Jason Webster wants farmers to think outside the box, so he invites them to spend a few hours inside the box. The "sandbox," that is, a 40-acre playground at Precision Planting's Precision Technology Institute (PTI), where he hands them the keys and has the farmer climb into a tractor cab to get hands-on experience with the latest technology.
"If you want to buy a new pickup truck, you can go to your local dealer and ask for a test drive," says Webster, a Precision Planting commercial agronomist and director of the PTI site, a 300-acre agronomy research farm at Pontiac, Illinois. "It's not that easy to get hands-on experience before you make a major investment in equipment and technology for the farm. But here at the PTI farm, we provide a chance to experience such things as high-speed planting and down-force management. They plant with it and understand how the technology compares to the approach they are currently using on their farm."
Established in 2018, PTI supports 50 or more agronomy trials each growing season. This is in addition to the 40-acre sandbox that gets planted -- and replanted -- repeatedly during the farm's continuous "field days" that run from just after the 4th of July and continue until the start of harvest. That's usually mid-September, so Webster and his team host about 10 weeks of visits, with farmers coming from all over the U.S., in addition to hosting international visitors.
It's a research farm, no doubt about that, but Webster prefers to think of it as the place where the status quo can be challenged. "You may be doing things on the farm that granddad did, and the research here at PTI may confirm that you are doing the right thing," he points out. "But we need to compare that to a different way of doing things to see if we can produce higher yields -- or find an approach that produces higher profitability."
OUTSIDE THE BOX
In order to challenge the status quo, agronomic research at PTI looks outside the box. Some studies are only slightly outside the norm, such as comparing 20-inch rows with corn grown on 30-inch width; the studies get progressively more challenging to the status quo.
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What about dual-band nitrogen applied with the planter? What are the ideal settings for corn residue managers, comparing different settings for row cleaners using the CleanSweep technology? What about early soybean planting or using biodegradable film to cover corn rows in order to get a jump start in cold soils?
"We want to stimulate thinking," Webster adds. "We intentionally create issues in some of our plots so we can show our visitors, and have them step back and consider ways to fix the problem. Of course, we also like to have a few things that are really outside the box. My goal is to have visitors see something they've never seen before."
One big outside-the-box project at PTI in 2019 was the development of a water recycling program. "The PTI farm had no field tile because there was no outlet," Webster says. "We dug a 2.5-acre reservoir and pattern-tiled the farm, and then we set up a drip-tape irrigation system to bring back the water to the growing crops during the dry part of the summer."
The new system also provided another chance to learn, so part of the project was comparing 30-, 60-, and 120-foot tile spacings. "The 2019 season was one of the wettest ever, so we were thankful to have the system in place," he adds. "The early economics are providing some eye-opening numbers. The 30-foot tile spacing, based on 2019 results, would pay back in only five and a half years. We'll continue to monitor the system and update the economics, and we are planning to bring irrigation water back through tile lines in a project for 2020."
All the data from PTI studies creates a lot of information. The key to accessing information is to interact with your Precision Planting Premier dealer. The dealer can help line up a visit to the PTI farm during its field-day season, or can help find information you may be looking for from previous research. And for 2020, you can sign up for a video series called Inside PTI, (InsidePTI.com) which will deliver a couple of video summaries each week from studies at the farm.
A visit to the Precision Planting website, www.precisionplanting.com, also can help get you started with the video series.
Webster is excited about the opportunity to share the educational aspects of the farm even more widely in the future. "We are building a new facility here that will allow us to hold educational events all year long," he says. "It's our mission to bring people in and help them learn about the agronomic and technology developments that can help them be more successful."
DEALERS ASK QUESTIONS, FIND ANSWERS
Jerry Boeck is a Precision Planting Premier dealer in the western Corn Belt, an area known for its highly productive irrigated land. Bill Lehmkuhl serves as a Precision Planting Premier dealer in the eastern Corn Belt, where crops are raised in dryland conditions on tough clay soils.
They are located miles apart, but Boeck Seed Services, Exeter, Nebraska, and Lehmkuhl's Precision Agri Services, Inc., Minster, Ohio, have a few things in common. For one, they serve farmer-clients over a multi-county area; for another, they ask a lot of questions.
"When we work with our clients, we are trying to get a feel for the whole agronomic picture," Lehmkuhl says. "We walk fields, we dig roots. We tell farmers up front that we are going to be asking a lot of questions. We want to find the solution to the underlying cause of the problem, not just throw a product at it and hope it works."
Boeck echoes that sentiment, as he and his team try to drill down to find the agronomic aspect of a farmer-client's problem, then address that problem through education. "We spend a lot of time teaching," he says. "We discuss topics such as singulation, seed placement, downforce, and fertilizer placement. We're not high-pressure sales guys. We try to teach farmers how to get better with their equipment, and how to evaluate their equipment. Sales just follow that."
Some of the education takes on a formal aspect. Both dealerships host a variety of informational meetings throughout the year. Boeck offers an early spring clinic to refresh farmers on the performance of their Precision Planting 20|20 monitor; the dealership also hosted a dicamba training session over the winter months. Precision Agri Services also does monitor clinics and invites farmers to its on-site field day in summer months.
Lehmkuhl points out that both he and his team keep their hand in production agriculture. "We pride ourselves in having boots on the ground," he says. "We've often experienced the same problems our clients are having."
Boeck says listening is a key to his dealership's success. Constant contact with clients -- his firm runs three service trucks, so they have lots of opportunity to ask questions -- sparks ideas on future educational topics. "We're always listening," he says. "We learn what the needs are, and then we can provide the solutions to meet those needs."
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