When drought destroyed the Oklahoma corn crop two years in a row, farmers were optimistic that the winter wheat that followed would be the bright spot. Yet, what was lurking in the soil tipped the scale in the wrong direction.
“Normal corn yields here are 100 to 120 bushels per acre. In a really good year, we’ll see 150,” says Brent Rendel, who farms in Miami, Oklahoma. “During the drought, most yields were in the 20- to 40-bushel-per-acre range. Many planted their wheat into that and did not account for the residual nitrogen left over from the failed corn crop.”
As a result, large portions of wheat fields fell flat.
“Because of nitrogen carryover and mineralization, farmers who continued to apply the standard amount of fertilizer found much of their wheat fields lodging because of over- application, which resulted in lower yields, lower quality wheat, 60% slower harvest speeds, and more wear and tear on the combine,” says Neil Martin, a solutions specialist with Record Harvest.
Concerned the cycle would repeat itself, farmers turned to technology for a solution.
“It was the perfect storm in that they had seen the disaster the year before and were attempting to avoid that same issue,” notes Martin. “Crop sensors were an option to better assess how much nitrogen was out there.”
Popularity of the technology began exploding in September 2012. Within a nine-month period, Martin sold eight complete Trimble GreenSeeker systems (which cost between $16,000 and $20,000 each) and 25 handheld versions that have a price tag of about $500.
As one of the initial testers (and eventually an owner of a full GreenSeeker system and a handheld device), Rendel has been using the technology since its inception more than a decade ago.
“Brent has played a huge part in the validation of the technology,” says Brian Arnall, Oklahoma State University precision nutrient management Extension specialist. “He helped us learn so much about the technology and how to adapt it.”
Yet, Rendel admits he was initially skeptical.
“The very first time I used crop sensors on a 110-acre field, it called for zero nitrogen,” he recalls.
Rendel was being told his ground needed no nitrogen, and the recommendation was coming from an Extension agent who had just learned the system.
“I asked him to redo the reading a couple of weeks later because I didn’t believe the results,” he recalls.
“Crop sensors go against everything you’ve been taught about applying nitrogen,” notes Arnall. “You know the plant needs nitrogen and that it’s the most limiting factor. Now you’re being told that it needs nothing. That can’t be because you always fertilize.”
When the second reading came back as zero again, Rendel let it go. “It was just one field,” he notes. “What’s the worst that could happen.”
While his crop turned out fine, that willingness to take a risk allowed him to learn from the latest technology.