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The precision ag puzzle

04/06/2011 @ 10:49am

Like puzzle pieces spread out over a table, pulling together the components of precision ag technology can be a difficult task, especially if you believe it won't impact your bottom line. For larger growers, the pieces come together quickly. But for smaller growers, a piece or two can be missing, and that holds some farmers back from investing.

The cost piece, in particular, held up a South Dakota farmer from implementing more precision ag tools into his 1,500-acre operation. “My concern in investing in precision ag technology was the cost. I was afraid that because I was a small producer I couldn't justify it,” says Will Masteller, who farms near Selby.

So how do you convince small producers — whether they have 500 or 1,500 acres — that they can make this equipment pay?

Piece together a comprehensive precision ag package and let them test-drive it for an entire growing season. And that's exactly what Trimble did.

“We wanted to let smaller growers see how it transitions their whole livelihood — to prove that the dollars and cents make it on every farm,” says Troy McKown, Precision Ag Solutions.

For many, that's a huge commitment because precision farming is not just technology but rather several pieces to a puzzle — both in equipment and experts in the field. And all pieces need to work together in order to be successful.

“For our project, we had to find a grower who was willing to put it all on the line and change what he always knew,” says McKown. “We also had to have a grower who understood the technology, what he could expect from it, and what the capabilities and limitations were. We then incorporated ourselves as partners with other key players in the project to show how we could positively impact the bottom line.”

Working the puzzle

When working a puzzle, one of the first steps is locating the four corners. Trimble's project brought four key individuals together — a company representative, an agronomist, a software specialist, and a precision ag technician. With the key corners in place and a small farmer — Will Masteller — willing to fit the pieces together, the project began to take shape.

From the beginning, Masteller could tell this growing season would be different on many levels.

“Right away, I saw improvement in the quality of job I was doing as well as savings in inputs,” Masteller says. “Everything came out! I always had to overbudget inputs by 5%, but not anymore. I didn't have any overlap, so I didn't have any waste. I was also able to cut my chemical use by 3%.”

As the crop began to sprout up, McKown, Masteller, and the agronomist, Kari Salverson, say they could see a better plant stand and more uniform spacing.

Masteller feels he has a better grasp on how the individual corn varieties did. “This technology helped me see the best varieties to choose next year,” he says.

While a number of positives came from this year's project, there were no shortage of obstacles. For example, they tried to install the FmX display in the combine, but there were some technical difficulties. The display was sent out to be repaired, yet harvest still rolled around whether the display was fixed or not.

Those obstacles have not discouraged Masteller from forging ahead. “The most important lesson I've learned this season is that I have to keep the faith because this equipment does pay off,” he says.

Calculations show Masteller will see a return on his $75,000 investment in about five years.

Click on the puzzle pieces to learn more about how each person fits into this precision ag puzzle as the project enters year two.

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