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Technology improves with more corn acres

ULEN, Minn. -- Corn: It seems to drive much of the change in agriculture these days. Experts say farmers are tapping into the latest innovations in remote sensing and other precision farming techniques.

This year, a France-based company called GeoSys Inc., is delivering in-season satellite images that farmers can use through their local co-ops for the first time. Producers and their co-op agronomists will know within three days whether their fields are showing strengths or weaknesses, such as areas of thinner or off-colored crop development. Farmers connected through local co-op agronomists to Land O'Lakes subsidiary Winfield Solutions LLC can use the information as a diagnostic tool.

West Central Ag Services of Ulen, Minn., is a prime example. The organization operates in a 100-mile radius of Ulen, with a dozen agronomy locations.

Brad Fronning, the co-op's precision ag manager, says farmers can use the in-season satellite imagery and Winfield's R7 Tool to select hybrids and plant populations for future years, especially in an age of variable-rate seeding and application technology.

A significant step

Fronning was involved in the pilot program for the release of the R7 Tool. The "R" stands for right and the "7" stands for the seven factors -- genetics, soil type, population, cropping system, traits, plant nutrition and crop protection -- that go into a successful crop.

Brittany Ullrich, a regional R7 specialist for Winfield, puts it this way: "We've found that today's innovative farmers are eager to apply data and technology."

Fronning and Ullrich say remote sensing is an evolving science that allows farmers to capitalize on technology they already own.

The majority of farmers today have yield monitors in their combines, Fronning says. They get some value from simply seeing the data flash on the screen but most could do more with the numbers. In some cases, the farmers don't save the data they need and in other cases, they save it but don't go back and look at it to compare varietal results, or otherwise improve their production practices that could turn that data into dollars.

Sometimes the farmers don't know how to pull the data off yield monitors to bring it into their office computer to actually look at the maps and try to determine what's happening.

In-season images from satellites are pegged to specific dates, starting June 1, but are collected from within a time window seven days before or after that date. The next pegged date would be June 15, and there is no overlap. The final image for the season is collected around July 1.

"They keep taking the pictures until they get one clear picture with zero cloud cover that meets the specifications," Ullrich says. In the fall, those images go into the R7 Tool for use in subsequent years.

Fronning and other trained co-op personnel download the images and use computerized calculations and algorithms to estimate yields, map soil variability and set up management zones. An individual farm's field data is overlain on the satellite imagery, putting data on a map carousel that samples from two wet years and two dry years during a 10-year period.

Fronning also works with another group that takes aerial imagery, but the cost and uncertainty of scheduling airplanes is more time-consuming and tedious than getting the GeoSys images from Winfield. He says Winfield images take just a couple of clicks of a button.

Cleaning the data

Fronning says cleaning yield data using computer software is the key to prevent it from skewing the analysis.

"You'll hear someone say that they hit 250 bushels (an acre of corn) on their yield monitor, but it may be in one spot on that field," Fronning says. "Maybe it's going through a ditch bottom where you had to slow down, so it slowed the movement of the grain going through the harvester, showing more grain coming in than there actually was."

Fronning says the first time he pulled up a yield map, it was obvious to him that it needed cleaning.

For example, a red color, which signifies low yield on the map, is suspicious if it appears as a streak. "That data isn't relevant to this field because you have good yields on either side of it," he says. "Something was happening with the machine or they were taking a half a header's width of grain, or something, so it's incorrectly showing as a lower yielding area. That's all data that corrupts the rest of the field."

So Fronning starts by doing queries of "yields equal to zero bushel." "And there are very few areas in a field that are equal to zero bushel," he says. Conversely, it is unlikely in much of Fronning's trade area that corn yields could exceed 250 bushels per acre, so those, too, are dumped. "I do have some clients in our southern territory where they do have the potential for yields over 250, so you have to do it on a farm-by-farm, field-by-field basis."

Pushing, pulling

Five years ago, only about half of West Central's clientele used its yield monitors to collect data and improve techniques, Fronning says. "(The rest) wanted it so they could see what their fields were doing." But three months later, it is difficult to remember what spot of the field was doing well, or which variety was performing the best.

