Building A Precision Program Piece By Piece
You don’t have to have a engineering background to make precision agriculture technology work in a cotton farm, but for Mississippi grower Byron Seward, having a background in mechanical engineering and a talent for tinkering has made it a bit easier to figure out.
Seward has been using technology to get more precise about his farming practices for several years now, starting with use of GPS and prescription mapping to variably apply fertilizer. That eventually expanded into variable rate defoliants and plant growth regulators using aerial imagery, a practice that has proven effective for cost savings on chemicals and labor.
Seward is a comparatively large southern farmer, growing corn and soybeans along with cotton, and like many of his neighbors has invested in harvest and storage infrastructure to ensure his grain has a home at the end of the season. It also means he has made a commitment to technology use to help him be as efficient and economical as possible.
Seward’s initial foray into precision agriculture centered around variable rate fertility, not unlike many of the early pioneers of site-specific ag in the Midwest. He had some essential partners lined up at the time to help get started.
The choice for storing and maintaining electronic field maps and data was Ag Fleet, a web-based program developed by the Pennsylvania-based company ZedX. Ag Fleet allows users to put all field records into one centralized electronic space. There are several important advantages to using this sort of system. First, the data is safely and efficiently maintained on a powerful computer system off site, which makes it one less thing to worry about. Second, because Seward’s fields are so far flung, He can access his data from the office, home, or wherever Internet access is available. His retail partner, Jimmy Sanders, Inc. also works with Ag Fleet and is able to help with technical and agronomic issues with relative ease.
Seward also worked with Pettite Ag Services to initialize his precision program, setting electronic field boundaries and doing initial field sampling for variable rate fertilizer. When Jimmy Sanders came on board, the company helped to fill out the remaining GPS and soil sampling information on all Seward’s farms.
“We have a data bank of all our locations with fertility information,” explains Seward. “We then take our handheld computers, and go out and click in what the pre-plant is, what the crop it is, what seed was used, and take the handheld back, tie it into the computer and upload the information into Ag Fleet.”
Today, the annual regimen is pretty clear cut. With all the field information in place, the soil sampling company Seward uses sends the results files to Jimmy Sanders, which forwards them to AgFleet, which overlays the information with Seward’s fields. “We can then bring down the images of the field and it will show what nutrients go where,” say Seward. “We check it over, make adjustments, and then write prescriptions for the machine we are using.” Seward has a four-bin Soilection Air Max machine available that he can use to variably apply nitrogen, potash, sulfur and zinc if needed. He also shares access to a plane for aerial application.
The Next Level
About three years ago, Seward got involved with John Deere Agri-Services on a new aerial imagery service that would make the variable rate application of defoliants and plant growth regulators (PGRs) more automated. To make it work more seamlessly with Seward’s existing collaboration with Jimmy Sanders and Ag Fleet, Deere worked with both entities to make the imagery offering available to Seward through the Ag Fleet Web site.
“John Deere came to us because we already had a precision agriculture program that has been successful for a number of years,” says Jeff Dearborn, precision agriculture manager at Jimmy Sanders Inc. “I think they figured that they could leverage our experience and relationships that we had to better position their imagery product. We had experience with Landsat and satellite-based imagery, and had experienced problems with delivery and turnaround. Working with Deere, we were able to help them develop their imagery product, and they help us get what we need — timely imagery.”
Deere’s imagery offering, now called OptiGro, resides on the Ag Fleet web site as a click-on option for Seward any time he needs imagery.
“All I have to do is tell the program which pictures I want taken, and send it through the Internet,” Seward explains. “When I order it, it guarantees delivery on a specific date, but often it comes sooner than that.”
When it arrives, Seward downloads it to his computer, and Ag Fleet writes a prescription based on the equipment being used. “All we do is click on “Satloc” or “Viper” and it writes the files so it can be read by that machine,” says Seward. “We put the information on a card, load in and off it goes.”
And using the imagery is easy and quick within Seward’s configuration. “If it pops up in the morning we can be running in an hour,” he says. “With a laptop we can download the prescription , find the applicator, take the card out, put it in the laptop and transfer the information, put it back in the applicator and off we go.”
Variable rate defoliation has proven to be most beneficial for Seward, and after three years of working with it and tweaking, he feels that he really has it right.
“The first year was hard, getting all the hardware and software together, but last year we had no problem,” says Seward.
A significant challenge was getting it to work with an airplane application system. Seward employs a Satloc M3 variable rate control system.
“You can write the prescription, but the airplane has to be able to interpret it. And the airplane must be able to handle volume of information coming in. We worked on it for an entire summer, and last year it worked well — it was a hassle to do, but knew we wanted to do it so we worked hard at it.”
Prior to the new system, Seward would typically need to apply defoliant 2 to 3 times based on scouting and re-scouting fields. “Now we take a picture of the field to locate the vegetative and not-so-vegetative places in the field, and adjust our defoliant applications. We get it all with one trip through the field.”
Seward estimates savings of between 3% and 7% depending on the weather and crop conditions. “Every year is different, but it’s always something less than was used before.”
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Cotton Grower.