • GIS financial accounting software

  • GPS farm consulting service (if you need help processing the data)