Farming Inches Instead of Acres: The Power of Precision Agriculture

What has technology transformed in your lifetime? Can you imagine how your great-grandparents would react to video calling, such as FaceTime or Skype—or voice assistants, like Siri or Alexa?

Like other industries, farming has been fundamentally changed by technology. Steve Weerts, who farms near Iroquois, S.D., had the opportunity to introduce his grandfather to today’s farming methods.

“My grandpa was the third generation on our family farm,” Steve says. “In 2009 we brought him up into the combine.”

“As we're harvesting 12 rows of corn at a time, my grandpa is telling me about when he and his dad would go out with a horse and a wagon. He would pick one row of corn, and his dad would pick two rows. They'd go down the field and back in a day, so they’d harvest six rows a day. And here I take 12 rows at a time with my one machine.”

Steve says, “We're even comparing what we do now to what my dad did when he was starting in the 70s and 80s. We're doing in an hour what he did in a day.”

Numerous Applications

Precision ag gives farmers many options in terms of how it’s used on their operations. Some farmers use these tools in most of their work, while others use them to meet specific needs, such as improving soil health.

“Precision ag benefits almost every aspect of our operation,” says Paul Hetland, who farms near Mount Vernon, S.D. “Anything from planting our crops as efficiently as possible in terms of spacing, splitting rows, row shutoffs, no overlaps, no skips, to applying nutrients in a very precise fashion.”

With precision ag tools, farmers are able to control many different types of activities. “They allow us to make repeated trips across a field in the same tracks that we came through the last time, minimizing compaction and damage to growing crops and things of that nature,” Paul says.

“Precision ag allows us to not over plant or over spray our property,” Steve says. “There's auto shutoff, whether it's on the sprayer or on the planter, so we're not over applying fertilizer and seed.”

Variable Rate Technology

One of the growing segments of precision ag is variable rate technology. It allows farmers to plant the right seed in the right place and apply nutrients and weed control only where needed. Reducing the quantity of inputs means lowering the environmental impact of farming.

“We do utilize variable rate planting and fertilizing on our farm,” says Paul. “We do have variable soils and we are trying to capture some of the benefits of that technology, as well.”

On the Weerts’s farm, precision tools help Steve connect the dots between planting and harvest. “We monitor where our different varieties are planted throughout the fields across the farm,” he says. “We can analyze the data when it's harvested to make sure we are planting the correct varieties on the correct soil types or the correct areas.”

Steve believes it’s important for non-farmers to understand the accuracy with which nutrients and weed management products are applied, due to precision ag capabilities.

“There’s a very small amount of inputs being applied to very large amounts of land, and it’s applied very accurately,” Steve says. “For example, we’ve got some product that's applied at one to two ounces per acre—whereas if you went out and just sprayed, you’d over apply by five times. It's pretty amazing that with this technology we can actually apply such small amounts of chemical on such a huge area.”

The Power of Information

Precision tools can collect data on pretty much everything that happens on a farm. But knowing which data is important—and how to use it—is key.

“We can use the harvest data, the soil maps as well as other maps available, and we can come up with prescription maps,” Steve explains. “We can generate prescription seeding rate maps for each field. And we can develop prescription fertilizer rates for each field, depending on the crop we’re going to grow in the upcoming year.”

Steve has begun using a drone on his farm to provide certain types of information, as well.

“I can use the drone to monitor certain parts of the field,” he says. “I can actually check pastures to make sure the cattle are where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there. We also use the drone to take pictures of our bale areas so we can keep track of how many types of bales are in what place.”

How Will Precision Ag Affect Our Future?

Through the efforts of South Dakota Corn, Raven Industries, CHS and other ag organizations, the epicenter of precision farming innovation will be right here in South Dakota.

South Dakota State University (SDSU) broke ground on the new Raven Precision Agriculture Center in October. The Center will lead the U.S. in precision agriculture research, development and education—and South Dakotans will be among the first to benefit from both the technology and economic impact.

The possibilities for precision ag innovation are virtually limitless. And the pace of change has increased exponentially.

While it took two generations for the Weerts family to go from harvesting by hand to a 12-row combine, the next leap forward will most likely occur within the next five to 10 years. And by the time the next generation of the Weerts family takes over, farming technology may be unrecognizable.

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