How New Technology is Reshaping Agriculture

For those people who still think U.S. agriculture is like a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting, think again. Technologically savvy American farmers are using everything from simple text messages to GPS to biomass imaging in order to manage their production in ways not possible 10 to 15 years ago.  Nowadays, American farmers are more Banksy than Norman Rockwell.

Illinois farmer Kevin Kennedy, who farms and manages about 3,800 acres of his own farmland and custom farms another 1,200 acres between Wyanet and Dixon, Ill., says technology helps him get a better handle on the size of his crop, even before it lands in the bin.

Kennedy combines yield monitors with maps including planted areas, crop varieties and plant populations, along with GPS locations. He uploads the information into software to receive detailed yield estimates as early as August.

“I have a 100,000 bushels for storage and we move about 550,000 bushels in the season, so I have to be able to set up a pretty good outline of where my grain is going. I work on that in July and August before the first field is ever harvested. By the time we start harvesting, we pretty much know how the fall is going to be laid out. This year, my worst estimate was off less than 3 percent of the actual yield in the fields. So we were extremely close. This is the fourth year for doing that,” he says.

Kennedy says before this technology “how would you know what your yield was before you put it in the bin? You didn’t.”

This year the technology “let me get in the field and I saw I had above-average yields,” he says. That information let him hedge production when corn prices were nearly $2 a bushel above current values.

Kennedy says he waits for corn to reach the “milk” or “early dough” development stage, when most of the kernels are set, before trying to estimate final yields.


Satellites and Google Earth

Farmers are using satellite and infrared imagery to get a birds-eye look at how plants are developing.  Kennedy says green biomass mapping allows him to make visual images of his fields in mid-summer, allowing him to quickly address problems such as nitrogen deficiency.

He says by laying the green biomass maps and indexes next to yield maps, he can see how well some fields perform versus others. “It’s my report card. We show that to our landlords so they see exactly how their field compares to other fields,” he says.

Scott Friested, who farms about 1,900 acres of corn and soybeans about 60 miles southwest of Chicago with his father, says even using simple technology like Google Earth to track growth can give farmers another way to get aerial view of their crops.

“I used Google Earth to see wet areas in the field. In 2011, when we had a lot of rain, we put extra nitrogen in all our fields, and left a test strip in each field. I’d go on Google Earth and I could see which was the test strip and which wasn’t. It was not nearly as green of corn,” Friested says.

Having the record of where problem spots are in the field helps, too. “We’ll look for wet spots in the spring and summer and after the crop’s taken out, we can put field tile in those spots. If you go out in the fall, it all looks the same,” he says.

Friested says by using yield results from the combine, he can send the data to his fertilizer representative who can lay nutrients right where the crop was taken out to replace what was removed. “We’re not over fertilizing or under fertilizing that way,” he says.


Combines on Autopilot

Sophisticated machinery now steers automatically and allows for more precise planting and fertilizing. Echoing Friested, Kennedy says because location data can be saved, he can now apply a strip of fertilizer in the fall, rather than blanket the area. In the spring he can plant seeds right over that strip. This maximizes the availability of the fertilizer, he says, since the seeds are planted atop the fertilizer.

The automatic steering also allows farmers to work at night, whether planting crops in the dark during spring, or burning the midnight oil to get harvest done.

“You used to be able to go out at night, but you had to focus on driving and keeping straight, and sometimes it was hard to see your marker lines. If you did it wrong, well, that’s an expensive problem,” Friested says. “With autosteer, that’s all taken care of. We’ve definitely planted more hours in the day and that helps out economically.”

Kennedy says sometimes it’s the simplest technologies that have made the biggest difference, like text messaging.

“I have 13 people working in total and I can text-message instructions…. It lets me run my night crew, too, so if I’m in bed sleeping they can leave me a text and wake me up without waking up the rest of the family,” Kennedy says.


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Debbie Carlson has focused on commodities for much of her writing career. She spent more than a decade at Dow Jones covering the Chicago-based futures exchanges. As a Dow Jones editor, she worked closely with The Wall Street Journal and Barron's in planning commodities coverage.

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