Grower Profile: The Mitchell Farm, Part I

Situated in the East Central Iowa, about a half hour’s drive south of Waterloo, The Mitchell Farm is like thousands of others in the heart of the Corn Belt — rich, dark soil that creates some of the best yield opportunity in the country, if not the world.

Swiftly steering his family’s trusty Gleaner N7 combine confidently through row after row of high and healthy corn, Clay Mitchell looks like any son of a long-time farming family bringing in the season’s bounty.

But spending some time in the cab with him reveals an intensity and sense of purpsoe that is anything but typical.

As Mitchell pulls up the combine to fill up a grain truck, he quickly turns his attention to his on-board laptop computer. From this machine, he can access the Internat via a wireless network that spans the whole farm. He glances through incoming e-mail, takes a second to respond to a question, then moves on to a Web-based bin monitoring system. From his combine’s seat, he can view the bin levels and moisture content in each bin, and can direct the truck to where the next load should be placed.

Then, some distant dark clouds appear in the western horizon. Mitchell clicks on to check the forecast.

“It says zero percent chance of rain, but those look like rain clouds to me,” says Mitchell. “We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

For Mitchell, technology — from typical instruments of precision agriculture like yield monitors to highly specialized Web tools that monitor very practical seasonal information — should be used to fight inefficiences wherever they exist in his family’s farming operation.

“It’s important to know when technologies aren’t appropriate on the farm,” he says. “And variable-rate application, except for lime, doesn’t pay off in our area. In VR, the rates are determined by estimating yield response curves — and there are too many variables to make that work here.

“But there are many things that are well within my control that do have a clear and proven yield impact, such as how fast I can get into a field and begin planting, how fast I can get planting done, when and how quickly I can harvest, and when inputs should be applied.

“Every season, these things have an optimum time at which they should be done,” he continues. “If my efficiency is optimized, then I can always be in a position to act when the conditions are absolutely right. These are the variables I am working hard to control.”

Maximizing Productivity

What would happen if you took the typical view most farmers have of their farms and turned it upside down? What if you treated it like one giant industrial complex, employing rigid and consistent protocols for every plant operations and automating wherever possible to eliminate time and resource wasting production variability?

This philosophy of farming has come naturally to Mitchell, who left the farm to test his mettle at Harvard University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering.

“It was a very analytical course of study, and much of what I learned can be applied to what I do here,” he says.

One of the first efficiency building tools he invested in was the Autopilot automatic steering product from Trimble Navigation. Purchased in 2000, Mitchell Farm’s unit was the very first sold in the Midwest.

“We had been strip-tilling for eight years, and we were looking for ways to place seed more accurately into the strips,” says Mitchell. “Trimble had the most finished product, and it suits our needs best. It has been very dependable, the receivers are high quality, and their tech support in the Midwest is outstanding. Because we are totally dependent on automatic steering technology, something that works 99% of the time isn’t good enough for our operation.”

Achieving pinpoint strip-tillage and planting accuracy has been a big benefit of automatic steering technology, but there’s more. Mitchell says that automatic steering allows him to control traffic to reduce compaction, allowing him to cut out yet one more “x” factor.

And there’s more yet to come. The goal is to put Trimble Autopilot technology into each of the farm operation’s machines.

Building optimum efficiency isn’t just about The Mitchell Farm today. Clay says that he is adding rented land that will double his current acreage next year, and he doesn’t want to make the mistake of simply doubling everything they use on the farm now to handle the increase.

“Some farmers who double in size over the course of a year invest in more hard goods than they need to, and they stretch themselves too far,” says Mitchell. “By investing in appropriate technology, we plan to be bigger, but we’re actually reducing our machinery at the same time,” says Mitchell.

Web Tooling

A set of instructions for getting to the Mitchell Farm wouldn’t be complete without the directive, “Look for the huge radio tower.”

Sure enough, in the middle of the front yard stands a 150-foot radio tower, a repurposed HAM radio structure that carries a wireless Internet signal generator, as well as the RTK booster for the Trimble Autopilot system.

The Web connection allows Mitchell to maintain a reliable and always-on Web presence in the cab. Using the connection during harvest time, Mitchell can stay on top of the status of every grain bin the farm owns, as well as a variety of Web-based functions such as weather, e-mail, and even parts ordering.

“There have been times when equipment has broken down in the field, and I’ve gone online using John Deere’s parts ordering Web site and ordered the part on the spot,” says Mitchell. “By the time I or one of our guys gets to the equipment dealership, the part is sitting on the counter and waiting for us to pick it up.”

Weather monitoring is yet another important function of the cab-based Web, which proves to pay off on this particular day. A second check of again asserted that rain would not be an issue in central Iowa, yet the clouds were thickening. “Let’s check the satellite and radar to be sure,” says Mitchell.

Sure enough, a small but quite real bank of rain clouds was hovering over Tama County. “Time to break for now,” says Mitchell. “Looks like rain is coming.” Within 15 minutes, the skies opened up, but the just-harvested corn was on its way to its designated bin safe and dry.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the December 2003 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.

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