Many of the farmers Aaron Bobeck works with see a return-on-investment from using precision technology. But the 31-year-old says he also encounters many who are frustrated and on the verge of turning their backs on it.
“I think it’s hard to quantify ROI for a lot of precision ag--it’s different for everyone and how they use it,” says Bobeck, who farms 1,800 acres of corn and soybeans with his dad and uncle in north-central Indiana and works on the side as a precision technology consultant. “Many folks have been burned by expensive, cost-per-acre data or decision services that didn’t deliver what they promised.”
If you land squarely in the frustrated camp, Bobeck says there are still basic things you can do to use precision technology and pick up some benefits. Here are four he recommends:
First, take stock of the kinds of precision tools you currently have. Evaluate whether you use all the existing features to their full advantage.
“Most everyone has auto-steer but they don’t necessarily use it on end rows, along the edge of fields,” he says, as an example. “I have some other folks who are starting to use field boundaries in different ways. Believe it or not, field boundaries are something I think as an industry everybody still struggles with, especially farmers who have multiple crop types in one field, which can create challenges with software.
“I've got quite a few guys who don't have fence rows between fields. We've gone as far as sharing guidance-line information between neighboring farmers to lay a nice straight line and get close to that field boundary if possible, and not let the weeds grow where the crop doesn't,” he adds.
Second, consider how you use your yield monitor. Calibrate your yield monitor for proper documentation. Otherwise, the resulting information will be invaluable. “If calibrating a monitor is tough for you, consider systems like Deere’s Active Yield and Precision Planting’s Yield Sense, which are helping automate calibrations,” he says.
In some cases, Bobeck says you might not be prepared to use your yield data. “I have people who are doing less with their data now than they were a few years ago, just because they struggle to see a return on that time investment. If it hasn't made your life easier or made you money, why spend time on it?”
On the other hand, if you do see your data as a treasure trove that could help move your farm forward, then consider investing in a technology expert who can help you unlock the door to its use.
Third, get more organized. Bobeck says the majority of the questions he gets from farmers have to do with fundamental things that don’t change year-to-year. “Document how you use tools, so you know how to use them the next year,” he advises. It could be as simple as making a checklist that tells you the order of the buttons you need to push on a tool to make it work. Or, take a picture of the settings on the screen and then organize that information into folders on Google Drive or Dropbox. This could save you a lot of time and frustration when next season rolls around.
Fourth, consider new tools or practices that cost little but add value to your business. For instance, Bobeck says putting a GPS receiver on the planter is useful, especially if you farm uneven terrain. “You know every subsequent pass with a sprayer or sidedress bar is going to benefit. It seems like such a simple, fundamental thing but it makes everything after that so much easier. I've had people tell me that even the appearance of their fields is nicer, and seeing everything neat and perfectly straight like that makes a difference to them.”
Video is another tool that is inexpensive to use and is a useful tool around the farm, especially for surveillance. “There's value in being able to remotely watch what's going on around your farm and to have the ability to go back at least several days if not months on video footage if you would have an incident you need to investigate, like trespassing, theft or property damage,” Bobeck notes.
“The cameras aren’t terribly expensive, we’re talking between $100 and $500, and there’s no recurring fees for camera systems that store video locally on a hard drive or SD memory card,” he says “I recommend avoiding most of the cloud-based cameras because they can very easily use up all of your available internet upload bandwidth, and generally carry recurring fees.”