Something Old: VRA Seeding & Nitrogen

On the world stage, technology has a reputation for moving forward at break-neck speed without ever backing up. Think of how fast businesses moved from fax machines to e-mail to handheld computers/phones between 1987 and 2002.

When it comes to precision agriculture, technology leaps are fewer and farther between. Still, they can have a profound effect on market dynamics and individual profitability. Elsewhere in this issue, you will find the companion piece to this article, detailing the three top precision agriculture technologies that can measure their market lives back only a few years at best. As for the other two listed in the Tech Top 5, their lifespans date back more than a decade.

Take variable-rate application (VRA) seeding, for instance. Although this practices dates back to the early days of the precision agriculture movement, it has been consistently overshadowed by other technologies such as VRA fertilizer and GPS in the overall usage race. In fact, according to data collected in the annual CropLife/Purdue University Precision Ag Retailer Adoption Survey, VRA seeding was practiced by 3% of respondents back during the first survey in 1997. Ten years later in 2006, this percentage had barely budged up to approximately 5%. Meanwhile, other precision agriculture practices grew 10% to 20% in usage during this same timeframe.

In 2007, however, things have improved significantly for VRA seeding adoption. During the recent InfoAg 2007 meeting, a pre-show tour group visited Tim Seifert, an Illinois farmer. When an attendee asked Seifert what precision agriculture technologies were most important to making his farm profitable today, he answered, “VRA seeding comes first.”

Statistics compiled in the 2007 Precision Agriculture survey support this claim, with VRA seeding usage projected to climb to 10% to 12% by the end of the year. Even more telling, manufacturers are climbing aboard the VRA seeding train. At its annual dealer meeting in mid-July, Kinze Manufacturing, Inc. announced that it had formed a partnership with precision agriculture technology maker Ag Leader Technology, Inc. to bring Ag Leader’s INSIGHT system to its line of planters. The resulting system, called Kinze Vision, will make it easier for growers to utilize VRA seeding practices in their operations.

Changing Fortunes

What has changed in VRA seeding’s favor? According to experts, two factors have given the practice a new level of excitement. The first ties to ever-increasing seed prices: According to Dean Fairchild, assistant vice president of agronomy for The Mosaic Co., the price of seed corn has skyrocketed in recent years to around $200 per bag. “At this cost level, growers are looking for ways to maximize their yields on existing acres without wasting any more seed than necessary,” says Fairchild. “This has opened the door to more people looking to VRA seeding to accomplish these goals.”

Michael Vos, software sales & support manager for Ag Leader and a corn grower with his father in southeast Iowa, agrees. He added VRA seeding to the family farm’s way of doing things to grow yields. “Our farming goal each year is to break our previous year’s mark,” says Vos. “If we got 240 bushels per acre this year, we want 245 bushels the next. There are a lot of precision agriculture technologies out there to try to do this, but we saw VRA seeding as the one that could help us most. We decided this was a rabbit we wanted to chase.”

The Ethanol Effect

Of course, many growers are looking to boost their yields because of the second factor helping VRA seeding to grow — ethanol. To feed the expected demand for corn to make ethanol, growers planted an additional 12 million acres in 2007. Early projections have 2008’s total corn acreage growing even higher, up another 5 million to 6 million acres. By 2011, some analysts say that almost 40% of the nation’s corn yield will be sold to an ever-increasing number of ethanol production plants now dotting the U.S. landscape.

Not surprisingly, another “hot” VRA practice among growers and ag retailers — nitrogen (N) — can also thank increased corn production for landing it in the Tech Top 5 listing. In a presentation at InfoAg 2007, Dr. Alan Blaylock, senior agronomist for Agrium U.S., Inc., noted the importance nutrients play in general in the ag community. “Nutrient application is second in importance to hybrid selection in its impact on the crop,” said Blaylock.

Unlike VRA seeding, VRA N has continually ranked high on the list of precision agriculture practices, ranging between 20% and 50% of precision agriculture users, according to the CropLife/Purdue Retailer Precision Survey. What’s helped it along, of course, is the fact that fertilizer prices have steadily increased throughout the past 15 years. Indeed, according to figures compiled by USDA, the prices for N, phosphorous, and potash were 113% higher in 2006-07 than they were in 1990-1992. More significantly, U.S. ammonia production costs rose by 172% from fiscal year 1999 to fiscal year 2005.

According to Illinois grower Seifert, higher fertilizer costs — coupled with the uptick in corn plantings — has put added pressure on the ag market to maximize its input costs while increasing yields. “Input costs are driving all the decisions growers are making these days,” he says. “I don’t know how long this trend will last, but I don’t believe N costs or usage will be going down any time soon.”

To this end, some researchers are now working with remote sensors to determine N application in the field. According to Robert Mullen, nutrient management/soil fertility specialist for The Ohio State University, sensor data combined with VRA N at Virginia Tech have yielded some promising results. “At the Virginia Tech small plot corn test, there was a 5% increase in grain yields and a 21% reduction in N usage,” says Mullen. “In the on-farm corn research, there was a 1% increase in grain yield and a 17% reduction in N.”

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