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Precision agriculture cuts costs

By Mark Green

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Five 12-row combine harvesters working in tandem at Seven Springs Farm in Trigg County reap some that operation’s 11,000 to 12,000 acres of soybeans. Intensive use of Precision Agriculture technology allows Seven Springs to efficiently raise more than 32,000 acres of grain crops a year currently. “We’re always on the cutting edge,” said founder/managing partner Joe Nichols.

Agriculture technology is 10 to 15 years into a growth spurt that is revolutionizing the efficiency of grain crop operations and especially benefitting Kentucky farmers who raise corn, soybeans and wheat on rolling, irregular landscapes where conditions can vary not only from field to field but from row to row.

Most tractors, combines and implements rolling across farmland circa 2015 are computer-controlled, Internet connected and have automated GPS-guided steering accurate down to the centimeter. On the fly, equipment accesses the farm database and self-adjusts to soil conditions while planting, harvesting or applying fertilizer and various other inputs – then updates the cloud-based network.

Watering systems can be monitored and operated remotely from a desktop computer, laptop, mobile device or smartphone. On-farm crop storage systems improve harvest logistics, then manage grain moisture content for quality and volume until contracted delivery times arrive or the grower decides the market has ripened.

Agribusiness operations all over the nation are gaining efficiency as technology improves every year. However, the geometric grain-growing grids typical in the Plains of Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska are less challenging to manage and derive less benefit than the undulating, creek-carved fields farmed in the commonwealth.

That shapely Kentucky land might be more beautiful, but those curves create overlap and waste – 10 percent, 15 percent or more – every time machinery makes a pass in the field. Swath-control systems, however, weed out waste by very precisely avoiding overlaps of expensive seed, fertilizer, pest control or other inputs.

Seven Springs Farm has $28 million in equipment to work more than 32,000 acres of grain crops as well as raising tobacco and 10,000 head of cattle plus operating an excavation business.
Seven Springs Farm has $28 million in equipment to work more than 32,000 acres of grain crops as well as raising tobacco and 10,000 head of cattle plus operating an excavation business.

Swath control’s impact in the commonwealth “is astronomical compared to what it is in the Plains,” said Joe Nichols, founder and managing partner of Seven Springs Farm, one of the state’s largest operations, near Cadiz in Trigg County. “It’s returning money more quickly in Kentucky than anywhere else in the United States.”

Big payback increasing land values

Tim Stombaugh, a biosystems and agriculture engineer with the University of Kentucky, said Extension county agents estimate 75 to 80 percent of commonwealth farms have adopted swath-control strategies – even though the large-scale farm equipment necessary to do so can easily run into multiple six figures.

“Some of it is a real no-brainer,” Stombaugh said. The financial impact of swath control on operations can create a positive return on investment in the first year.

Precision Agriculture, as current technology-intensive farming is called, increases production. Although the weather remains beyond man’s control and impacts harvests from year to year, USDA figures show corn yields growing significantly in the past quarter century. Annual average yields that ranged from around 100 to 130 bushels an acre in the 1990s increased to a range of 129 to 164 bushels in the 2000s, and since 2010 have ranged from 123 to 171 bushels per acre.

The trend line for average U.S. soybean yields also has risen steadily – from around 35 bushels an acre in the mid-1990s to nearly 45 bushels this year, according to USDA statistics. USDA stats also show winter wheat yields trending higher as well – for the long term – from roughly 40 bushels an acre in the mid-1990s to around 45 bushels, even though the all-time high U.S. average yield of more than 47 bushels an acre occurred in the 2000-01 season.

Precision farming’s bigger benefit today, accord to members of Kentucky’s increasingly high-tech agribusiness sector, is that ever-improving technology nearly eliminates waste of seed, fertilizer, insecticide, herbicide, crop spillage and spoilage, fuel and time.

“We don’t run a farm. We run a business … and the product is food,” said Nichols. “We use technology for everything.”

He is a very big fan of swath-control systems, which have brought dramatic savings in the cost of inputs – the seed, fertilizer or other soil augmentation, insecticide and herbicide – that are significant for 30,000-plus acres. Wheat fields get five “passes” by some form of equipment in a growing season.

“It took us from 15 percent overlap to 2 percent to 3 percent,” Nichols said, thus a 12-13 percent savings on input costs.

“Swath control has changed land values in Trigg, Christian and Caldwell counties,” he said, referencing a section considered to have some of Kentucky’s best grain crop soils. “Now you can farm it just like you would a section in central Illinois.”

New equipment every year – every piece

Seven Springs, Trigg County’s second largest private employer with 86 positions, farms regionally on around 35,000 acres. Like other large agribusiness operations today, it owns some but leases most of that property. It has a 10,000-head herd of cattle, burley and dark-fired tobacco, an excavations business, an events facility and its own restaurant, Nichols said, but primarily Seven Springs grows grain crops.

It produces white and yellow corn, double-cropped and full-season soybeans, wheat and grain sorghum. This year there is more than 32,000 acres of corn, soybean and wheat. Individual grains’ plantings can increase or decrease by several thousand acres from year to year. For example, there is corn on 8,100 acres this year compared to about 10,000 acres in 2014.

