YOU'VE HEARD of ABC's Extreme Makeover and Fox's The Swan, where women (and a few good men) get overhauled with tummy tucks, face lifts, liposuctioned thighs and porcelain veneers for a new and improved look.

Well hold on. Just when you thought you had missed the makeover craze, Farm Industry News found three ag producers who were in need of some serious help. Caught up in their old ways of doing business, they were totally made over by three of the nation's top technology consultants and outfitted with the latest hardware and software to keep them on the leading edge of farming.

“To be competitive in production ag today, we must use proven technology to keep our operation as efficient as possible,” says Mick Johnston, technology consultant with The Consulting Company (TCC), DeWitt, IA. “It is not a matter of keeping up with the neighbors. It is farming smart, farming for a profit and investing in all the tools needed to make the best management decisions possible.”

So move over prime-time TV, and make way for the competition. Here are the before-and-after looks of these three brave volunteers.

KENT HOSTETLER, an Amish Mennonite and farmer from Illinois, wanted a better way to document field variables such as hybrids, nitrogen rates and planting populations and to compare those variables to yield. “All we had was a yield monitor and sprayer controllers but nothing to print out the results,” says Hostetler, whose family didn't own a computer or printer. “Everything we did was written in a Wal-Mart notepad and marked with flags in the ground.”

His crop consulting company, Ag Spectrum, suggested he contact technology consultant Mick Johnston with TCC. “Since the Hostetlers had no computer experience, we needed to support them on how to work with basic computers,” Johnston says. “It was amazing how quickly they worked through the process. Now they are doing all their books on the computer and documenting everything using high-end technology.”

Johnston's first recommendation was to purchase a GPS receiver that would provide the field location of all inputs applied on the farm. It also gave the location of yield data collected with Hostetler's yield monitor.

Next he recommended purchasing two iPAQ handheld computers loaded with Farm Works Site Mate and Trac Mate software. “The software allows for full documentation of direct and indirect inputs used by field and by farm,” Johnston explains. Specifically, with Site Mate, Hostetler can record field boundaries and do his own soil sampling by soil type. Trac Mate lets him track all crop inputs used, along with their rates and field locations.

Johnston also recommended Guide Mate software, which is a lightbar guidance system used in conjunction with Site Mate to allow for more precise application of chemicals and fertilizer. “We can use it on our sprayer for guidance and at the same time map how much herbicide we are putting down,” Hostetler explains. “And the EPA wind direction and temperature also are getting entered in.”

After one year of collecting field data, Hostetler wanted to be able to calculate his costs and profit per acre. “We wanted to know what each field made and why it made what it did and where the problem areas were,” Hostetler explains.

His next step was to move to a desktop computer and analysis software program that could process his field data and generate reports and financial statements. Johnston recommended Farm Works Farm Site, Farm Funds and Farm Trac+ software, which he loaded into Hostetlers' desktop computer.

Farm Site lets Hostetler select different areas of the field, compare yields and then print yield maps. Farm Funds calculates the input costs for each field and then generates a report. “We use the program to get a dollar amount on how much was spent on each field,” he explains. “And then we can enter in our yields and see what we made in each field.”

Trac+ is a budgeting tool that can program cropping plans and estimate costs. “He can download the plans to Trac Mate for GPS field application,” Johnston says. “The data can then be transferred back to the desktop to update Farm Funds for accurate financial records.”

As a final step, Johnston will provide Hostetler with analytic support through a program called Personal Information Management Solutions. The program, offered by TCC, provides in-depth analysis of field data to determine what factors are affecting yield.

“Mick's program can analyze yield a lot better than I can,” Hostetler says. “He can analyze it by nutrients, seed variety or any variable you want and then print out a bar graph, which is a lot easier to read than a yield map. So it is just another level of scrutiny of what our production is and whether or not we're making money.”

KENT HOSTETLER TAMPICO, IL

Corn, soybeans, seed corn

Technology consultant

Mick Johnston
TCC
DeWitt, IA

Recommended hardware

iPAQ handheld computer: $375
Raven 115 GPS receiver: $1,800

Recommended software

Farm Works Site Mate Basic: $250
Farm Works Trac Mate: $250

Farm Works Guide Mate: $500
Farm Works Farm Site: $300

Farm Works Farm Trac+: $300
Farm Works Farm Funds: $300

MIKE SARTOR, an independent crop consultant from Mississippi, used to collect soil samples the old-fashioned way using an aerial photo and soil survey report. “I would draw off in pencil by hand and by memory of where my soil sample sites were,” Sartor recalls. “And when it came time to apply fertilizer, I would put flags around the areas that needed more fertilizer. Or, more often, I would average the results and put one blanket rate across the entire field.”

The problem with his method was that not all areas of the field got the amount of fertilizer and nutrients they needed.

So in 1996, at the urging of one of his clients, Sartor went to his first precision farming meeting. And in October 1997 he began soil sampling using GPS equipment with the help of technology consultant Robert Mehrle.

Mehrle set him up with an AgBoss field data logger with a GPS receiver that would provide field location. He loaded the logger with Farm Works Site Mate software that lets Sartor record field data and take geo-referenced soil samples.

