Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Inches, Not Just Acres

By Nichole Gouldie, Communications Specialist

For many producers, farming is measured in inches, not just acres. As Darcy Nickel and hundreds of other farmers begin preparing the soil or planting their crops each year, an increasing number are turning to the technology in precision agriculture to optimize their crop.

In fact, precision agriculture is becoming more of a regular practice that many farmers have integrated into their operation without considering it a form of precision agriculture anymore. With nearly every tractor, sprayer and combine utilizing GPS auto-steer systems and various monitors, precision agriculture is being implemented on more and more farms every day.

The changes in technology are exciting for Nickel, beginning his fifth year using
Benisch reviews field data with
Goessel area producer,  Darcy Nickel.
precision agriculture. Nickel is the first to point out that each field of his is different but with a number of services MKC offers for precision agriculture through the Optimal Acre Program, Ross Benisch, MKC precision agriculture specialist, and he can customize a plan for each field.

Precision agriculture uses technology to compile data for farmers so they can operate more efficiently, thus better managing production costs, increasing production and increasing profits. Essentially, it is a practice that uses detailed, site-specific information to accurately control and manage inputs, Benisch says.

Benisch said farmers traditionally spread uniform rates of fertilizers, seed and irrigation across their farms. One field may have several different soil types and fertilizer needs, he said, and the amount of bushels it would grow can vary significantly from acre to acre.

"Through the MKC Optimal Acre Program, precision agriculture uses technology and data the farmer owns to increase input efficiency and bushels per acre," Benisch says. "The goal is to help producers place their inputs for optimum return on investment."

Ten years ago, the market was focused heavily on GPS guidance for machinery because of the instant results the growers saw with improved in-field productivity, reduced operator fatigue and the ability to operate machinery for longer hours. "After GPS, it moved toward more site specific agriculture like the creating of variable rate prescriptions for inputs such as crop nutrients, lime, seed and irrigation water," he says.

"We take a practical approach to our precision ag," says Nickel, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat. "We use it as an overall management tool where it makes sense instead of using it on every acre."

Costs are a determining factor when choosing whether or not to use precision agriculture, but Benisch says farmers are quickly finding they can be profitable using the data that is collected. While there is cost involved to get started to gather the field data to make the variable rate prescriptions, the data can be used for several years before testing is needed again.

"Often, the increase in input efficiencies results in the data paying for itself," Nickel says. "With the help of MKC, our farm looks at the precision ag data we collect as an investment rather than an expense because of the many benefits we have seen on our own operation."

As for the precision ag services currently offered by MKC, Benisch says they like to start with grid sampling because it tests for many key factors including soil nutrients and pH which are vital for every crop grown. "With the grid sample results, we can then variable apply many products to increase application accuracy," he says. "MKC has the equipment to variable apply lime and crop nutrients so the farmer doesn’t have to own any extra equipment to take advantage of what grid sampling can offer."

As farmers keep records of this information year after year, patterns begin to emerge and the information gained from GPS technology becomes a valuable reference upon which to base vital management decisions.

Nickels says one of the most important purposes of the Optimal Acre Program is it gives them the opportunity to optimize their yield potential and effectively use crop inputs year after year after year.

"The more data a farmer collects the more we can customize each field to achieve maximum profitability over time," Benisch says. He recognizes not everyone has the same goals in mind so it makes sense to start with the important base layers of information and expand in the other services MKC offers. He also notes over time, the information that is valued for a particular field will most likely be collected and acted on, while other fields may not need the same layers of information to make good management decisions for the upcoming year.

"Each field is unique. The more pieces of data we have to help solve the yield puzzle, the more accurate we are going to be with our vrt prescriptions and the producer will have a greater return on investment," Benisch says. MKC uses the information the grower has and combines it with the field data collected to put together a customized program that best fits the growers operation, he says.

"It is often hard to tell people about our appreciation for precision agriculture," Nickels says. "I would encourage anyone who is interested in learning more to ask MKC."

Visit with an MKC location for more details on the Optimal Acre program and see how precision agriculture can benefit your operation.