High-Tech Junkie

Early Adopter Evaluates Equipment Technology for Efficiency, Return on Investment

Steve Anderson, Beaman, Iowa, uses an iPhone and four iPads to monitor weather stations, drone software, home security, farm publications and weather data on various fields, as well as other farm-management operations. (Progressive Farmer photo by Bob Elbert)

Steve Anderson is an admitted tech junkie. He's usually the first farmer in his area to try new equipment technology. But, it must first improve efficiency and contribute to the bottom line before it's embraced on his central-Iowa operation.

Anderson, who grows around 3,500 acres of commercial corn, seed corn and soybeans, near Beaman, was one of the area's first growers four years ago to adopt the John Deere Machine Sync system. The system simplifies unloading grain on-the-go by allowing the combine operator to control the speed of the tractor pulling the grain cart.

He has the system on two tractors with grain carts. "I wouldn't be without it, and I never spill any grain," Anderson said. "I can't believe more people don't use the system." The initial cost was an estimated $15,000. The second system was around $8,000 because it didn't require buying more software.

Efficiency is one area on which Anderson focuses when evaluating technology. "Before we had Machine Sync and unloading on-the-go, I would always slow down the combine in order to have enough power and speed left to catch up to the grain cart if it was getting ahead of me," he explained. "That's far less efficient because you're not running the same amount of material through the machine. It would take a statistician to figure it out [return on investment]. I just know it saves me money. The more work I can get done per hour, the less cost per acre."

TESTING TECHNOLOGY

Anderson said he learns about technology through a lot of reading -- mostly articles on the internet and in farm magazines. But, he's also a member of the John Deere advisory board. "I get to know about some stuff before a lot of people do. I get to try new technology during the testing phase due to my contacts with the engineers."

When auto-steer was commercially introduced, Anderson was the first farmer to which his dealership offered it. The next tech he jumped into was implement guidance. "It has been the best thing we've ever done as far as keeping things lined up," he explained.

For six years, Anderson has used Ag Leader's OptRx system when sidedressing nitrogen. It uses an ultraviolet camera that senses the reflection of light, measures the amount of chlorophyll in the plant and adjusts the rate of nitrogen application on-the-go.

The variable nitrogen rates are based on soil type, fertility levels and yield maps from the previous year. "This usually results in putting similar amounts of nitrogen across the field but with more in some areas and less in others," Anderson explained.

In years where nitrogen loss and uptake are normal, the system calls for less nitrogen. "The first year, we applied 20 pounds less nitrogen than we had budgeted," Anderson pointed out. "However, the norm in the last couple years is that we are using about 10 to 20 pounds more than budgeted."

He attributed that to heavier rainfall events, which seem to move nitrogen into places less accessible to the plant, signaling the plant to indicate it needs more nitrogen. "We are not 'saving' on nitrogen, but we are not reducing the crop's potential by starving it of nitrogen either," Anderson added. "Our increased return doesn't come from saving nitrogen but from increased yield that wouldn't be realized without the extra nitrogen."

FASTEST PAYBACK

After experimenting with variable planting rates, Anderson fully adopted the practice in 2016. Precision Planting's DeltaForce hydraulically adjusts downpressure on individual rows across the planter. Electric-driven seed meters (Precision Planting vSet 2 and vSet Classic) are on a White 8824 and Kinze 3600 SDS Drive planter, respectively.

"In corn, we averaged 1,000 to 2,000 fewer seeds per acre with the variable-rate planting," he noted. "We usually plant around 37,500 seeds per acre, and the average population with the variable rate, depending on the field, was closer to 35,500 seeds. This, and the OptRx nitrogen system, doesn't always save me product. But, the system puts the seed where the greatest return will be realized."

In soybeans, Anderson believes the variable-rate planting system saves seeds, lowering his overall seed planted by around 15%.

"The precision equipment we have added is going to be some of the fastest payback I've ever had on technology," he noted. "I never experienced the perfect 'picket fence' stand until I went to the electric driven meter and the hydraulic DeltaForce downpressure system. Corn emerges much more evenly. Tassel emergence occurs across the field within just a few hours. These things quickly add up to top-end yield potential."

For crop scouting, Anderson utilizes a drone, his second one. Weather issues in 2015 were enough to justify the cost. "A windstorm blew down a lot of the corn crop," he pointed out. "I have green snap and wind damage insurance. We prescouted with the drone, and I was able to show the adjuster photos of the field."

IMPULSE PURCHASE

Anderson admitted he likes "cool" gadgets that may not always pencil out. "But, it's usually a relatively small investment, like the drone. I can't put a cost benefit to it, but it was around a $5,000 investment, which is a breaking point for me. If you get above that, you really need to start justifying it."

What are his top technology picks? Anderson says precision-planting equipment followed by combine guidance with row sensors because of the amount of reduced stress.

FUTURE TECH

When daydreaming about new technology, Anderson thinks of tillage implements that automatically set depth and levelness. He would like to see drones that self-map without having to drive the field. He'd also like to see optical sensors that apply a post herbicide as needed right on the weed. "It's there now for high-value crops, but it is pricey."

Attaching hydraulic hoses can be a nightmare, noted Anderson, who believes single-point connectors for planters would be a big improvement. "My combine has a single-point connector, why not the planter?"