Letter from Langdon: Cyber-Farm Monday

These days, the right tool for the farming job may be a GPS signal, a high-tech attachment for the combine, or data on a specific patch of ground. While we know more than ever, farming still has its mysteries, explains our cyber-farmer.

 

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Cyber Monday isn’t only good for shopping. It can be good for reading too.

Like two stories today in the New York Times. One was about climate. And the other was on high-tech farming – cyber-farming.

Obviously climate has been a big deal to farmers … like … for always. Here in the Missouri River valley outside of Langdon, the flood of 2011, even the flood of 1993, pointed that out to me. But climate change is about more than flooding and drought. That’s because this year, after a cold and snowy winter, we had 90-plus degree days in the spring followed by 70’s in the summer, all interspersed with freaky frosts and huge storms that didn’t just drop an inch or two of rain at a time, but five.

Here on our weather-challenged farm, we’ve used technology, cyber-farming, for almost 20 years now. We got the first GPS-capable combine in 1997 and did the first site-specific lime application on the home place in 1998. To my knowledge, ours was the first farm in our area to use this technology to apply powdered limestone, which neutralizes solid acidity. And we’ve applied site-specific phosphorous and potassium – mineral nutrients crucial to crop production – and other trace elements for years.

(Site-specific means growing crops on fields according to a plan that maximizes productivity on every acre while minimizing production costs and danger to the environment from over fertilization.)

But as Dad once pointed out to me, most of our bottomland soils are very rich in nutrients, with or without supplemental treatments. Even so, with soil and fertility maps, fertilizers and yield data, much remains a mystery. This year, in spite of late frost, heavy rains, high wind and long dry spells, our plant stands were all good to excellent. Ironically it was gumbo – heavy, black soil not known to be particularly forgiving or rewarding – that seemed to be superior to better soils except where there was too much moisture for too long.

This year we had sudden-death syndrome in soybeans – on the good dirt of all places. Sudden death is unpreventable and untreatable, related to cold, wet soil in June, and doesn’t appear until late in the life cycle of the plant just prior to maturity in August. That appearance probably cost, overall, about 10 bushels per acre in most of our soybean fields. Combine cyber-readings measuring the crop showed it to be a 20- to 25-bushel hit in some spots. At $10 per bushel, cost was upwards of $200 on every acre affected. Wind also played a factor in our soybean yields by laying some plants down flat on the ground, making them difficult to gather.

New to us this year, a harvesting head for soybeans called a draper. (Combines use an array of attachments to harvest different crops with the same machine.) The draper saved many soybeans in the field and improved quality by doing less damage to the grain.

As with all new machinery today, it was expensive, about $60,000. But that alone could easily have added two bushels or $20 per acre to our gross income.

On 1,000 acres of soybeans, that’s $20,000 more income.

But technology still does not really allow us to compare field or quality loss from one year to the next. Those things are difficult to pinpoint and track. That’s because someone would need to count it manually.

The world really needs a cyber-crop-loss-counter.

“Look, ma.” Using GPS-guided steering systems leaves farmers free to monitor equipment and spot potential trouble.
Corn yield this year was solid. I have never picked a crop like it. If not for scattered wind damage and ponded areas where yields dropped, (as on one field which is very wet, and this year challenged by a corn disease called Goss’s Wilt), we might have had more.

Does that sound greedy?

Like our soybean-harvesting head, a corn-harvesting head made by a company in Eastern Europe called Drago actually saved the day by gathering more ears and grain than our older, domestically manufactured harvesting heads would have.

It always helps to have the right tools for the job, even if they don’t connect to the Internet.

It’s a cold Cyber Monday today. But after Thanksgiving the ground thawed, and I was able to apply anhydrous ammonia to some river bottom fields.

Anhydrous ammonia is a source of nitrogen that benefits grass crops like corn.

My farm tractor is connected to GPS satellites overhead. It uses them to steer itself in a straight line on perfect 37 1/2 foot wide swaths while the conservation-friendly, no-till ammonia applicator’s control box uses the same satellites to determine proper application rates. All as I sit on a heated driver’s seat in a climate-controlled cab watching for problems, ready to turn the machinery around at the end of the field for another pass.

Anhydrous ammonia boils at minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why it is stored in pressurized tanks, because most of the time in the Midwest it’s boiling hot. Warmer temperatures also make it easier to apply because constant vaporization inside the tank pushes liquid out. From there it is kept out of the air and injected directly into the soil where it binds to clay particles. As weather warms in spring, bacteria turn it into nitrogen that plants can use.

But ammonia can’t be applied when temperatures are too cold or when the ground is frozen.

That’s why this cyber farmer has the day off on cold Cyber Monday.

In light of all that, after reading Cyber Monday’s New York Times articles, I have to say that where row crops are concerned, even the New York Times knows modern farming techniques are important to maintaining efficient productivity, provided new cyber tools don’t break the bank.

But down here on the cyber farm, no matter how high tech we become, it’s plain to me that information gathering will never be complete until we can gather site specific data on weather before it happens.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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