Profit in modern farming is all about getting more yield for less inputs.
Grandpa’s draft horses could gee and haw on a dime, but gigantic equipment, such as a 60-foot air seeder or a 100-foot boom sprayer, can’t easily be stopped in its tracks or manoeuvered around the natural variations in the landscape or soil conditions of a field.
Inevitably, expensive chemical and fertilizer is applied where it either isn’t needed, or where it won’t do the farmer’s bottom line much good.
With that in mind, Dan Hacault from Swan Lake decided to fight fire with fire. Three years ago, he began using variable-rate technology on his entire operation to cope with his land’s extreme variability with the goal of improving efficiency.
Located about 65 miles south of Brandon, his land ranges from top-quality soil that could easily grow potatoes to shale and gravel within 500 feet. That meant that a frightening amount of expensive inputs was literally being poured down the drain.
“The biggest reason I got into variable rate was not really to get more yield out of the good areas, but put less on those poor areas that were really killing us,” said Hacault, who also serves as a director of the Manitoba Zero Tillage Research Association. He gave an overview of his experiences with precision farming at the Agri-Trend summer training event in July in Brandon.
The goal may be simple, but adapting large-scale equipment to match in-field variability involves a mind-boggling array of high-tech tools which don’t come cheap.
“Does it pay? On my farm, where I live, I’d have to say maybe,” he said.
Last year, even with UAN at 85 cents per pound, the savings from going variable was about $12 an acre. This summer he’s taking delivery on the same product at 35 cents per pound.
“If you’re going out there and spending a big pile of money and pay a consultant anywhere from $5 to $10 per acre, does it pay? On my farm, probably not. The economics of it aren’t that great.”
On the other hand, variablerate fungicide applications might provide better returns on investment, he added, noting that this year he has had to do three passes on his wheat, first with Tilt, then Headline, and another dose of Proline.
“There are some real costs there, and if we could have real-time crop vegetation index, maybe there could be some real savings there than in the nutrient management end of it,” said Hacault.
Pam Haegeman, a technician with Brandon-based Mazer Group, said that precision farming aims to manage zones rather than covering the entire field as if it were totally uniform throughout.
The heart of variable-rate technology is the global positioning system (GPS), which uses satellite data to establish location, even within one inch of accuracy.
“When you are starting up precision farming, you need three things. You need to know where you are. That’s usually GPS. Then you need to do a detailed analysis on that location to know where you are going to apply more chemical or less chemical and how you’re going to manage those areas,” she said.
“Then you need to be able to do something about it, because if you have all this information, and you’ve done all this analysis and you don’t have the equipment to do it, you’re just wasting money and time.”
Other tools for gathering information about fields include field topographic surveys from a tractor, airplane or satellite, to yield maps derived from grain heads hitting measuring plates on the combine, and electrical conductivity and soil testing.
A vast array of equipment has hit the market in recent years, from hydraulic valve controllers to touch-screen tablet and hand-held computers.
Low-budget options also exist, she noted. If a farmer has a good understanding of field variability after years of working it, a hand-held GPS device can be used to guide the taking of soil test samples and create a zone-based map.
daniel. winters @fbcpublishing.com