New Sensors Can Predict Problem Planting Areas On the Go

July 16, 2018 07:19 AM

Stepping onto the 200-acre research farm, it’s an experience unlike any other. Precision Planting’s Precision Technology Institute (PTI) sits right off I-55, home to a look at not only the future, but solutions for farmers today.

“We’re understanding some of the problems we have in the field, and then finding out what’s a solution for it,” said Jason Webster, Commercial Agronomist for Precision Planting. PTI is his brainchild. It’s a vision Webster and Precision Planting brought to life, in order to make their research farm more hands-on. He said PTI isn’t just focused on agronomy, but the equipment available to push planting to the next level.

“What we’ve done on Precision Technology Institute is we’ve brought all the agronomy in, but we’ve also brought the equipment and the technology so growers can get in the equipment, they can jump in that tractor, use that high-speed planter, actually plant corn out here on this farm and experience what the technology can do,” said Webster.

It’s a “try before you buy” mentality that he thinks will open growers’ eyes to how efficiency on the farm can advance even more. It all happens in what Webster calls Precision’s “sandbox,” where growers can test out the toys to see if it can become a tool on their farm.

“We’ve got a high-speed planter on a Fendt tractor so guys can actually plant corn 10, 12 miles per hour to see what does it take to plant corn ant high speeds, what is the right downforce settings,” said Webster. “Also, farmers can see if they can plant at high speeds, as a lot of growers have never experienced high-speed planting, so now they get to do it for maybe the first time.”

From dual-band nitrogen to looking at variable rate planting, it’s addressing a need that some farmers don’t even know is there.

“One of the biggest problems we have really in the ag industry in general, is zone management,” said Webster.

Webster pointed out no farm is the same, with varying soils that create variable production. In the past, he said it’s been hard to track problem areas and then treat those areas on the fly.

“We want to see the highest productivity we can, even if those acres are different,” said Webster. “That’s been our biggest challenge. And I’m excited about the future because now we have tools that sense on the fly and we can understand the variability and we can change and react.”

Webster said it all starts with planting, as a simple mistake can cost 10 to 20 bushels per acre in yield loss. Even though the concept of one management through variable rate planting is not a new concept, Webster said adoption and utilization is slow.

“We’re [Precision Planting] finding only 20 percent - at max - have adopted the technology and are using it in the field just because it’s so difficult,” he said. “They’ve got the equipment to do it, but they can’t understand it and can’t easily put it in the field.”

While some farmers use variable rate fertilization application, they admit the planting piece isn’t something their operation fully utilizes today.

“We could get a lot better with it, that’s one reason why we’re here is to learn more and more information about what we can do,” said Tyler Smith, a farmer in Dana Ind. “And variable rate seeding is something we have not done yet.”

While some are reluctant to make the switch, others have tried it before and moved away from the technology, but it’s that technology that has come a long way.

“We had a hydraulic-drive, so we were probably a little early in the technology,” said Brian Gunderson, a farmer in Waterford, Wisc.

It’s that variable rate technology evolving every year, with sensors now available to detect issues in the field while planting, and make changes on the fly.

“We’ve got sensors that can actually sense how good the soil is, how much organic matter we have in the soil,” said Webster. “Organic matter - what does that mean? How much water holding capacity. And really, what is the highest yield potential we can get in certain soils?”

Webster said satellite imagery is popular, but he views that technology as post-mortem, not allowing growers to make changes real-time. He said sensors allow fields to predict and control potential trouble areas.

What’s next when it comes to smart technology? Webster thinks autonomous could be the next wave, but not in the sense of driverless tractors.

“Right now as we look at this corn behind me, I need equipment in the field telling me what’s going on,” said Webster. “I almost need a heartbeat monitor of this corn crop behind me. I would love to have autonomous equipment that basically is moving in this field 24/7, giving me readings, telling me what’s happening so I can number one understand what’s happening and know the problems out there, but I can fix it”

It’s unlocking the potential to help growers break through yield ceilings taking agriculture to new heights.

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