Harvest technology in action

  • A hazy fall

    The air in the northern Corn Belt is bulging with dust as almost every combine is rolling, quickly getting this year's corn and soybean crops out of the field. It's a welcome set of circumstances for farmers in the area who have battled wet, cool, drawn-out harvest seasons the last 2 years.

  • Capture it all

    High technology's a common theme on a lot of farmers in the northern Corn Belt, like at Chris Weydert's place near Bode, just south of Algona, Iowa. This year, Weydert's testing a CaseIH combine that's integrated with a baler, which collects and bales the stover that would ordinarily be sent through the combine's spreader. Weydert is currently supplying the bales to the POET ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, where the company is testing cellulosic ethanol production.

  • More moving parts

    The combine runs at normal harvest speeds and kicks out a bale about "every half a pass around the field," Weydert says. To keep up with the pace, he's employing a Stinger bale truck, made in Haven, Kansas. The truck was retrieving bales from the field and stacking them at a nearby co-op to load and ship to the POET plant. "It's been ripping out acres," Weydert said this week of the system this week. "It's pretty impressive."

  • Loading up

    Chris Foster, here loading the baler with twine in preparation for its first trip around the field, is the lead engineer on the combine/baler prototype project. Working with heavy residue crops like corn is a challenge for the system, but this year's dry fall conditions have made it better able to keep up to speed. Foster, a New Zealand native, says this is the only machine of its kind in the U.S., but they're more common in Australia.

  • Keep an eye out

    The baler has 4 cameras mounted around it, all feeding into a monitor in the combine cab so the operator can keep an eye on all its moving parts. "There is a lot going on in the cab, but it's manageable, especially with the camera system," Foster says.

  • Running quickly

    Weydert says this year's harvest "feels like a vacation" after the last 2 years. He finished soybeans October 4 will finish corn ahead of schedule, too. "All in all, we're probably going to be down 10% in yields," he says of his corn acres. "We assumed the late-maturity beans were going to be way better, in record territory. They weren't quite that good, but were still very good."

  • Seed tech homework

    There's been a lot of yield variability in Weydert's fields this year, and that's got him thinking about some serious seed homework this winter. "We're going to spend a lot of time studying relative performance of hybrids," he says. "We've got to figure out what went wrong with some of them. The variability in this year's crop is staggering. We've got to figure that out going forward."

  • Managing data

    Working with Premier Crop Systems LLC out of West Des Moines, Iowa, Weydert says he's able to get more from the data his precision tools glean from each field. "In the past, we'd print out maps and try to make judgement calls," Weydert says. "Now, we can throw this all into a query, then see our top 10 performing hybrids, then see what seeding rates worked best and which are the most advantageous practices."

  • Parts of a value pyramid

    Each piece of technology on Weydert's farm -- whether precision ag tools, machinery or seed genetics -- fits into a "value pyramid" in which each separate piece drives the performance of others. "We're stacking technologies on top of each other. There's a value multiplier through that pyramid," he says. "We take a systems approach to this technology and building this system."

  • Moisture challenges

    It was awfully wet for most of this year on Stewart Ohrtman's farm near Ringsted, Iowa. That proved "real challenging to us" this year, he says. Despite that fact, he says yields have been fair -- corn's beel slightly lower than expected, but he's had "some of the best soybeans we've ever seen in this area" this fall.

  • Good seed pays off

    Technology-wise, Ohrtman says SmartStax corn and Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans were huge on his farm this year. "Roundup Ready 2 beans were quite frequently at the top of our plots. We felt in this area they were the real deal," Ohrtman says. "We're also fortunate to have SmartStax technology that allows us to use 5% refuge."

  • Getting the most bang for the buck

    Ohrtman feels high input costs justify more investment in precision technology, especially when it allows the farmer to get a clear picture of how things like drainage affect yields. "When you look at how many more dollars farmers handle these days, how land values, inputs and prices have gone up, it's important to see what your limiting factor is," he says. "We try to find our weakest link and try to tweak and adjust that."

  • A good tile line

    For Ohrtman, that "weakest link" most often relates to excess moisture. That's why he installs new tile lines each year. In northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, bad drainage is usually the biggest limiting factor to Ohrtman's crops, making the cost and labor to put in new tile each year a worthwhile investment.

  • Looking ahead

    Ohrtman works with crop adviser Bryan Arndorfer of Precision Management Solutions in Bancroft, Iowa, to manage the field data he collects throughout the year. Arndorfer's working now to put together wider-scale yield maps to show customers how their fields stack up. "It's interesting to see things across multiple farms and get a better idea of trends and what is truly happening," Arndorfer says.

  • Getting technical

    In addition to his work as a crop adviser, Arndorfer farms with his father Dick and brothers Brad and Burke. He says the rate of adoption of precision ag technology has been "really unreal," especially in the last 4-5 years. The learning curve is shortening as more farmers get a better understanding of the new tools. "Of the people who buy this equipment, there are guys who say they'd never give it up for anything once they have it," Arndorfer says.

  • Quick sampling

    At Precision Management Services, soil sampling is done in a way like no other company in the country. Using an ATV-mounted, hydraulic-powered Wintex 1000 soil sampler, efficiency is greatly improved. Arndorfer was the first crop adviser in the U.S. to employ one of the Denmark-built systems. Each sample takes 2-3 seconds with the system. "We are always looking for ways to increase the efficiency of our work, and for sampling, this is just that."

  • More than speed

    The tool's about more than just speed and efficiency, though. The Wintex 1000 is much more consistent than hand-sampling, and that helps glean more accurate test results. "This has an electronic depth control sensor, so every time you go down, it's going down consistently," Arndorfer says. "Hand probes might be 8-12 inches long but you might want to just go 6-7 inches, so you're judging it by hand. And, repeatability is important."

  • Layering it on

    Accurate, consistent soil testing is just one part of an entire system Arndorfer says more farmers are starting to build in his area. Layering more data tracking soil fertility, chemical applications and yields helps farmers make better management decisions. "We'll utilize layers of information and overlay them to determine what's working on each farm and what exactly they're getting in return for those things."

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