Stepping Up to 'Decision Agriculture'

3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

Consultants Share Ideas on Using Precise Field Information

Using a computer-based program, High Q, Josh Miller of Willard’s Ag Service in Frederick, Md., can sit down with growers at the end of the year and analyze everything from the seed they’ve been using to the soil types they’ve been growing that seed in.

He gets the information from the onboard computers on the planters and combines, downloading it into the program, which is also available to growers.

Miller can even determine how a grower is doing compared with others with a similar soil type or using the same seed.

He said it helps him guide his clients when making decisions. But he also sees this as the next step in the evolution of precision agriculture.

“Decision agriculture is the next wave. That’s what we’re all about, how to use these decisions to be profitable next year,” Miller said.

Farmers can invest thousands of dollars in GPS systems and yield maps, getting information that could be valuable to make decisions for the following growing season.

But some farm consultants have started going even deeper as far as getting the most precise information on soils possible to predict the amount of seed that should be planted or fertilizer that should be applied to save money and increase production.

In Eric Rosenbaum’s case, it’s about hopping on his four-wheeler, getting out his iPad, and making a grid of a client’s field. Think of a 20-acre field split into dozens of small blocks, all for the purpose of figuring out where one type of seed should go and where fertilizer may be needed most.

“It’s high-end technology. It’s a lot of fun,” said Rosenbaum, owner of Rosetree Consulting in Morgantown, Pa.

He’s gotten interested in grid and zone sampling, two distinct methods of soil testing, to determine the amount of nutrients or seeds that would be best for a given area.

In simple terms, zone sampling is done by splitting a field into various zones, based mainly on soil types and yield history along with other factors. The basic premise is to take a few samples in a zone, combine the samples and base decisions from that.

Grid sampling goes deeper than that, enabling even more sampling in smaller grids to get as precise an area possible to give a farmer more detailed information on an area to make decisions.

“We’re starting to do more grid sampling and zone sampling, with the eventual goal of variable rate seeding. It’s a process, but that is one of the eventual goals,” Rosenbaum said.

He said he is doing something that’s seen as the precursor to variable rate planting and spraying. It’s a process of being able to go down to a few acres and see what amount of nutrients or seeds are good for production, based on the type of soil conditions in a small area of a field.

Picture a consultant giving a farmer a “prescription” for a field on a memory chip. That chip then gets plugged into the on-board computer of the planter or sprayer.

The data on the chip would then control what the machine does in the field while it’s driven with auto-steer technology guided by GPS, allowing the farmer to sit back in the seat and watch things on a screen.

It could also save money and increase profits, which is what Rosenbaum wants to do anyway.

“The variable rate seeding is kind of one of the end games,” he said.

The process can be expensive, though, something that private consultant Bill Angstadt of Reading, Pa., said is a reason why it is not taking hold more quickly, at least in the East.

The small fields along with the number of soil tests that would have to be done is a challenge.

“It’s not practical,” Angstadt said. “Some farmers do smart sampling, zones within a field. But that rarely happens. What really drives ag in the East is yield maps.”

Devin Gerlach, nutrient management specialist with TeamAg of Ephrata, Pa., said cost is one of several challenges facing farmers interested in zone and grid sampling. And from his standpoint, there really isn’t much demand either.

“The costs of getting soil samples can add up quickly. Also having a farmer interested in it, to know he’s going to get his money’s worth. Probably in this area, there are very few farmers set up to do variable rate applications,” Gerlach said.

It’s the use of yield maps, though, that drives Willard’s High Q system.

It may not be as precise as doing grid sampling, but the information that can be gathered is still fairly impressive.

When Miller works with a farmer, it starts with analyzing at least three years worth of data, mainly seed populations and yields, to establish some sort of foundation for the farm.

“The best source we have to predict yields is previous yield history,” he said.

From there, it comes down to tracking things throughout the season, such as when the grower applied nitrogen, what the weather conditions were and what soil types were planted in.

Miller said all of the information is gathered after the season to help make decisions for the following year. The High Q system can be accessed from a computer, smartphone or tablet.

From this system, a farmer can analyze everything from the type of seeds that were planted in a given area of the field and soil types, to how a sidedress nitrogen application affected that crop in a given area.

They can even compare themselves with other growers in a similar area or those who are using similar methods to improve what they are doing.

“It’s built with the idea of giving farmers the information to make decisions on how they plant and all of the aspects of cropping. We collect information at planting time, the whole way through cropping and yield,” Miller said. “Not only can they look at the zone information, but they can compare themselves through the larger community.”

Fewer than 10 percent of Rosenbaum’s clients are actually doing either grid or zone sampling. He said many still don’t have the type of yield monitor information needed to analyze what’s out on the field.

But just having the ability of being able to figure out how much seed should be planted in say a given acre, which might have a completely different soil profile from another area, presents some intriguing possibilities.

“The upfront costs of zone sampling are obviously cheaper than grid sampling. However, if we are not applying the appropriate amount of nutrients to each area, we are leaving profits on the table for the farmer because we are either not maximizing yield or we are wasting fertilizer dollars,” Rosenbaum said.

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