I’m always posting about what we do on the farm, but I never say much about what we are not doing. That makes sense, right? Of course it does. However, there are practices and equipment that I think we could be using or at least would like to use in the future.
Our crops certainly harness the power of the sun, but we aren’t gathering any of the sun’s power to light up our shop or to power the many electric motors that are an integral part of moving grain in and out of our storage facilities. Solar is something I need to do my homework on, and we should have a professional come out to take stock of what we are working with to determine whether or not solar would be a good fit. In my head I see solar panels on the roof of the tool shed helping to power the farm while reducing or eliminating our electric bills. Another key will be finding out if our electric company allows for us to be paid for excess power we might produce. There are programs in place to help fund a solar installation, and those combined with getting a check in the mail instead of a bill sounds great!
Planting Cover Crops Ourselves
Cover cropping is a practice we began using in the fall of 2012. A few of the many benefits of having living roots in the soil between cash crops are improved soil structure, greater nutrient retention, and greater erosion control. But as of now we are hiring out all the seeding which averages around $15/acre depending on whether we are hiring the neighbor to drill the seed or an airplane to fly it on before harvest. Obviously doing this ourselves would not be free or take no time so there are costs to be weighed. We need a drill or an air seeder which we don’t have currently. But I’m thinking if we continue to put more acres in no-till the time, equipment, fuel, and manpower we put into running a chisel plow over corn stalks in the fall may just as well be spent pulling a drill over those acres instead. We also don’t plant our own wheat, but the neighbor sure does a good job for us!
Buying a Sprayer
We hired out all our spraying of herbicides, fertilizer, insecticides, and fungicides just like we hire out our covers and wheat. Dad and I have sharpened our pencil on this a few times recently, and we break even at best on doing our own spraying. The way planting and sidedressing went this spring I’m kind of glad we aren’t trying to spray ourselves because we’d either be way behind schedule, or more likely would have paid for custom work anyway.
A self-propelled sprayer would be ideal, but a trailer sprayer wouldn’t be so bad. Or even a 3pt hitch setup with tanks mounted on a tractor. Those options would be cheaper on initial cost, but we would also have more hours on a tractor we already own. At one time we had an old John Deer highboy sprayer with no cab, but that was mostly for spot spraying.
There is also something to be said for a doing a job yourself. Handling our own spray applications would give us control over one more thing in an industry where variables seem endless when the weather is in play, but it just doesn’t pan out on paper financially. Two years ago buying a sprayer was pretty high on my list, but the more thought I put into it the lower it gets. More acres would make the dollars look better, but acres aren’t exactly cheap either. Another item to factor in is most custom applicators don’t have their spray equipment fitted with some of the precision ag tech we already own for planting and sidedress. With our own sprayer these would be easily fitted to allow for automatic shut offs for overlap areas to eliminate double application of pesticides. That would help our wallet and be environmentally friendly.
Grain Bin Monitors
We have a lot of high-tech gear on the farm. None of that gear is really involved in managing our stored grain. We have 150,000 bushels of on-farm storage. We do a fine job of storing grain properly at the right moisture so it will keep for several months. Often we are delivering the final loads of a stored crop right up until the harvest of the next crop starts. That’s just short of one year. However, we do hit a snag now and then. Just last week we had a bin quit running because some rotten crud was plugging up the unload auger. We got it running without much hassle, but we did have several hours of downtime. Last winter a simple mistake was made where we have one aeration fan servicing two bins. The fan was running to help aerate some soybeans, but the slide allowing air into that bin was never opened. This caused us a major headache trying to deliver soybeans grown for seed production on the seed company’s schedule. Some of the beans rotted and the bin stopped flowing. We had to go in and pretty much blindly poke and prod to get things flowing again. Two days were spent taking 3 hours to load each truck. It should take about 20 minutes to load a truck there.
A monitoring system would consist of cables hanging from the roof of a bin. The cables contain temperature and moisture sensors. With a system like this in place we could tell if a hot and/or wet spot was developing in a bin. We of course check on our stored grain periodically, but with an active sensor system in place a problem could be found earlier. Today’s monitor systems can also be viewed and control remotely from a computer, tablet, or smarthphone. Another benefit would be a system tied into the aeration fans. The brains of the system would run the fans only when the air in the environment is at the right temperature and humidity. This would take the guesswork out of knowing when or when not to run the fans.
Regular followers already know I have a small quadcopter we’ve started to use for the purpose of scouting our growing crops, and maybe to make cool YouTube videos. Right now I’m justing using a GoPro camera to capture regular videos and stills. We haven’t truly employed remote sensing yet. With remote sensing I’m referring to capturing imagery other than what can be seen with the naked eye. Thermal, infrared, and NDVI images can tell us much more about our farm than we can otherwise see from the ground or sky with our eyes or a standard camera.
Right now I’m content learning the ropes of getting a regular bird’s eye view of our fields with my Phantom 2 and GoPro, but in the near future I hope to step up our game. I guess I’m biding my time right now while waiting to see what new image capturing devices come out in this rapidly expanding marketplace. Like most technology sensors are going to get better and cheaper over time.
An eye in the sky flown over our crops on a regular basis can catch problems earlier and more reliably than scouting fields by walking. From the ground we might miss the beginnings of a disease, pest, or fertility issue even if we are just a few feet from the problem. From the air, changes in the health of a crop are quite evident. And instead of randomly scouting fields we could take to the air first and then walk directly to points of interest. In some cases we may reduce pesticide use by spot spraying problem areas discovered by aerial sensors rather than applying a blanket rate of herbicide, fungicide, or insecticide over an entire field. I’m very interested in taking imagery of our corn and using those maps to develop variable rate maps for post-planting fertilization of Nitrogen. So far we have been applying single rates to whole fields based on our yield goal for the particular field. In the future I plan on tailoring rates for several zones within each field where I may raise the rate to a high level in certain areas, and apply very low levels in other spots effectively placing nutrients where they are needed most. For 2014 we invested a sizable chunk of money in an applicator that is capable of carrying out variable rate prescriptions.
All the above practices we might incorporate into our farm share some traits. They are all efforts to increase our efficiency, profitability, and sustainability. We want to produce more with a good rate of return while doing our best to reduce inputs or least use those inputs in the most effective way possible.