By Vikaas Shanker, The (Joliet) Herald-News
Joliet area farmer Dave Kestel set up Monday all the instrumentation in his farming combine with the intent to harvest about 50 acres of corn before the day was done.
As Kestel lowered the harvester claw, he set off on a 4-mph journey translating corn stalks into corn kernels with the simple switch of a joystick.
Kestel's combine harvests eight rows of corn at a time; depending on yield, the machine can harvest about 10,000 bushels of corn a day.
"You just keep the corn-head on the rows," Kestel said. "It looks maybe a little difficult at first. But everything is difficult at first and it gets easy in a while."
Actually, there is little steering involved while on a combine. GPS tracking and steering during the seeding process ensures straight lines. And the joystick used to move the combine forward rests at your target speed.
After that, the only issue is how to most efficiently handle the corners of the farm along with fallen stalks.
On warm days during the summer and early fall, such as Monday, a constant air-conditioned cabin keeps the sweat and humidity from building up. And a hydraulic seat cushion keeps the bumps on the field from reaching the driver.
"It can be pretty comfortable in here," Kestel said.
Harvesting crops still is an intensive process. But new technology is making farming easier.
A combine and other large farming equipment is made simpler for farmers through several technological enhancements.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, new technology has allowed farmers to identify where to specifically apply seeds, water, fertilizer and pesticides to get the most efficient yield.
Specifically, it's leading to higher crop productivity, lower costs on water and chemicals, reduced ecological impact, lower chemical runoff into water sources, increased worker safety, safer growing conditions and lower prices.
One of the biggest advancements is the use of GPS tracking to map, plan and monitor crops and equipment to farm more efficiently.
Kestel doesn't use GPS technology when driving the combine for harvest. But he does use it for strip tillage, a conservation practice of tilling farms that reduces soil erosion.
Before corn is planted, a fertilizer company uses GPS steering in their tractors to automatically treat the soil in 30-inch strips. Then, Kestel uses his own machines and GPS steering to plant the corn on top of the strips.
"It's a very efficient way to use fertilizer," said Kestel, a fourth-generation farmer who has been tilling his family's current and formerly owned land for 17 years.
GPS is one of several uses of modern technology to improve an old practice.
Another one is the use of smartphones as a central source of information for farmers.
"We check the markets daily and wind weather systems for chemical spraying," said farmer George Beutel, who farms primarily in Kendall County but has 10 acres in Will County between Minooka, Plainfield and Shorewood.
Beutel said he uses the Illinois Farm Bureau app, as well as AccuWeather forecasts, on a daily basis during the growing season.
"It's really helped out local farmers," said Mark Schneidewind, manager for the Will County Farm Bureau.
Schneidewind said the crop yield in Will County is about average. Corn yield is around 160 bushels per acre, and soybean yield is 49 to 50 bushels per acre.
"Hopefully the soybeans will be up a little bit more once they replant in drowned out spots," Schneidewind said, noting the effect heavy seasonal rains have had on soybean crops.
According to a July 2015 report by the USDA, agricultural output across the nation more than doubled since 1948, with less land. Agricultural input - the amount of materials put into growing crop - grew at 0.07 percent a year. Agricultural output grew at 1.49 percent per year.
The report also found that the price of farm machines and crop ingredients fell relative to the cost of farm labor.
Agricultural growth has slowed recently, but one of the main drivers for agricultural development has been research and development into farm technologies and processes.