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Precision puts money in the bank

At $250 per bag, how many seeds does it take to get your attention?

As more farmers climb on board with guidance technology, they begin to realize the value of straight rows — additional plants per acre, more accurate sidedressing and less stress on the operator. However, Kansas State University’s Kevin Dhuyvetter says to really capture technology payback, farmers need to start thinking about triangles.

“That’s where the real benefit comes in — when you can eliminate the triangles that are inherent to overlap in the field headlands,” he says.

To prove this point, Dhuyvetter, KSU colleague Terry Kastens and Kansas farmer Dietrich Kastens created a spreadsheet tool that allows farmers to pinpoint the payback on technology based on their specifications. The tool breaks down the analysis in several categories, including money saved on inputs and machine operation overlap.

Key Points

• Spreadsheet shows how fast technology pays for itself.

• The biggest savings comes from reducing wasted inputs.

• The tool breaks down the analysis in several categories.

Input savings

Let’s take another look at that expensive bag of seed. Planting with conventional row markers, say a farmer is running a 24-row planter and is able to manually shut off the planter in two sections, driving an extra 6 feet into the end row in the process.

Using the odd-shaped 270-acre field shown above, let’s compute the amount of seed saved from auto row shut-offs. Driving into the end row, if each clutch kicks in at the precise time, eliminating the overlap triangle (see below), the farmer can save $4.13 per acre on seed (assuming $100 an acre for seed). If a farmer is unfortunate enough to have 2,000 acres of oddly shaped fields, that amounts to $8,260, or 33 bags of seed.

For farmers in Macon County, this odd-shaped field may look like something they would see only in their worst nightmare. Assume the same conditions are applied to a field that looks like a triangle. In this instance, the farmer would save $2.14 per acre on seed. Thus, more variability results in more payback.

More efficient tillage

After the long-drawn-out harvest, a lot of folks will face compaction problems come spring. Let’s examine the value of machine operations for one tillage pass over a field. Because there’s no way to shut off sections of a plow, this example will look solely at reducing the overlap on parallel passes.

Using a custom rate from the University of Illinois, figure $15 per acre as the cost to operate a mulch finisher (disk, chisel, drag) for a second tillage pass. This rate incorporates tractor and implement overhead, fuel, maintenance, and labor.

A reduction from 5.25% to 0% overlap will save approximately 48 cents per acre. While that’s only a $960 savings on 2,000 acres, consider the value of using this technology on all aspects of the operation. With a sprayer, there’s money to be saved on overlap and auto boom-section control.

Payback analysis

The main reason for analyzing the savings from such technology is to assess how quickly a farmer can pay for the technology. Looking only at input savings, the excess seed detailed earlier would warrant an investment of $16.49 per acre on the odd-shaped field. If a farmer has 2,000 acres that look like that, the seed savings alone would justify a $33,000 investment at 8% interest with a five-year payback period.

Add in savings on fertilizer and herbicides, and as Dhuyvetter notes, those triangles are worth a good chunk of change.

Kastens, who farms himself, says some folks cannot grasp how much area the headlands compose. For example, Kastens has a 267-acre odd-shaped field. After one pass around the outside with a 90-foot sprayer, 23% of the acreage is covered.

By eyeballing the headlands, Kastens says nearly everyone will drive too far into them.

“For most folks, it’s a no-brainer. This technology will pay,” Kastens adds.

When it doesn’t pay

Most full-time farmers can’t afford not to run autoguidance and row shut-offs, according to Kevin Dhuyvetter and Terry Kastens. The payback is quick, and operator stress is significantly reduced.

However, there’s always a few outliers in any mathematical analysis. One such instance is the part-time farmer who doesn’t tend a whole lot of acreage. For example, Dhuyvetter was once approached by a skeptical farmer. After learning the farmer only had 160 acres, Dhuyvetter agreed it was an unnecessary investment.

In addition, there could be an extremely lucky farmer out there who has a sizable operation, but all of his fields are near-perfect squares. In these instances, Kastens says the limited field variability will mean a longer payback for the technology.

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ODDBALLS: With odd-shaped fields, precision technology pays off even faster than on square fields.

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This article published in the January, 2010 edition of PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.