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Using Tech to Maximize Inputs
There isn’t much waste on the 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat that Joel Armistead produces with the help of his son, Zach, near Adairville, Kentucky. In fact, with the exception of 150 acres that host a 122-acre center pivot unit, Armistead typically harvests three crops in two years. On the other hand, Armistead isn’t afraid to make an investment when it has the potential to increase yields.
One example of that occurred in 2008, when Armistead installed a 1,200-foot center pivot on a bottomland field and started irrigating out of a creek that runs around part of the farm. It turned out to be one of the best investments he ever made. Because of the drought that followed, that first pivot logged approximately 448 hours of operation between mid-June and the last of August, applying anywhere from .30 to .75 inch of water each time around.
Ironically, Armistead broke the 300-bushel yield barrier that same year for the first time in Kentucky history with a 305.9-bushel-per-acre test sample within his irrigated circle. Due in part to the success of that first pivot, Armistead added a second unit a year later. This time, he put in a towable unit that could be moved between two fields.
“I generally start it out on whichever field is in corn,” he explains, noting that he rotates crops between the two fields. “After the corn is well along, I’ll move it to the other field where I’ve planted no-till double-cropped soybeans behind wheat. Sometimes the timing is pretty close, but it generally works out.”
Fields aren’t idle between crops, either. The 150 acres with the permanent irrigation pivot has been corn-on-corn for the past five years. Yet, it has been planted with either barley or cereal rye after harvest as a cover crop since 2008.
On the rest of his acres, he plants wheat as soon as the corn comes off. Once wheat is harvested in June, he drills soybeans into the stubble in 7.5-inch rows. The following spring, it starts all over with corn. Consequently, half of the acres each summer will be in corn and the other half in wheat and soybeans.
It’s little wonder Armistead was one of the early adopters of swath control to reduce overlap with his crop sprayer and RTK guidance to reduce compaction during his many trips over the field.
“Sprayer control and AutoSwath were the coming thing at the time, so I ordered a Hardi sprayer, with four shutoffs instead of three, to cover the 60-foot boom and to reduce overlap,” he recalls.
Since that time, Armistead has also converted his planter for row shutoff and variable-rate control of both seed and the liquid nitrogen that is applied next to the row. He has a liquid potash and phosphate product that has been blended for his farm. It is variable-rate applied via an Ag Leader controller and monitor. For four years, everything from seed monitoring to automatic shutoff of seed and fertilizer has been controlled through a single display.
“Shortly after I got the planter set up, I bought a Lexion combine, which came with an Integra monitor,” he says. “I had intentionally ordered the combine with the steering valve. The first thing I did was buy a ParaDyme so I could have automated steering.”
Armistead notes that the system is particularly valuable when cutting wheat and soybeans with his 35-foot header.
“It’s hard to watch the outer ends of the header without overlapping,” he says. “It’s been a huge stress reliever. There have also been times when the wind has been behind me during soybean harvest that I could hardly see through the dust.”
However, he insists RTK has been just as valuable, if not more so, on the tractor. That’s because he uses the same set of tracks, or A-B lines, for spraying his wheat and the soybeans that follow.
“As a result, I’m not only reducing compaction, but I’m covering fewer acres due to the reduced amount of overlap,” he says, noting he also uses a track tractor on the sprayer.
Armistead cut his chemical loss even more in 2012 when he traded for a new Hardi Commander 4400I with a 90-foot boom that’s divided into nine 10-foot sections that are controlled with an Integra monitor. The Twin Force booms, which use air pressure to force the spray pattern down into the crop, also help reduce drift and chemical consumption.
“With that many sections, it would be impossible for a person to manually turn them on and off in time to cut down on any waste,” he insists. “With the swath-control feature, I make the first round on manual boom control and then I turn the automatic system on, and it does the rest.”
Considering the number of applications he makes each year, auto shutoffs save a substantial amount on chemicals and fertilizer. In fact, between the time it is planted and harvested, Armistead makes four or five trips over the wheat crop alone. That includes a minimum of two trips with liquid fertilizer, a herbicide/insecticide trip, and a fungicide/insecticide trip. Corn and soybeans, meanwhile, involve burndown passes, as well as postapplications of Roundup, since both crops are Roundup Ready varieties.
Armistead didn’t stop there. For the past several years, he has been spoon-feeding his corn crop with liquid nitrogen through the two center pivot units. When necessary, he also applies insecticides and fungicides through the pivot, which saved $10 to $12 per acre, compared with an aerial application.
“I’m using two different injection units,” he explains. “I use an Agri-Inject Insectigator III to apply a mix of fungicide and insecticide on corn-on-corn. The other is a 110-gallon fertigation system for split applications of nitrogen on corn.
“I’ve read articles that say 100 units of nitrogen is all the soil can retain for any period of time,” he adds. “Of course, there’s no way I could put on the 250 to 275 units of nitrogen that I apply during the season in one or two applications. So I’m applying almost two thirds of it through the pivot, so the plants get it when they need it most.”
Armistead applies about 15 to 16 gallons of liquid nitrogen on two different occasions, which typically fall on each side of wheat harvest.
The ability to variable-rate seed and fertilizer at planting time, he believes, has paid equal benefits. He has the numbers to prove it.