Farmers go high-tech for high yields

Ryan Ori

Farming will always require some guesswork. But as technology improves, fear of the unknown decreases every year.

"If farmers have knowledge, they'll react and make correct decisions," said Gregg Sauder, a Tremont farmer and founder of Precision Planting Inc.

"Knowledge drives correct decisions. Before, there was no knowledge. You had to wait for the corn to come up. You'd be waiting for two to three weeks before you could grade yourself," he said. "If you had a problem (in planting), you didn't know it until you went out in the field and said, 'Oh, man, I would have done something if only I'd known.' "

Computers, global positioning and cellular technology are among the methods farmers use to increase yields.

"There's a lot of new technology and a lot more coming, the way it looks," said Les Callais, who sells Case IH equipment at German-Bliss Equipment in Princeville. "Every year it changes."

Area equipment dealers report increasing interest in equipment with GPS capabilities, or adding GPS to vehicles. Depending on farm size, an entire GPS set can cost a few thousand dollars or more than $40,000.

The advantage is savings of fuel, seed and chemicals, while also reaping improved yields.

A farm vehicle with GPS and auto steering allows for near-perfect rows without repetition. By using soil samples and GPS mapping, farmers can use less fertilizer in some areas and more in areas of greater need, as well as planting more heavily on acres that are more fertile.

The farmer sits in the cab and follows data on a monitor, needing only to turn the tractor around at the end of each row.

"A lot of farmers are starting to do strip till," said Mike Hohenbery, service manager at Klein Equipment in Brimfield, which sells John Deere products. "You put your anhydrous (ammonia) in during the fall, and you come back in the spring and plant in the same field. With the RTK (real-time kinetics) system, the planter will run right down the same trench as where the anhydrous was. They put the seed right where the fertilizer was put."

Mapping also pinpoints acres where yields are down. "It shows them if they have a problem area in the field," Callais said. "They can check those areas to see what's causing it - if it's fertilizer or a drainage problem or whatever."

Sauder, 51, uses many new technologies on more than 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans. His Precision Planting staff of eight engineers continues to design new products.

According to Sauder, a full Precision Planting package, costing about $5,600, pays for itself in the first year.

Precision Planting helps with plant spacing and depth. It provides real-time updates of skipping or doubling-up of seeds.

Planters have weight bars that automatically add or subtract pressure based on the softness or hardness of soil, allowing seeds to be planted at the ideal depth. If seeds are skipping, the farmer can make adjustments to the planting unit or change driving speeds.

"As we plant, you can actually watch every seed come down out the back of the planter," Sauder said. "We label the mistakes. As he watches the monitor, (the farmer) can see the mistakes as they happen. That way, he can react. We put a dollar figure to it. That gets your butt out of the seat. If you're losing $25 an acre, then you react."

Sauder said Precision Planting soon will add a cellular aspect in which live streaming information - updates of planting efficiency or yields - can be accessed in a farm manager's office as multiple planters are out in the fields.

Combines and tractors eventually are expected to add technology that no longer requires farmers to turn vehicles around at the end of each row.

"I don't see no operator in the cab," Sauder said with a laugh. "There are just too many functions in the cab. Whether we like it or not, it's not a perfect world with equipment. It's good to have somebody there when things malfunction.

"That would scare me, having a tractor in the field. I've seen tractors do weird stuff all of a sudden, and I want to be there when that happens."

Soil updates on the Internet

The Internet also has changed how farmers order some products, and the way they receive information.

The Illinois State Water Survey provides online updates of conditions such as soil temperatures and moisture levels. Farmers can watch for conditions associated with pest outbreaks or know when to place fertilizer. The system utilizes automated sensors at locations throughout the state.

"The ability to measure data has existed for a long time," said Bob Scott, a Water Survey meteorologist. "Before, an individual could not access this information. That's what has changed. The sensors have been around for a long time, but the dissemination of the data through the Internet is now at your beck and call."

Even the seeds themselves have undergone engineering.

"The seed now, the genetics of it are just incredible," said Patrick Kirchhofer, manager of the Peoria County Farm Bureau. "Researchers have been inserting genes that do particular things, whether that be resistance to insects - such as the European corn borer or rootworm - or herbicide tolerance. You can get a seed that allows you to spray herbicide and it won't affect the plant. They've inserted both insect- and herbicide-tolerant seed.

"They're breeding seeds now that will be drought-resistant, more nitrogen-efficient ... Seeds have really boosted the yield in recent years."

Ryan Ori can be reached at (309) 686-3264