Improving accuracy and efficiency at The Mitchell Farm in Buckingham, IA, comes one confident step forward at a time. Each yearly visit to the family-owned farm has found Clay, his father Wade, and great uncle Philip working on yet another technology breakthrough that’s improving the farm operation.
But it’s not improvement for improvement’s sake — it’s a gradual building of one technology on top of another, improving the family’s overall goal of boosting yield and efficiency and cutting out as much uncertainty and inaccuracy in the farm operation as possible.
Since 2000, The Mitchell Farm has made progress on several fronts, driven by use of precision technology. Six years ago, the first innovation was the installation of a wireless computer network and real-time kinematic GPS signal, both accessible to any of the Mitchell’s fields and facilities.
Through the network, Mitchell could more easily control information flow and communication across the farm, particularly during planting and harvesting. E-mail, the Internet, and internal systems such as the Mitchell’s remote grain bin capacity monitors can be constantly checked, and decisions made based on “up to the minute” information.
The RTK tower set up the highest possible baseline of positioning accuracy, over which many of the cropping practices the Mitchells were planning to add would be run. In 2004, adding functionality to spraying such as automatic spray control down to the individual spray tips was one of the first technologies to get integrated into the mix, resulting in savings of 20% to 30% on crop protection product usage.
In 2005, the Mitchells combined their use of strip-till with the age-old practice of intercropping — planting alternate sections of corn and soybeans side by side in the same field.
This year, the Mitchells focused on improving the accuracy of their pull-behind implements, paving the way for using GPS steering for harvesting corn and needed accuracy for its intercropping program. The result is the first sub-inch accuracy implement steering system that actually works.
Clay Mitchell is the first to admit that most growers don’t need this level of accuracy. “If you do strip till and you’re off the strip every once in a while, it’s not that costly,” says Mitchell. “But with strip intercropping, the whole shifting thing makes it fall apart.”
Mitchell chuckles a little when explaining the need to make implements follow the RTK line as accurately as the tractor. “When you look at modern tractors, the amount of sophisticated technology that’s been put into these machines is astounding,” explains Mitchell. “And here they are, pulling these enormous, stupid metal things behind them.”
On hills and diverse terrain, implements will tend to drift, essentially compromising the investment in RTK. “In the Midwest, we have a lot of big, pull-type implements, and that’s what we’re dealing with here in Iowa,” says Mitchell.
To raise the IQ of the implement, it literally takes a separate GPS antenna and receiver, as well as hydraulic steering and a steerable axle on the implement. Mitchell had to add all of these to the implement, as well as an electronic interface that allowed the tractor and implement to communicate.
The bottom line is, the system is working well, and this past fall the harvest was brought in using the new implement steering system.
“One of the coolest experiences is when you are coming out of the headland,” explains Mitchell, “and you are coming at the row at an angle. When you first engage the steering system, both the tractor and the implement are trying to come on-line. The implement will actually swing around you faster, like having a ladder driver in a fire truck. It really feels like somebody is back there steering with you.”
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.