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US: To be precise

Precision agriculture helps US farm to streamline sowing and fertilising

In the last 20 years or so, the face of the mid- to large-scale farming operations has undergone a dramatic change. From the use of satellite imagery to enhance irrigation efforts, the use of computer technology to know the precise egg production of each laying hen, to truly robotic dairy cow milking systems, change has become the rule rather than the exception. As operating budgets tighten and costs for fuel, seed, fertiliser and chemicals rise, farmers continue to look for ways to increase efficiencies, cut expenses and strengthen their bottom line.

For North Carolina-based DMG Farms, equipping each of its two tractors with a precision agriculture system from Topcon Positioning Systems was a bold step toward accomplishing all that and more. Today, the company reports far better efficiencies in its crop planting and fertilising, has opened up that planting process to workers who might not otherwise have had the opportunity and believe it will have be a much better operation.

When the Gardner family of DMG Farms made its initial foray into farming nearly a century ago, an advance in technology meant using a steel plough rather than a wooden one. And, according to Clay Gardner, great-grandson of the company”s founder, mules were the power behind those farm implements.

“We have realised that technology drives improvements in this business, so we”ve been following the advances made in various areas,” says Gardner. He says the family had already become interested in precision agriculture, a GPS-based approach to crop planting, cultivation and maintenance. They knew what had once been little more than an automation of the steering system was now a full-fledged sophisticated technique to include control over seeding and spraying, the ability to map and log data, and more.

Clay Gardner and his father David farm 400 acres of their own land and 1,400 acres they have leased from local residents. In addition to the various types of sod, the company plants sweet potatoes, tobacco and soybeans, which is traditionally done using a row marker extended off the side of the tractor to delineate and maintain equal spacing between rows. Gardner calls this technique “running rows”. With the addition of the agriculture control system, not having to continually watch those markers — and suffer the accompanying fatigue — was just one immediate benefit DMG enjoyed.

“Now, we just establish an ”A” and ”B” point and the system connects those two points and drives the machine, resulting in the straightest line imaginable,” says Gardner. “But, while that comfort level is nice, one of the biggest things for us is the ability to have different employees running rows for us. Years ago, when there were more farms, there used to be a lot more workers available with the skill to operate equipment.”

“Today, it”s basically ”what you get is what you train” and this system makes it unbelievably easy to train people. They don”t really have to understand how to run a row — the system does that for them. If they happen to lean one way or take their eye off the row for a second, there is no harm done. And having more people to run rows frees me up.”

Maintaining a straight row for the farmer is about more than just aesthetics. Straight rows make the most efficient use of the land available for planting. Being able to maintain a straight line or equal spacing between rows also eliminates a number of potential problems.

“Just as they are everywhere, costs associated with running a farming operation like ours are going up,” says Gardner. “Fertiliser, seed, insecticide, herbicide — they are all getting more expensive, so we need to make the most efficient use of them. We don”t use a broadcast spreader of any kind. Instead, everything we apply is done using row units — a series of individual components with bins to hold and dispense seed, fertiliser etc. attached to the rear of the tractor. These help in the actual delivery of the product into the soil, but if the rows aren”t straight and get closer or widen, product is wasted. Precision agriculture, by maintaining straight, evenly spaced rows throughout the planting or application, eliminates that issue.”

The Gardners were recently planting tobacco in a field that had curved rather than straight rows, a challenge using a traditional row marker. If the rows are not curved just right, there is a chance of water collection which ultimately damages the plants. Further, Gardners not only plant the tobacco but also cultivate the crop, which presents an additional challenge for the tractor operator. “If I have a man on the machine and he gets too close to another row, he can take out that row which is costly to us. All that — the contour issues, the risk of accidentally removing plants, the overor under-application — has been eliminated. We did this year”s entire tobacco crop using precision agriculture, the rows are just outstanding and cultivation will be a breeze.”

The system to which DMG committed, while providing an autosteering function, offers a host of additional benefits which Gardner says he has already tapped. These include a comprehensive control for application and rate, including an auto-coverage feature to eliminate the risk of overlapping or gaps in coverage; an enhanced data management capability which allows them to record data from multiple fields and tasks for different farms, then create detailed reports and multi-year analyses.

The 12-inch screen itself was a huge selling point. “With the new system, we are able to essentially customise the display to meet our specific needs. We have the option of seeing the operation in a number of different views; we can easily monitor all the critical elements of the operation such as rates and field coverage; and it is all icon-driven so the learning curve for both me and my employees is minimal. Perhaps the best feature is also the most basic: the display”s resolution is so clear and sharp that it is easy to read — even in the brightest sunlight. That”s unbelievable luxury.”