Technology And The Practice Of Farming

Iowa farmer Clay Mitchell truly is a precision pioneer. Mitchell grew up on a farm, but his talents and fascination with technology took him all the way to Harvard, where he earned a degree in biological engineering.

But the farm called him back, and he set to work applying the disciplines of engineering to the practice of farming. An early adopter of RTK automatic steering in 2000, Mitchell has attempted to stretch the boundaries of precision agriculture and conventional thought. At the PrecisionAg Luncheon, Mitchell shared some perspective on farming technology, and the positive effect of competition in improving farming practices.

On Automatic Steering

“As I look at all the technology that is here at InfoAg, I am reminded about something that Bill Gates said about personal computers — he imagined a day when there would be a PC in every home. In agriculture, I think one of the most important technologies that we’ve used on our farm has been the autosteering system that we got in 2000, which has really been the basis of a lot of the advancements we’ve had. I’ve imagined a day when we would have an autosteering system on every tractor and I’m amazed at just how fast that’s happened.”

On The Importance of Scale

“While farming is my passion, my background is in biomedical engineering, and that is the approach I take to farming. One thing that’s really important in engineering for modeling and design is thinking about dimensions, and how when things change in size, one needs to consider what things will scale and what things won’t scale. Scale is a big issue in farming as things change in size.

“Imagine we are the size of ants — some significant changes would come with the change in scale. For example, flame and fires can’t exist scaled down to the size of ants. A miniature hammer would not have enough kinetic energy to drive a miniature nail. There would be no books, because the pages would stick together at this scale. We couldn’t take a shower because water droplets would be so large they would drop like missiles, and if we did get hit, the surface tension would be so strong that we could not get out of the droplet. On the positive, we could lift 10 times our weight and we could jump off the top of this hotel.

“Thinking about farming and dimensional analysis and how things scale, consider a 150-acre field I work on, a challenging field because of the number of waterways surrounding the property. Using a 60-foot boom, it would take me two hours to go up and down the field and one hour to go around the waterways. As we think about the effect of machinery getting larger, if I used a 120-foot boom, as is not too uncommon today, it would only take me one hour to go up and down the body of the field, but it would still take me an hour to go around the boundaries.

“So one thing that we see as machinery gets larger and faster is that the effects of the field boundary affects are very important — and are a big reason why boom section control is so important. On our farm, we have Capstan nozzles that we turn on and off with a ZYNX controller, and we have 31 sections that are all controlled within milliseconds. So we can avoid that outlining pass where the waterway is, saving us 30% of our time. As the machine becomes larger and technology becomes more valuable, we would save 50% of our time on a larger machine.”

On The “Parallel” Effect

“If we think about traditional farming operations there are a lot of things that are done at an angle. Fertilizer might be spread at an angle to a tillage pass and a secondary tillage pass might be done at another angle. Things aren’t perfectly straight. And as we first start reducing paths in the field, we tend to have operations that are more parallel. As we go to strip-till and autosteer and controlled traffic farming, we become completely collinear. And with controlled traffic farming, we cannot deviate from those rows — it’s a very strict rule.

“One thing that happens is that we become very aware of the operations we are doing in the field. When things are done at an angle, if the sprayer nozzle is not putting out an even amount of fertilizer, we get streaks of low performance in the field and they sort of become pixilated noise, and we can’t really see them or observe them.”

On The Benefits of Competition

“As I look over how I am doing and how my neighbors are doing, I can’t help but be amazed by how poorly we are doing. I think farmers generally have come to believe that the things we have been doing for a long time we do well at. And that simply is not true.

“There are a lot of things that we do our entire lives that we do very poorly at and many times it’s the things we care about the most. And why is that? It’s because we don’t approach it as a practice. One thing that really aids us in approaching it like a practice more than anything else is the example of somebody else that is doing something right, and that is what we get when we have competition.

I saw a great example of this in New Zealand. When you travel around that country, you see one thing that stands out right away. There is a lot of livestock, and they are penned in with better fences than anywhere you will see in the world. And one of the great reasons for that is for the last 38 years, they have held what’s called the Golden Pliers competition. In the competition, they have professional fencers, people who have done this all their lives, put up a 40-meter wire fence which is judged on quality, speed, appearance, and strength of the fence.

Over the last 38 years there have only been 10 winners, but if you talk to the competitors, they all talk about how it has improved the quality of their fencing. This competition has a profound impact on the quality of the work they do every day.

The hallmark of a practice is that perfection becomes visualized, it becomes known and it becomes within reach.”

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