VRA Shows Growth In All Its Forms

(This article is excerpted from the upcoming “State of Precision” report in sister publication CropLife magazine)

Growth and prosperity in the general ag economy, and a proliferation of wireless technology and applications have raised all boats in precision agriculture, including variable rate in virtually all its forms.

Cody Miller, precision ag specialist at Larson Cooperative, New London, WI, says his team is writing more variable-rate (VR) nitrogen and seeding prescriptions than ever. In fact, requests for VR planting prescriptions are “exploding,” whereas two years ago, there was hardly any talk of them in his area. Now growers feel they’re necessary to maximize yields. New OEM technology and outfits of older planters with VRA seeding-optimized equipment have made the prescriptions possible.

At Three Rivers Company, Earlville, IA, precision farming technologist Sam Wilson helps growers outfit their planters with the needed equipment to execute prescriptions, and he assists them in understanding the data and information they will need in order to make a good seeding prescription.

Some retailers are not sure if VR seeding will really pay off, as in the case of United Prairie’s Grote. On his region’s “good central Illinois soil,” water tends to be the largest contributor to yield loss. But some customers with marginal, rolling ground near rivers tried — and now swear by — custom seeding recommendations Grote’s team provided. The growers have actually started planting every acre with the technology.

A number of growers are keeping an eye on variable hybrid planting. Grower Keith Gingerich, owner of Gingerich Farms, Lovington, IL, believes when the technology is available, multi-hybrid planting will help him more than VR seeding, which he just started using last year.

Brian Watkins, Watkins Farms, Kenton, OH says he’s seen a prototype machine and believes the approach makes sense, especially in his part of northwest Ohio where there are two dominant soil types but lots of variation within fields.

This season, his team will be using a sensor-based VR nitrogen program for sidedress applications on corn. “We’ll be going in when we have a canopy using the OptRx system,” he says. “We’ve watched people do it for a couple of years and are going to give it a shot.”

Gingerich says VR sidedress applications have provided a huge return through yield and reductions in cost.

But even with tried and true VR fertilization, Agronomic Consultant Dr. Harold Reetz says the industry will need to focus more on the agronomic questions. “We need to revisit the research to define what the optimum rate of each input is and what interactions come into play,” he says.

Despite ongoing data issues, the past two years have brought a number of technical advances, and our retailers/growers are trying them all.

Sam Wilson, precision farming technologist at Three Rivers Coop, Earlville, IA, is excited about the way planter technology is evolving in general, including the advances that allow units to adjust to changing conditions “in the blink of an eye.”

Some precision users are thrilled about the new downforce technologies on planters (not to mention current and upcoming advancements in seed meters, seed delivery, row cleaners and seed tubes). “No matter what we do throughout the growing season, everything revolves around how quickly and uniformly the plants emerge,” says Glen Franzluebbers technology director at Central Valley Ag (CVA), Oakland, NE.

A number of the new technologies focus on water, including moisture monitoring and variable rate irrigation. CVA has entered into its second season offering AquaSystems Soil Moisture Monitoring and VR irrigation and reports “great success” with the programs.

The importance of these precision developments is clear: Water is the number one factor determining yield, and it’s also “probably our least sustainable resource and needs to be managed properly,” says  Franzluebbers. He adds there will no doubt be more restrictions on water use in the future, so CVA’s AquaSystems programs will allow customers to position themselves successfully to deal with future changes in water management and regulations.

Kris Tom of Tom Farms, Leesburg, IN, operates 90-plus pivots and utilizes the services of a company called AgSense to monitor and control irrigation. The system has variable rate functionality, but he says he hasn’t assessed enough data to be able to develop the right water “prescriptions” to answer varying environmental conditions.

Many of our grower/retailer contacts have enrolled in Climate Corp.’s free Basic package, which models plant growth based on weather conditions. In fact, at the time Tom spoke with CropLife, he had pulled up local Climate Corp. data, which showed temperatures were warm enough and conditions dry enough to go ahead and work or plant his Indiana fields. “We can formulate a plan instead of spending hours or days driving around looking at fields, waiting for things to dry out,” he says.

While measuring soil electrical conductivity (EC) is not a new technology, more growers have been giving VERIS technology another look, to help draw up VR prescriptions.

Watkins is anxious to see what will happen as more on-the-go measurement technologies mature. For instance, he is looking at the ability to gauge soil fertility with automated sensors and probes rather than sending samples to the lab. “It’s melding the equipment side with the agronomic side,” he points out.

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