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Climbing the precision ag technology mountain

Adrenaline pumps through his veins. Sweat beads roll down his forehead. As he inches his way toward the summit, a hard day's work is apparent on Will Masteller's calloused hands. With each pass conquered, he is one step closer to a more efficient operation.

For three seasons, the Selby, South Dakota, farmer has ascended the precision ag technology pinnacle, thanks to a project created by Trimble. The initiative shows that a smaller grower like Masteller, who farms around 1,500 acres, can realize his operation's true peak by climbing the mountain of precision ag technology. As he scales the wall, his end goal is clear – always look where you're going rather than where you've been.

“If you're not looking ahead, you're falling behind,” says Masteller.

The technology has tested his endurance, strength, and agility. He now recognizes that knowledge of the right techniques is crucial to ascension. Like all climbers, Masteller makes this journey through eight carefully planned steps.

Step 1: Do your research

For nearly 10 years, the only piece of precision ag equipment Masteller had on his farm was a TeeJet lightbar for his sprayer.

“With just 1,500 acres, I didn't believe the technology would pay for itself,” recalls Masteller.

That all changed in the 2010 season when he tested a more comprehensive precision ag package. But Masteller didn't enter this expedition blindly. He discussed each piece of technology and talked about the ways it could impact his operation with then Trimble representative Chad Pfitzer.

“I had a lot of questions when I was first approached about this project,” Masteller says. “With what technology would they be outfitting my equipment? Would it be compatible with my older equipment? How much was it going to cost? How long would it take to see a return on investment? How could I involve my agronomist? Basically, what was I getting myself into?”

Step 2: Assess yourmental strength

While Masteller researched the project, he also came to understand that this was not a process that would transform his operation overnight, and it was no small undertaking. It would take time and a commitment on his part to endure the ups and downs of installing and learning new technology.

“The biggest challenge has been installing the hardware. Some of the hydraulics were a bugger. But after working out some software bugs, everything has gone pretty smooth,” he says. “If I'd left well enough alone, I'd have had hardly any issues. The tinkering and adding pieces was what got me into trouble.”

Since the closest technician is about an hour away, much of the support is done over the phone.

“And there is always a wait when ordering parts,” he notes.
Like many mountaineers, he has learned valuable lessons since he began his ascension. For instance, he's dropped his specialty crops to focus on corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Step 3: Acquire the gear

With the installation of an RTK base station near Selby, the process began to unfold. Masteller's Magnum tractor was equipped with Trimble's FmX display, Autopilot, and two receivers with GLONASS correction capability. The TrueGuide system was installed on his tractor to pull an implement along a more accurate line without additional steering hardware. TrueGuide measures the position of the implement relative to the AB line, and it moves the tractor left or right to guide the implement to the line.

“The major pieces – Trimble and Precision Planting – have stayed the same,” he says. “What has changed are the added pieces and the fine-tuning of existing pieces.”

For example, he has placed a Trimble yield monitor on his John Deere 9650 STS combine.

“The beauty of an FmX display is that it's easy and relatively inexpensive to add features and to move it from cab to cab,” he says. “What I don't like is the calibration procedure and the position of the yield sensor eye on the clean grain elevator. It's too close to the belt and screams ‘catastrophic failure.’ ”

But he adds that the maps are invaluable.

Step 4: Get training

One of the key components in making the successful transition from a novice climber to a seasoned scaler is training. In Masteller's case, that included inputting and sorting through the data that comes with all this technology.

“Farm Works is a very intense product,” he says. “You can't just pop it in and go. You can get a little out of it, such as importing your maps to layer them and do analysis, which is very valuable. Or you can dive all the way in and do a very professional job running every aspect of your business. What it takes is someone in your operation to make it his. Take classes and stick with it. If you don't have the patience or the time for it, there are professionals who will input the data for you.”

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Step 5: Plan your first climb

During his first season on the trail, Masteller had the critical pieces of hardware and software in place.

Yet, before his boots were even laced up, he saw the expedition wouldn't be possible without the installation of an RTK base station.
“RTK is the backbone of my operation,” says Masteller. “With it, I'm able to optimize each component to its fullest potential. With the reduction in fuel, equipment hours, and fatigue, I can make everything run as efficiently as possible. With the ability to plant perfectly straight rows and reuse AB lines, I reduce the amount of crop that I run over with my sprayer.”

In fact, he believes in this technology so much he has installed five additional RTK base stations around the Dakotas.

Chad Pfitzer, who represented Trimble as part of Masteller's project, recalls the juncture. “I approached Matt Hesse, who at the time was the Trimble North American sales manager for agriculture, with the idea of reflashing (used 432 rover receivers converted to Ag900 RTK bases) a number of trade-up units to be repurposed as fixed RTK base stations by Will at locations at his discretion.”

If Masteller felt like there was potential to promote RTK-level systems, Trimble needed to be able to reciprocate that effort by expanding high-accuracy coverage out from Selby into neighboring communities.

“We contacted Precision Ag Solutions and Titan Machinery to make sure we weren't interfering with anyone's expansion plans,” says Pfitzer. “No one raised any objections, so we shipped five reflashed units to Will. There was some cost incurred by him in purchasing weather enclosures, cabling, and lightning protection.”

  • Break-even projection – 5 years
  • Break-even reality – 2 years

Whatever subscriptions Masteller sells off those sites are intended to go back into the project to help him make upgrades or to buy additional precision ag equipment.

Another piece of technology that helped transport Masteller up the mountain was connected to his planter.

“When Precision Planting makes the claim that its products will cut cost and improve yield, I believe it,” Masteller says. “I see the effect it has on the quality of job I did. As RTK has improved the quality of job the equipment has done, it has improved the quality of job I do.”

