Focus on getting on base first, not hitting home runs
It’s a scenario farm technology consultant Steve Cubbage has seen again and again in farm country: Addressing a group of, say, 60 farmers, he’ll ask how many have variable-rate technology (VRT) on their planters.
“A lot of hands go up,” says Cubbage, of Record Harvest in Nevada, Mo. “But when I ask how many are actually using it, three or four hands go up. That’s pretty normal.”
Owning precision technology and getting the full benefit from it are two different things. After all, learning everything you have to know to collect consistent data and analyze it to the point of actionable insight are tall orders. Not to mention technology takes an investment, which you might be hesitant to make in seasons when margins can’t get much tighter.
But Cubbage and others in the business say it doesn’t have to be that way. Getting as much bang for your precision-ag buck means focusing on the fundamentals first then taking a broad look at your operation one aspect at a time.
“I liken it to baseball,” says Cubbage, a Kansas City Royals fan. “You have to focus on the fundamentals, and a lot of people are trying to swing for home runs. At the end of the day, you have to pitch and catch and get on base, and you can’t get on second base without getting on first. There’s not a shortcut.”
First, get your data house in order. Farmers who want to get the most out of precision ag should have at least three years of consistent yield and fertility data to work from, Cubbage says. “That’s really a tipping point. If you don’t have it, it’s risky to move forward,” he says.
This includes making sure your fields are consistently named in the software of your combine, sprayer and any other equipment. “Otherwise, you get a jumbled mess” when it comes time to pull your data, Cubbage says. “Basic stuff like this a lot of times just doesn’t get done.”
Next, examine your operation one aspect at a time, says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. Take swath control—consider what just that can do for your operation in terms of per-acre yield increases and cost savings. Then think about other aspects of your operation using the same controllers, Ferrie advises.
In a Farm Journal study, using swath control and VRT application had a net benefit of $69,460 or $50.85 per acre for a 1,366-acre farmer. Using VRT application saved a 3,000-acre farmer $158,385 or $52.76 per acre.
For the Sylvester family in Ottawa, Kan., that one aspect was fertilizer application.
The four-generation farm family started upping their precision technology game on their 2,000 acres four to five years ago, first with grid soil sampling, says Jake Sylvester, a member of the youngest generation who is heading the effort. Then they moved on to VRT fertilizer application.
“You have to pay a little more for VRT, but you’re putting on less fertilizer, so it’s saved us several thousand dollars over three years,” Sylvester says. “This next year we’re going to try VRT seeding with our corn acres.”
Cubbage suggests marching through precision payback for technologies such as these:
- VRT seeding
- VRT fertility
- Planter clutches
- Auto shutoff technology
- Grain monitoring systems
To Sylvester, challenging economic times mean technologies such as VRT are even more important, not less.
“We have to increase our yield without increasing inputs. Rearranging seed so it’s all going to the right place at the right time is crucial when corn [prices are] down,” he says. Whatever you do, take it all one step at a time.
“It’s fundamental agronomy,” Cubbage explains. “You’re just doing it with precision tools.”