SUNBURY, Pa. — Janette Lesher plans to make this week’s Farming for the Future field day an annual event, but there’s a good chance it won’t stay the same.
On Aug. 27, more than 175 farmers attended the first future field day at Jeff Pontius’ farm, learning about the latest in precision agriculture and how the related methods can help stretch a dollar while commodity prices remain unpredictable.
Sessions included a drill calibration demonstration, the use of precision ag for no-till and cover crops, nitrogen applications and utilizing technology in management decisions.
Lesher, a district conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, said if the event is held annually, it will adapt to advancements in technology.
“Agriculture is always changing and it’s nice to highlight the new ideas that are out there,” she said. “People can come and hear about new methods and technologies, and it’s important to think about these things for the future.”
The program was a joint effort between the NRCS, Penn State Extension and Northumberland County Conservation District. Pontius, who hosted the program on his farm and even prepared the meal, was impressed by the interest.
“I’ve been hosting field days back to 1983 when I held a no-till program, and this was by far the biggest,” he said. “This technology is really important for the younger generation of farmers.”
And the precision techniques could be a major cost savings as well.
Charles White, soil fertility and nutrient management specialist with Penn State Extension, showed farmers how mapping the soil’s electrical conductivity can measure organic matter from cover crops and identify specific nitrogen needs within a plot.
By understanding how much nitrogen credits are being provided by a particular cover crop, he said, farmers can set their applications for their yield goal above the yield provided by the nitrogen that’s already present.
White did point out that soil mapping technology is constantly changing, and it will become more user-friendly in the future.
“When it comes to determining how much nitrogen your cover crop has, one day you might not have to run these sensors over a field. You can get the data on your smartphone from a satellite,” he said.
Luca Criswell spoke about the benefits he realized by implementing precision agriculture techniques on the 1,500 acres he farms in the Lewisburg area. He said the technology has improved all facets of his time in the field, from pinpointing a problem in a specific row while planting corn, to variable rate applications of fertilizer to target the areas that need it most.
“I don’t know where I’d be without precision ag today. It lowers fatigue and extends the work day,” Criswell said.
And then there’s the money savings.
Technology such as mapping the electrical conductivity in soil can be an enormous cost advantage for a farmer, said Dave Harwick of Helena Agri-Enterprises. The technique can be a benefit for several applications, including spreading lime, by identifying the specific pH levels within a field.
“It allows you to put the product where it’s going to be most beneficial,” Harwick said. “Those areas of a field with higher pH, we can cut back the lime application. It takes the money where it doesn’t need to be and puts it where you’ll have a higher return on your investment.”
And when it comes to being cost-efficient, one of the most important steps is drill calibration to ensure expensive seed isn’t being wasted.
Jeremiah Zimmerman of Seedway showed those in attendance how to calibrate a drill, and he said the job is crucial to avoid over-planting and running out of seed. Calibration is also beneficial to those enrolled in government programs for cover crop plantings, he added.
“You’re being paid so much per acre, so you want to watch your seed costs,” Zimmerman said. “If your drill is off by even 5 pounds, that works out to 500 pounds over 100 acres, which is a lot of seed.
“Take the time to calibrate. At the end of the day, you have to be profitable or you’re not going to be doing this too long.”