Indeed, shifting from looking forward to evaluating current performance makes him a better, more efficient manager, he says.

“I no longer just toss my inputs onto the field. Now I analyze each input and how it can be optimized,” he notes.

At the onset of this adventure toward the peak, original calculations showed that Masteller's $75,000 investment would pay for itself in about five years.

“I believe in just two years I have recouped my initial cost of investment – and then some,” he says. “With the addition of each new piece, the more valuable RTK gets.”

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Step 6: Keep improving your skills

“I recently bought a John Deere 4720 self-propelled sprayer and modified it to detach the spray bar and quick-attach a Yetter nitrogen coulter bar for side-dressing corn,” he explains. “To all of this I added a GreenSeeker that can be used on both the spray bar for stream barring 28% onto wheat and on the nitrogen bar for side-dressing 28% into corn.”

With such a large investment in the sprayer, he wanted to utilize it as much as possible.

“Traditionally, I would broadcast 46-0-0 in the spring at a flat rate and accept a nitrogen loss to volatilization and leaching,” he says. “I thought, what the plant uses it uses, and what is left, oh, well. Now I have the power to apply just the amount of nitrogen the plant needs when it needs it.”

By using 28% with the GreenSeeker, on average, he is saving 30 units of nitrogen per acre over broadcasting 46-0-0.

“Using the GreenSeeker vs. applying a flat rate of 28%, I saved almost 10 gallons per acre. Plus, I can collect normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) maps to monitor its growth and as-applied maps to monitor expense.”

Because of this, he is able to rethink nitrogen's role.

“Instead of figuring out how many pounds of product I need to obtain a yield goal, I now look at the growing degree days and stage of growth to determine how many units of nitrogen are needed for a median NDVI number on a nitrogen-use efficiency graph to obtain maximum yield.”

He adds, “In the wheat, there is no downside. In the corn, the downside is I run over some corn when I turn around at the end of the field.”

GreenSeeker cost him $16,000. The Yetter toolbar had a price tag of $16,000 with an additional $18,000 for the install.

“The install shocked me,” says Masteller. “Yetter thought it would only take $6,000. There wasn't much for instructions when the bar was delivered, and it wasn't assembled. However, I am hoping to offer this as a custom service to the area farmers to help recoup some cost.”

Before adopting precision ag, he would have an overlap when planting, an overlap when spraying, and the header wouldn't be as full when harvesting – about 10%.

“Take 10% times the cost of hiring it done for planting ($15 an acre), spraying ($5 per acre), harvesting ($35 an acre) and that equals a savings of $5.50 per acre for equipment, fuel, and labor costs,” he calculates.

He says the GreenSeeker alone saved him $10 an acre, for a total savings of about $15.50 per acre, or over $20,000 a year.

Step 7: Find a good guide

Fairly new to climbing, Masteller's original guides included agronomist Kari Salverson (Angel Crop Consulting), company representative Chad Pfitzer (Trimble), precision ag technician Troy McKown (Precision Ag Solutions), and software specialist Clint Chaffer (Farm Works).

Today, Salverson is the only one left from the original team. “Kari and I have been together a long time, and she still plays an important role in every agronomic decision I make,” he says. “She's great to work with and hungry for knowledge.”

On the technology side, Masteller says each piece of equipment has its go-to guy. “Knowing who you can turn to is crucial,” he says. “Experience and time will weed out the good, the bad, and the ones you click with.”

Masteller still uses Precision Ag Solutions in Aberdeen, South Dakota, as his base of support. “Tyrel Harbuck is the main person I deal with now. I like working with him because he is honest enough to say, ‘I don't know that answer, but I can find it for you or get you a number to call.’”

If it's a GreenSeeker question, he phones Russ Linhart. “Now there is someone who is excited about what he sells,” he says. “For everything else I have learned how to work the customer support hotlines. In fact, the folks at Farm Works know me by my first name.”

And he adds that, “The key is, when you find that technician who is still enthusiastic about precision ag, make him your friend and put him on speed dial. Yet, it's also important that I am still enthusiastic and try to figure it out on my own.”

Step 8: Arrive prepared

Once Masteller arrived at the top, he was already looking to the next challenge.

“I feel I have done all I can do to make my equipment as efficient as possible,” he says. “The next step is to make the data work for me. Whether it's for insurance purposes or for government programs, I believe I can use it for accountability.”

As Masteller climbed the precision agriculture mountain, he amassed a multitude of data. Yet he knew that once he reached the summit, he had to find a use for the yield data, which is the part many farmers struggle with.

“If you have collected yield data for years and haven't done anything with it, then it is useless,” he says. “You can analyze it by looking at the pretty colors, but you haven't done anything with it until you can make a change. Using variable-rate equipment is one way to make that change and utilize that yield data. I used yield maps and as-applied nitrogen maps to develop profit maps. I used this to determine that switching to 28% and using the GreenSeeker was a good decision.”

Although he hadn't harvested corn yet to collect that data, he plans to use it to analyze corn varieties.

“All in all, yield data has let me take a closer look at a field,” Masteller says. “Instead of looking at the whole piece of ground, I can look at a specific area. To use this, I am going to adopt some sort of variable-rate application.”

Be willing to climb any mountain

As his third season comes to a close, Masteller gears up for his next challenge. “I am always looking for the next thing that will give me an edge,” he says.

Experienced mountain climbers also know there will always be spots to traverse. You go up, change direction, and maybe even go down a stretch in order to continue to the top. Masteller is ready to scale any mountain to bring his operation to its true peak.

“From a business perspective, it's about trying to find ways to make and save money. That's what has kept me in business,” he says. “From a personal side, I have to do something to keep my interest because, after all, if I'm not looking ahead, I'm falling behind.” 

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