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Crop Tech Tour: What worked in 2009

The 2009 crop year went down as a year of records -- record weather challenges, record lateness for planting and harvest, and despite it all, record crop sizes.

The record crop sizes are thanks, in large part, to the technology farmers are applying to their crops.

Here are 7 of the technology tools that helped farmers overcome Mother Nature's frequent tantrums to get the bins filled in 2009.

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GPS/RTK
Rick Poole had a much easier planting season in 2009 than the year before. In 2008 his southeastern Arkansas fields were hammered by hard, untimely rains. But that didn't mean his planting window was widened, and he planted a lot more corn in 2009.

That put a premium on his planting time. He made the most of what he had, however, by bringing along GPS and RTK technology in all his machinery. This allowed him to be more precise in the field from day one, maximizing efficiency from planting to harvest.

"Now we are planting with GPS, rolling up with GPS, and we'll come back with our combine this year and cut with RTK," Poole says.

Even after planting, farmers used GPS guidance to move them through the field, unearthing efficiencies that Tad Keller of Lake Village, Arkansas, never thought possible before he added satellite-guided swath control to his sprayer.

"I turned my swath control system on. And when I got done with an 80-acre field, I sprayed the equivalent of 78.8 acres," Keller says. "I had very little overlap, and it was due to my swath control pro unit. There's no human on earth who can get that efficient. You get maximum use out of chemicals."

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Precision planting
Rain delays also made for a tighter-than-normal planting window in the central Corn Belt last spring. Farmers like Jeff and Dave Overholt, who farm near Kouts, Indiana, didn't have the luxury of extra planting time. So precise planting helped them take advantage of the time they did have to plant.

"We use a lot of GreenStar parallel tracking. We concentrate on precision placement of the seed. I believe it's a very vital part of putting that seed in the ground," Jeff Overholt says. "It's not just about the right population; it's about the right placement."

And, the right placement is just what Kent Haring gets with his precision seed monitor when he plants corn and soybeans on his farm near Medaryville, Indiana. "This monitor senses seed skips and multiples, and it measures vacuum pressure on the planter. It also has global positioning system for our radar system," he says.

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Autosteer
Farmers first started using autosteer in the Tchula, Mississippi, area just for their sprayers. That's changed, says area certified crop adviser Jack Bridgers.

"All of our key growers use autosteer for hipping and planting as well as for other implements. They use autosteer on their spray rigs and harvest equipment, too," Bridgers says. "Most of our other growers are going in that direction as they upgrade their equipment."

The understanding of the technology is starting to outpace its actual adoption in the field. Moving forward, the latter will depend a lot on economics.

"Growers are not able to upgrade equipment as they would like, and they are being forced to cut corners to survive," Bridgers says. "These producers are all accepting the new technology, but simple economics will determine just how fast and the degree of its use."

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One-pass pest control
Kelley Kokemiller of Boone County, Iowa, switched his soybean herbicide program in 2009 to try to capture a few extra dollars he felt were being wasted with his old program.

"It ends up being a bit cheaper," Kokemiller says. "We tried a little of this last year, and it worked out real well. We got the sprayer hooked up with swath control this year."

Adding swath control added to Kokemiller's chemical savings in 2009. "So we're able to save some on the herbicide. It does a real nice job of putting the product where it belongs, preventing overlap," he says.

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Variable-rate fertilizer
One pass is also all it takes for Dustin Bollig's fertilizer applications on his Kossuth County, Iowa, farm. But it wasn't always that easy.

"We ran a straight rate across the field," Bollig says. "But in certain fields, we needed more P and K in places because of the differences in the pH of the soils."

Now, using a variable-rate system to put down his phosphorous and lime (both metered and distributed in independent quantities based on soil pH data gleaned from an Ag Leader Insight console) helped Bollig achieve a higher level of efficiency in 2009.

"By banding the fertilizer, we get more efficiency out of that fertilizer, and we've had very good luck with our trouble soils. Being able to variable-rate that P and K separately helps us to not waste fertilizer like we were before," Bollig says. "We can get it right next to the seed and help our lower-producing ground yield more because the fertilizer's not tied up in those high pH soils."

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Seed technology/traits
New trait technology helped farmers achieve yields in 2009 that they thought were out of reach just a few years ago. Dan O'Connor is one of them.

The Plattsburg, Missouri, farmer said new weed-protection traits in the soybean varieties he planted in 2009 helped him achieve yields that were "the best we've ever raised.

"This year, our lowest bean yield was 61 bushels, and the best was 82 bushels [per acre]," O'Connor says. "We're not really supposed to grow 60-bushel beans in this area, let alone 82."

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Smartphones
A gadget that started to gain traction in some farmers' toolboxes in 2009 is the smartphone. Van Wert County, Ohio, certified crop adviser Andy Kleinschmidt is starting to find and use more ag-specific applications for his smartphone.

"I use Excel Mobile for data collection, and I'm looking into a field station transmitter for recording soil and air temperatures, rain, and wind," Kleinschmidt says. "It allows me to get better and more timely information for decision making. Better information equals better decisions. Also, I don't need to go to the office to check e-mail. This helps to free up time to keep me in the field.

"I see a neat opportunity for farmers to snap a photo of a weed, bug, or plant lesion and immediately e-mail their agronomist for ID and recommendation from the field," Kleinschmidt says of future potential applications.

The 2009 crop year went down as a year of records -- record weather challenges, record lateness for planting and harvest, and despite it all, record crop sizes.

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