Tech Tools in the Field

January 13, 2012 05:15 AM

Test Plots LogoFor the past two decades the Farm Journal Test Plot team has made it a priority to take the latest technology tools to the field for first-hand experience. Having that practical field exposure keeps our Farm Journal Field Agronomists Ken Ferrie and Missy Bauer, along with their test plot crews, up to speed with current machinery, precision farming tools and irrigation and product offerings. Here’s a roundup of the tools they used for the first time during the past year.

Control the Water

Irrigation is the next frontier for applications with variable-rate technology. Working with Valmont Irrigation, the test plot crew installed and collected data from a 1,296' half-circle pivot that covers 80 acres using a variable-rate irrigation system.

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Working with Valmont Irrigation, the central Illinois test plot crew installed a variable-rate irrigation system.

The pivot’s panel was upgraded to a Valley Pro2 control panel for zone control. The variable-rate system uses existing electrical lines on the pivot to send signals and information down and back the span of the pivot.

"We installed a solenoid control system for each boom section," says Isaac Ferrie, who works on the test plots. "We can vary the rate of water applied by soil type or any other prescription map. This system also allows a farmer to automatically shut off the pivot over waterways, cut out any low-lying areas and turn it off over driveways."

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This NDVI map from GeoVantage shows the variability in the field and is overlaid with the soil type lines. This evaluation will help define the management zones for variable-rate irrigation.

To verify the system’s performance after it was installed, two calibration tests were run.

First, the crew and Valley representatives positioned catch cans parallel to the pivot and ran a cycle to make sure water output was consistent across all boom sections. The second test was done perpendicular to the pivot, and in that test the team changed the rate of water applied as the pivot traveled through the field.

"This necessary preliminary work was to ensure that we were putting on the rate intended by our prescription," Ferrie says.

The variable-rate system was outfitted with the Tracker SP system so that the pivot can be turned on or off and monitored remotely. In the field, weather stations were installed to monitor soil moisture.

"In the future, we will use real-time data from the moisture sensors to make changes to our watering program," Ferrie says.

The data collected from the past year will be used as the foundation for the variable-rate study as it moves forward in the coming years.

Quick Moves Without a GPS Base Station

Our test plots use a variety of satellite signals for GPS correction. This past spring, Farm Journal Associate Field Agronomist Missy Bauer used OmniSTAR XP to plant test plots in Michigan and Ohio.

In central Illinois, the plot crew used an automated steering system with the Trimble VRS network correction signal. The system included an EZ-Guide 500 display and wireless modem.

"This system gave us access to an RTK signal without the hassle of a base station," says Isaac Ferrie. "We were able to move from field to field and not worry about taking down and resetting a base station. Even when we did lose signal, it was reacquired within minutes."

This system transmits data wirelessly using the Connected Farm platform, which the crew experimented with as a demonstration.

"Systems such as Connected Farm help farmers manage their data files and streamline how they access and update those files," Ferrie says. "In conjunction with desktop software, as field maps are saved to the program, monitors can automatically be synced with the most current as-applied or prescription maps. This allows farms to run multiple machines without excess point rows."

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Using RTK and individual row shutoff, the Corn College logo was planted with a varying population from 20,000 plants per acre to 50,000 plants per acre.

Row by Row

Taking lessons learned from previous work with automated swath control for planters, the test plot crew in Illinois planted with individual row shutoff. The setup included air clutches on every row, the Kinze Vision system, the Trimble VRS network and the EZ-Guide 500.

"We initially set out to use this technology to plant an eye-catching demonstration of what’s possible with today’s technology," explains Brad Beutke, who works in the test plots. "At the Corn
College campus, using a prescription map, we planted an area in the shape of the Corn College logo and varied the population in that area from 20,000 plants per acre to 50,000 plants per acre."

That extra control required RTK correction, a second set of air control valves and reprogramming the Vision monitor.

"We were able to plant at our regular speed—4.5 mph—and maintain accuracy," Beutke says. "This demonstration shows how you can make the most of auto-swath control."

Even though this demonstration is extreme, it  shows the capability of technology and the payback it can provide. For example, a previous Farm Journal study have shown that across 1,366 acres, a 16-row planter outfitted with a control section for every two rows prevented double planting on a total of 26 acres.

"Ear counts and yield estimates taken in double-planted areas showed losses from 6 bu. to 67 bu. per acre, with an average near 30 bu. per acre," says Beutke.

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Volumetric soil moisture sensors from Spectrum Technologies collect information used to analyze the soil moisture profile.

Water Based on Soil Moisture

Environmental data from weather stations provides production details in our test plots. Our crews have used temperature, rainfall, humidity and soil moisture sensors to collect data that is otherwise unavailable.

To better understand irrigation performance by soil type, Farm Journal Associate Field Agronomist Missy Bauer partnered with farmers to place Spectrum Technologies FieldScouts volumetric soil moisture sensors in six irrigated fields.

"We found differences in soil moisture levels after rainfall events versus irrigation applications," she says. "Compared with our original predictions, it took more water per application to keep soil moisture levels sufficient."

The sensors were placed at four depths: 4", 8", 12" and 24" to analyze the moisture profile. Using a data shuttle, Bauer and her crew downloaded the data from the fields.

"This kind of technology can help farmers monitor the amount of irrigation water they apply and at what increments," Bauer explains. "If their goal is to keep at 80% of field capacity, they can dial in irrigation based on volumetric soil moisture levels."

Zoom In on Field Data

One tool that has been added to a farmer’s toolbox in recent years is NDVI mapping services. Today, mapping services are available in 30-meter resolutions all the way to submeter resolutions.
"In specific test plots, it’s helpful to have submeter resolution so we can see individual rows," says Isaac Ferrie.

The test plot crew partnered with GeoVantage to have submeter maps for a handful of test plots. The detailed data can show pinch rows and row-by-row issues.

"Higher resolutions do come at a higher price," Ferrie says. "To determine the resolution you need, think about how you intend to use the maps, then make sure you order a resolution that meets those needs. Different resolutions work fine for different farmers because their needs are different."

Thank You to Our Test Plot Partners

Our thanks go to the companies with products featured in this story and to the many other plot partners and cooperating farmers that supply machinery, inputs and time. Collectively, their
efforts make our authoritative, third-party test plot results possible. Thank you!


Learn more about Farm Journal Test Plots.

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