With his computer, Sartor drives the perimeter of each field on his ATV and records the field boundaries to get a map of each field. The software then divides each field into 2.5- to 7.5-acre grids. “With the computer, I can determine my sample points ahead of time and go directly to the areas in the field that need to be sampled,” he says. “Then I pull 12 to 16 soil cores and log the locations in the computer.”

After drawing the samples, Sartor takes the soil cores to his office, mixes together the cores from each site, and sends them to a lab to be analyzed for nutrient levels, ph and organic matter.

The lab e-mails the results to Mehrle, who has a map of each field on his computer and the exact location of the soil samples. Mehrle processes and analyzes the data and generates color-coded maps that show the nutrient levels, ph, organic matter and other variables in each part of the field. From the maps, Sartor looks to see how the fertility and ph levels vary and then determines where to apply more fertilizer. Based on Sartor's recommendations, Mehrle can generate prescription maps that specify how much fertilizer and lime should be applied where. Fertilizer dealers with variable-rate application equipment can then use the data and apply the fertilizer and lime at the recommended rates for each area of the field.

Sartor says that, although the GPS equipment costs more than his old way of soil sampling, in the long run it more than pays for itself through increased efficiency, higher yields and reduced input costs.

MIKE SARTOR, SARTOR'S AGRICULTURAL CONSULTANT SERVICES CLINTON, MS

Technology consultant

Robert Mehrle
AIM
Lambert, MS

Recommended hardware

Trimble Ag 132 GPS receiver: $3,495

AgBoss field data logger with Site Mate VRT: $4,500

Recommended software

Farm Works Site Mate Basic: $250

TWO YEARS AGO, at age 57, Joe Harris decided to return to his roots and go back into farming. For 20 years he had built executive jet interiors for movie stars, heads of state and CEOs of major corporations. Prior to that, he and his wife Harriet taught school. “So we are actually starting our third career,” Harris says.

The 1,200 acres Harris owned had been tenant farmed and was run down from years of use. Before farming it, he wanted to learn as much as he could about the land to make sure he met the needs of the soil. “It is kind of like taking a physical,” Harris says. “The doctor needs some vital info in order to determine what to do. And that's where we were at.”

Harris wanted to use the latest technology available to get a baseline measurement of his fields and start building a base of historical data. With his background in aeronautics, he was already technologically adept. So he started to research all the software and hardware available for site-specific farming.

Then in January 2004, while attending the Kansas Agricultural Research Association conference in Hutchinson, KS, Harris met technology consultant Lorra Martens of Martens Farms. Martens set him up with an iPAC handheld computer, a Trimble GPS receiver, and a Farm Works software package that would enable him to do field record keeping, mapping and soil sampling.

“The first thing I do is try to find out what a customer's needs are,” Martens says. “Joe wanted a package that he could use to define what his fields needed and how to meet those needs.”

Martens recommended Farm Works Farm Site and Farm Trac to map field boundaries and areas such as terraces and waterways. Harris can use the same software grid soil sampling using Site Mate to collect the samples. “Every spot that we sample is recorded in the computer as historical data,” Harris explains. “And we can use that data to resample the following year in relative proximity of where we took samples the last time to see whether our fertilizer program worked or if our organic matter is getting better.”

Harris sends the soil samples to a lab in Dodge City, KS, to be analyzed for nutrient value, organic matter and texture of the soil. He uses the results to determine the amount of fertilizer needed in each area of the field to maximize yields.

Using the field boundaries collected with Farm Site, Harris can download satellite imagery from the Internet to provide further information about his field. He also uses the field boundaries in conjunction with his Caterpillar Challenger tractor equipped with Auto Guide Navigation, an automated guidance system that uses satellites for navigation. “We use Auto Guide to improve accuracy,” Harris says. “But it also reduces our time spent in the field by at least 15% because overlaps are predetermined and set in advance. So it is very efficient.”

Harris has now started using Farm Funds, a farm accounting program. The desktop program takes data collected in Farm Site and Farm Trac and calculates a dollar amount of the inputs applied to add to Harris's historical records.

His next step is to look at the different soil textures on his land to determine whether he can switch from minimum till to no-till to conserve soil. “Soil texture coupled with soil sampling for nutrients ought to give us a good handle on what we need to be doing on our farm,” he says.

He also has started to do deep core sampling to better understand the needs of soil layers underneath the topsoil.

After his first year of collecting data, Harris has this advice for growers needing to update the technology on their farms: “We would strongly recommend talking to a consultant before buying software or computer hardware. In addition, with all of the public education programs available on computer usage, everyone has the opportunity to adapt to improved technology.”

JOE HARRIS WICHITA KS

Soybeans, wheat, milo, native grass pastures and alfalfa

Technology consultants

Lorra and Jim
Martens
Martens Farms
Inman, KS

Hardware

iPAQ handheld computer: $375
Trimble 106 antenna with mount and cabling: $1,195 + $200

Software

Farm Trac: $300
Farm Site: $300
Farm Funds: $300
Site Mate scouting: $500

FUTURE LOOK

7 TECHNOLOGIES COMING IN THE NEXT DECADE

  1. Robotic tractors
  2. Lower-cost assisted steering
  3. Wireless data transmission from field to office
  4. Remote tracking via Web
  5. Advanced rugged computers with large viewable screens at reasonable prices
  6. Higher-accuracy, lower-cost GPS equipment
  7. Community-based differential correction towers via radio modem, cutting RTK guidance system cost in half