Tech does more than reduce overlap

Using trigonometry, ag engineers can pencil out the value of overlapping inputs.

However, Champaign farmer John Reifsteck sees this as one portion of the payback puzzle. Digging a little deeper, Reifsteck asks, “How much is a good decision worth?”

Key Points

• Technology allows farmers to be better managers.

• Autosteer eases planting stress, especially in years like 2009.

• Before purchasing, do a little research.


Case in point: Each year Reifsteck plants about 10 hybrids, four of which are typically brand-new numbers. In one field, two hybrids outperformed a third by 40 bushels. “With my yield data results, I can be pretty confident when I drop a number because of performance,” he adds.

More yield knowledge

Reifsteck first got into the tech game in 1994, when he bought a yield monitor. “Up until that point, we were guessing in terms of what was happening with yields,” he adds.

Most folks have seen the phenomenon where a plant looks great, but come harvest, it doesn’t produce as much grain. Before the yield monitor, it was tough to pinpoint these hybrids.

Today, Reifsteck’s planter is equipped with autosteer and auto row shut-off, both of which run on a real-time kinematic, or RTK, network. Once he finishes planting and applying fertilizer, he moves the unit to his combine.

Thus, when a lower yield number pops up on the screen, he can instantly call up the hybrid number and population rate. This year, a lot of wet spots contributed to lower yields. Reifsteck says being able to see drainage issues is another management tool. With this information, he’s able to make better investment decisions for the following year.

“If you buy the technology and you don’t make any management changes, you’re spending your money for no long-term benefit,” he adds.

Less stress

Last year, Decatur farmer Tom Fiesler did something he’s never done before: He planted in the dark. “I didn’t use any of my row markers all planting season. It was great,” he adds.

A couple of years ago, Fiesler began noticing some of his neighbors were planting straighter rows than he was. After asking around, he learned they were using autosteer technology. He took the plunge in 2009 and loved it.

First off, it was a great year to invest. With an extremely rainy spring, planting at night wasn’t a novelty, it was a necessity. Fiesler also remembers how nice it was to come home at night. “You weren’t so frazzled from watching markers all day,” he adds.

In addition, he was able to pay a lot more attention to what was going on behind him.

“When you have autosteer doing the driving, you can take more time to verify your equipment is working correctly,” Fiesler notes. “If there is a problem, you’ll catch it a lot earlier.”

This year, Fiesler will use the system to apply preplant anhydrous ammonia. Even though he hasn’t invested in auto row shut-offs, he expects to lower overlap on the parallel passes.

Purchase tips

For those looking to jump into the tech game, Reifsteck has a few purchase tips. First and foremost, check the coverage in your area. He says multiple RTK base stations in the area will provide a nice overlap, ensuring a more reliable signal.

Next, go with a company that has a local dealer and can provide timely service. While dealers are a good place to ask questions, Reifsteck reminds folks to ask their neighbors. Candid responses from someone who has the system are worth a lot.

Very few folks will jump in and purchase every bit of technology for every implement. Thus, Reifsteck stresses the importance of researching the potential for upgrades.

Crop sensors could be next big thing in farming technology


With tractors that nearly drive themselves, implements that turn off automatically and a computer keeping track of every pass, the logical question is, “What’s next?”

Crop sensing is one technology that’s been in the works for more than a decade. Ag Leader’s OptRx system, which goes commercial this year, uses an optical sensor to determine the biomass and “greenness” of the plant. An onboard processor then dispenses nitrogen based on what the crop sensor sees.

Roger Zielke, Ag Leader’s new business development manager, says last year’s test results showed the profitability behind this technology. The system usually applied more N than the farmer’s typical straight rate. However, Zielke says the extra N resulted in a yield increase worth $15 to $45 per acre, compared to the flat-rate application.

OptRx costs $3,000 per sensor. Zielke recommends three sensors for toolbars up to 60 feet. In addition, the rate processor (Ag Leader calls it a CAN module) is $1,500. According to Zielke, the system can be used for all types of N.

Ag Leader recommends using the technology at side-dress, when plants are at least V5, or 12 to 18 inches tall.

University professors agree it is possible to apply N based on the plant’s “greenness.” However, the big question is, “How tall does the plant have to be for color to accurately represent how much N is available?”

When does it work?

Purdue University’s Bob Nielsen and Jim Camberato have been working with a similar crop sensor for several years now. “We’re very comfortable that in waist-high corn, we can do a good job of selecting differences in N and determining which areas ought to receive extra N at that point,” Nielsen says.

However, if the corn is shorter than waist-high, the results aren’t as conclusive. “We even tried it on V8 corn, which is at the top edge of what you would want to sidedress, but so far we can’t say that we’ve picked up differences in N that would let us make recommendations at that stage,” he says.

“However, we remain enthused with the potential for these sensors for ‘dialing in’ those last 50 or 75 pounds of N in a high-clearance application scenario,” Nielsen adds.

Fabian Fernandez, University of Illinois soil fertility professor, agrees a good time to assess the amount of N based on color would be around V10 to V12, or waist-high. At this point, the plant has taken up about 20% to 30% of its total N need.

Nielsen and Fernandez both see value in the concept, but the question remains: “At what growth stage do crop sensors detect a viable difference in N content?”


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PRECISION DECISIONS: For Champaign farmer John Reifsteck, precision technology means he’s able to make better farm management decisions.

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

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.