“It varies,” Nichols said. “We just always do what the market tells us to do.”

Seven Springs is “on track to produce 4.3 to 4.4 million bushels of grain” this year, he said. “We’re having a good crop.”

Lots of technology-enhanced equipment makes it possible to operate effectively on such a large scale.

Nichols estimates the value of Seven Springs Farm’s machinery, implements and equipment at $28 million. It includes 20 tractors, 10 planters, eight combines, four sprayers, six self-propelled loaders, three bulldozers, two trackhoes and two bucket lifts – each less than a year old.

“We trade about $10 million annually,” Nichols said.

Some of that total is a result of increasing the number of machines to keep up with growth in crop acreage, but most of it is “trade” literally: Like many large agribusiness operations, to keep up with the latest technology and keep operations at top efficiency and profitability, Seven Springs trades in all of its tractors, machinery and implements every year.

“We’re more prone to buy what has the best resale value,” Nichols said.

Beyond the mechanical hardware, Seven Springs has $1 million worth of GPS software. In 2008 it built new offices designed around its computer servers and ran its own T1 Internet line 8 miles from town to ensure adequate and ongoing connectivity.

Additionally, the precision agriculture technology Seven Springs uses includes 25 center-pivot watering systems that farm managers monitor from their smartphones, Nichols said. It has 2.35 million bushels of on-farm grain storage, 1.8 million bushels of which has monitoring systems

The grain bin systems that track the condition – hence the value – of harvested crops can all be monitored by desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Better harvest logistics, less loss risk

“I’m seeing more automation in monitoring the grain storage environment,” said Sam McNeill, a UK College of Agriculture associate Extension professor and ag engineer based at the Research and Education Center in Princeton, Ky.

McNeill’s focus is on “the value chain from the field” for crops: what happens when growing concludes or “post harvest engineering.” That includes getting grain from the field, grain drying and
storage methods, how it’s handled, transportation to grain elevators,
discussion with elevator managers and operators through their storage period and more.

At harvest time nowadays, McNeill said, farmers focus on getting crops in out of the field as fast as they can when conditions are deemed best. On-farm storage systems can speed the work significantly and preserve market value if the alternative is driving truckloads to an elevator where harvest season can mean long lines for unloading.

Other variables that come into play, he said, can include the contract an agribusiness is holding for its crop – a major farm-management category unto itself. On-farm storage systems give operators the option of holding grain for three months, six months, or other lengths of time to fulfill contracts at the correct time or waiting to sell at the point they decide the market price is the best they can get.

The drying systems used with on farm storage also give farmers more control and lessen risk, McNeill said. Controlled heated airflow lowers moisture enough to alleviate potential spoilage but not so much that it excessively shrinks the volume of bushels sold.

The alternative to the drying system is leaving a crop in the field until its moisture level is appropriate, during which time a grower “risks a storm laying it on the ground,” he said.

Storage monitoring systems have sensors on wires that place them at strategic locations throughout a bin. It gives a farm manager continuous information on a stored crop’s condition without having to physically visit a bin, climb a ladder, gather samples and analyze them.

Storage systems let operators focus on timely harvest, which becomes increasingly important the larger a farming operation is.

“The vast majority of the acres”

Kentucky still has many small farms. The 2014 State Agriculture Overview from the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service reports the commonwealth’s 76,400 farm operations totaled 13 million acres, which is an average of 170 acres apiece. It does not break out the averages for grain farming operations.

Large farms such as Seven Springs are a small minority in terms of numbers, Stombaugh said, but they work “the vast majority of the acres.”

Most Kentucky farms are family operations and small – their operators also have outside jobs to make enough money to support themselves and their families. For grain farming operations to generate enough money to be a family’s primary source of income and cover living expenses including health insurance, Stombaugh said, it must be a minimum of 750 acres.

According to Nichols, 750 acres is not nearly enough.

They agree, though, that agribusiness economics clearly is pushing operations to be ever larger. And the large operations have strong motivation to pursue the incremental gains Precision Agriculture technology offers.

A large grain combine harvesting a field can process $30,000 to $40,000 worth of gain an hour, Stombaugh said. A 2 percent gain in efficiency means a $600 to $800 an hour return.

Combines, tractors, sprayers and other equipment today have grown “very highly integrated, very highly computer controlled,” he said.

An implement’s main controller area network bus monitors and responds to engine speed and the transmission gear to adjust output rate for seed or the spray pressure levels for each nozzle in booms that can spread more than 100 feet. It monitors fuel input and mixture for the engine to control and lessen emissions. It’s all networked together and linked to the farm’s master computer.

Farmers took “most of the low-hanging fruit” that improved equipment technology offered in the period five to 10 years ago, according to Stombaugh.

“We’re off the steep part of the curve for what technology is going to gain us,” he said.

The focus in pursing further gains from agribusiness technology is shifting now toward the databases that farm operations in Kentucky and elsewhere have been building since then.

“We definitely are a Big Data player,” Stombaugh said. “We’ve now got 10 to 15 years of data to work with and can develop long-term strategies.”

The question individual operators and hundreds of members of the agribusiness technology sector are examining now is: “How can I use that (data) to make management decisions?” ν

Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]