Farmers are an independent lot by nature, but few, if any, succeed without the support of an informal agronomic team made up of consultants, company representatives, Extension personnel and other farmers. That connection is as important as ever today as farmers grapple with increasingly complex information and practices, such as variable-rate technology (VRT).
Consider the following six tips offered by Isaac Ferrie and Brad Beutke, technology experts who work with Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. Their suggestions, based on working with farmers to implement VRT, can help you capitalize on their experience so you can take solid steps toward success with this technology and sidestep potential pitfalls.
1. Develop a written technology plan.
Make a written list of the VRT practices you want to implement on your farm during the course of the next five to 10 years. As you develop the list, talk with local equipment dealers, agronomists and other farmers who have experience with VRT to glean their ideas and suggestions. Once your list is drafted, prioritize it in the order you believe you will implement these practices. Prioritizing the list will give you an idea of the immediate technology purchases you need to make as well as a list of items you can delay.
Don’t worry about making your written VRT plan a perfect document. Use it as a road map to help guide you to your goals, and revise it as you become more certain of the technology practices you want to implement.
The next five suggestions are interrelated and concern basic nuts-and-bolts information that can help make your technology plan more concrete.
2. Determine your basic hardware needs.
Identify the various hardware tools you need to get started with VRT, including a monitor and a controller. Talk with multiple suppliers. In the process, look for hardware that can handle more than one job that’s listed on your technology plan.
"Try to buy one monitor that can handle a variety of jobs, rather than buying different monitors for each job," Beutke says. "Get a monitor that can be used interchangeably on your tractor and also on your combine. That flexibility and compatibility of use will help you minimize purchases and keep costs down."
Along with hardware, VRT requires access to GPS technology, prescription maps and equipment that can handle variable rates.
3. Evaluate your software needs.
VRT practices are based on prescriptions specific to your fields. Each prescription is loaded onto a software file that guides any product application or planting practice you implement. Determine who will be developing your VRT prescription files: you or a third party?
"If someone else is developing the prescriptions, find out what type of files he can make, as the file type determines the controller and monitor you will use in the field," Beutke says.
If you opt to develop the prescription files yourself, explore several different software programs before you buy. Evaluate which jobs they can handle, whether they are compatible with other programs and how easy or difficult they are to use, Isaac Ferrie encourages farmers.
"You may or may not be able to fill all your variable-rate needs with just one program," says Ferrie, who works with five to 10 different software programs in any given year with his VRT farmer-customers.
Ferrie adds that a software program that will do everything you want but is sold without technical support will just bring you frustration.
"Better to have three different software programs with good technical support than one program without good support," he contends.
He says that many farmers buy software provided by their local equipment dealer because that individual is already involved with the farm.
However, Ferrie notes, a number of third-party software suppliers do an excellent job of providing farmers with both software and support without being tied to an equipment company.
4. Know your technical service and support needs.
If you’re new to VRT, you may need more support starting out than someone with several years of experience and an affinity for technology.
Ferrie says to consider the availability of the technician you want to work with and his level of expertise.
"Ask whether you will be able to get ahold of someone if you call on a Saturday morning," he advises. "Will they come out to your farm, or are they only available over the phone?"
If a hot line number is provided for the software, call it and evaluate for yourself the level of service and support that is available.
5. Assess your potential equipment needs.
If you plan to adopt VRT, evaluate your current machinery lineup and whether you need to make additional equipment purchases.
"One grower I work with bought a new 36-row planter when he started using VRT," Beutke says. "He planted 100 yards and then spent the rest of the day shopping for a new tractor."
Another consideration: If you want to variable-rate sidedress nitrogen, you need to evaluate whether you need a new sidedress bar or whether you can retrofit your existing tool. Some retailers will provide a variable-rate sidedress bar if you purchase the nitrogen from them, Ferrie says.
Also, consider whether you want to make all your equipment purchases from one company or try multiple companies.
"The big issue we run into is a blame game when multiple manufacturers are involved and something malfunctions," Ferrie says. "Sometimes one company will blame a problem on another company. Try to determine if your potential suppliers are willing to work together."
6. Test everything before you head to the field.
Beutke estimates that the farmers he works with invest between 30% and 50% of their preseason prep time specifically on VRT prep.
"You need to calibrate and test everything before you go to the field, and do it all a couple of weeks prior to actually going to the field," Beutke advises. "All the hydraulic drives will need calibration."
For instance, if your nitrogen sidedress prescription requires the rate to vary between 30 lb. and up to 100 lb. in a field, you have to set up the bar so it can actually hit those rates.
"Make sure your prescription files work and that the monitor is changing rates accordingly," Ferrie says.
Use water to calibrate nitrogen prescriptions, Ferrie advises. A driveway, old runway or grass strip are good places to test variable-rate equipment.
You also need to calibrate your variable-rate planter. Beutke and Ferrie place tube socks over the planter seed tube to see if the planter monitor is functioning well.
"We catch that seed and count it and then enter the numbers into the monitor to set the population," Ferrie explains. He adds that farmers should write down their population numbers as a backup plan just in case their monitors malfunction.
To learn more about what a soil pit can teach you, read "Dig for Higher Yields."