Today, he estimates that about 75 to 80 percent of farmers are trying to use the data at a stepped-up level. Of those, 40 to 50 percent may be making decisions based on cleaned-up data. Some growers have their own software to interpret the information. Others go to Fronning and colleagues for help.

"Now, most of the growers I'm doing yield data for bring me their data cards in November and December and say, 'When you get a chance, could you get this clean so I can see what's going on?' They've realized that it does make a difference in their decision-making."

Co-ops have varying charges for their high-tech services, including data cleaning. If the data is poorer, it can cost more, Fronning says.

"Better data means getting yield monitors calibrated for moisture, the flow meter so it's reading the correct amounts," Fronning says. "The equipment has a header on- and off-switch so that when they raise it, it shuts off, and when they lower it, it turns back on. You can see that if you're reading 'zeroes' too far into a pass, then it's not set quite right. Their delay is off."

Precision expansion

All of West Central Ag's agronomists have access to Winfield programs for satellite imagery information. A few are doing their own exporting of variable rate planting and fertilizer maps. So far, Fronning is the only one doing the yield data cleaning work.

Agronomists who use the R7 Tool have the ability to make variable rate seeding and fertilizer maps, which are put on a flash drive for the grower. Only a few are actually doing that so far.

Fronning, who has been doing yield data work for about seven years, says he gets a lot of calls from growers. "How do I do this? How do I make a prescription? How do I import my yield map? How do I export it? What can I do with this?" he says.

Increased adoption of the technology could come quickly, but it won't be instant.

"You always hear GPS/auto-steer as the best technology that growers have ever accepted," Fronning says. "It's easy. It's push a button twice and the tractor or combine steers itself. This is a little more involved, with transferring data from one computer onto a card into another computer, off the card, into a software program and actually working with the numbers. Not all growers are comfortable doing that."

Fronning expects a shift to younger farmers who carry around smart phones, iPods and iPads within seven to 10 years.

Learning, scouting tool

Fronning promotes R7 primarily as a learning tool, rather than an income tool.

"If we've got a low-yielding area of this field, what is the grower's thought about why?"

Scouting can reveal water problems, zinc deficiencies or other issues. "You can pull tissue samples to get it diagnosed: Why are these plants yellow, why are these plants purple?" The information may have its biggest impact in two or three years, when the same crop comes back into rotation. "I'm not going to use an in-season image of a field I have not physically been in," Fronning says. "If I have water issues in my corn, and I plan to go to beets next year though, I might want to do something about this water issue this fall so I don't have a water issue on my beets." Ditto if there is a correctable weed control problem, which otherwise might not be visible until harvest.

Winfield has access to extensive hybrid data and hybrid placement on fields, which gives it a strong standing in the marketplace, Fronning says. A wholesaler of crop services, Winfield has more than 250 Answer Plot showcase locations nationwide, as well as research addressing issues such as low-cost treatment, rotation and more.

Often, Fronning breaks fields into three to five zones for planting. The producer sets planting population to fit with the fertility levels. The rule of thumb is that corn planting rates must vary more than 2,000 to 3,000 plants per acre to show a significant difference. With fertilizer, however, a field can have as many as 255 zones or treatment levels. "It's easier to manage fertilizer variations than it is to vary planting populations, just because of the application equipment," he says.

Ultimately, the goal is to increase yield or simply shift inputs to the most profitable areas.

"Anytime you have multiple variables out there, it can be hard to pinpoint which one is causing your decrease or increase in yield," Fronning says. "But that's where having the R7 Tool allows us a better understanding."

The hybrid is fitted to the soil type and then crop protection against insects and diseases are addressed. "Now we're getting down to, is it our fertility? Our population? We can start narrowing it down by matching what we know works together."

Fronning thinks farmers are going to need every bit of technology they can acquire to help feed a hungry and expanding world population. Companies such as Monsanto famously have promoted their goal for 300 bushels an acre for a national average corn crop by the year 2030. "Genetics are only going to get us so far," Fronning says.