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Crop Tech Tour: Conservation tech trends

Agriculture.com Staff 12/21/2009 @ 1:28pm

Farmers are discovering new tools and ideas to help them do a better job with soil and water conservation, according to findings from the Crop Tech Tour. The move to precision ag equipment was top of mind this year for a lot of farmers -- at a time when conservation is benefiting from the new technologies.

The trend in precision agriculture leaned heavily to autosteer, according to an Agriculture.com poll. In the online survey, 44% of farmers rated autosteer as the most useful of their new tools. Row and partial boom controls were second at 17%, followed by data recording and mapping (12%), variable-rate application (12%), and implement guidance (11%).

"GPS is good, but...autosteer is the best," says a North Dakota farmer participating in the survey. "It sure saves cash with no overlaps or skips on any operation – whether it's cultivating, spraying, seeding, or anything."

In the attachments department, planter add-ons are attracting a lot of attention, says David Moeller, who owns a machinery repair business in Washington County, Iowa.

"What we're seeing mostly is growers going more to nitrogen applied with the planter," he says. "That's probably the hottest topic right now." Moeller helps farmers determine the best set of equipment to use -- openers, tanks, pumps, and other parts -- for getting liquid nitrogen set up on the planter.

"We're trying to help farmers decide what works best on a particular planter," Moeller says. "Some planters are easier to set up than others."

One of his innovations is a planter liquid fertilizer knife design for a single-disk opener. With his modification, the knife is moved back on the unit so it injects liquid below the surface level and in the slot. The design reduces wear, decreases splatter, and eliminates plugging, he says.

Several field days across the Midwest last summer demonstrated new ideas in conservation drainage On one leg of the Crop Tech Tour at a demonstration farm near Crawfordsville, Iowa, experimental drainage structures were in the spotlight.

The structures feature a control box that lets you raise and lower the outlet with moveable boards.

The control structures allow you to drain the root zone for fieldwork and planting in the spring and to conserve soil moisture for crop use in the summer. A few weeks prior to harvest, the outlet is lowered to allow drainage.

Yield impacts are promising. In Illinois last year, one 160-acre test field produced a 20% increase in corn yield.

Assuming a 5% yield boost, a net payback of $21.95 per acre is possible from installing a full conservation drainage system with new tile lines and control structures, says Leonard Binstock, director of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition.

Another new conservation drainage practice seen on the Tour was the tile line bioreactor. A bioreactor consists of a trench filled with a carbon source such as wood chips. As tile line water flows through the bioreactor, microorganisms break down the nitrate and expel it as a gas. The first bioreactor in Iowa, installed a year ago, has cut nitrate concentrations by 60% to 70%.

The bioreactor seen under construction on the Tour -- a 12x100-foot structure -- cost about $7,000 for the control structures, wood chips, fabric, and contracting work.

Cover crops were found to be gaining ground this year. "It's not a new practice, but no-till growers are excited about what they are seeing, especially on poorer soils," says Dan Towery, Ag Conservation Solutions, Lafayette, Indiana.

"The increase from five years ago is through the roof," he says.

Kansas grower Josh Lloyd this summer showed the Tour his use of no-till with a mix of cover crops (turnip, radish, and canola) in a sorghum-wheat rotation. "The reason I planted a cover crop is it's going to be nine months until a crop is planted here again, and I want to build and maintain the soil and protect it from erosion while keeping the biology active," Lloyd says.

Besides maintaining a healthier soil structure, Towery says an effective system of cover crops will help trim fertilizer costs while boosting yields. "Cover crops break up compaction, scavenge (or fix) nitrogen, reduce soil erosion, and improve soil biology," he says. "These can lead to reduced fertilizer inputs and higher yields."

Farmers are discovering new tools and ideas to help them do a better job with soil and water conservation, according to findings from the Crop Tech Tour. The move to precision ag equipment was top of mind this year for a lot of farmers -- at a time when conservation is benefiting from the new technologies.

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