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Precision farming in forage operations

Luke Zerby for Progressive Forage Published on 01 October 2018
Communication between the tractor and the implement

Knowledge is power. That phrase has been repeated through the generations for one reason: It’s true.

How do we apply that to the agriculture industry and, more specifically, forage? Simple – we apply it everywhere we can. Making decisions about lime, fertilizers, preservatives and seed varieties are all based on weighing choices between known facts. The first step is gathering those facts and that is where precision farming starts.

I define precision farming as using data and/or technology to improve today’s agricultural production over what it was yesterday. Precision farming does not have to cost thousands of dollars or be complicated. The first step is as simple as increasing your knowledge about your field and operation.

Know your field size

Many operators have a good idea of their acreage size because they have maps stored in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. Yet somehow, when they spread fertilizer or lime on their fields, the amount ordered does not seem to match the application rate they use.

NRCS maps are based on satellite and do not always calculate for variations in elevation throughout the field. They also do not always show the field boundaries correctly. Therefore, when we first started mapping fields with GPS for as-applied maps, we found the acreage would be different from what was expected.

This was the start of precision farming on many operations because with just an accurate acreage, farmers were able to make the correct decisions that made improvements to the operation. They could accurately calculate what they were going to need to apply to the correct rate across the entire field.

Geolocation (knowing the exact spot of your location on earth) or GPS mapping the field is the first building block in precision farming and can be added today to operations of all sizes. Many low-cost aftermarket guidance systems are available that will work on any vehicle.

More sophisticated mapping and geolocation options are offered by most original equipment manufacturers (OEM), like full hydraulic solutions that can get you down to subinch accuracy. This naturally leads into guidance and other more advanced precision farming applications.

Focus on minimizing inputs and maximizing yields

Whether seeds, fertilizers, lime, preservatives or (arguably the most precious input) your time, precision farming is about effective management of these resources while getting the best output or yield possible.

Time is one of the most difficult things to manage in ag, and even more so when you look specifically at forage production. Being able to save on time, or being able to actually get forages harvested in the right time frame, can have a huge payback. Precision farming is the greatest opportunity we have to maximize our time.

Leading the pack in timesaving is guidance, which allows you to get the most out of every pass across a field. This is even more so if you have an assisted or fully automated guidance system, which enables you to focus more on the task you are accomplishing.

You don’t make money by driving back and forth across a field. The value is in the task you do as you drive across the field. For example, imagine if you were pulling a granular spreader. The faster you could recognize an issue with the spreader, whether it’s the product bridging or an issue with the spreaders, the sooner you can address the problem and get the proper application on the field.

Certainly, the value of guidance is easier to calculate ahead of time when you look at removing skips and overlaps and making the most out of each pass. However, in my opinion, the ability to focus more on the job at hand has a much higher value, because doing a job correctly the first time is vital.

Today, forage producers have access to the full spectrum of precision farming and that can add value in every stage of the operation. From the simple mapping and guidance all the way to drones and everything in between.

The list of possible precision farming tools is massive. While there is not enough room in this article for me to cover them all, I’d like to highlight some of those that I think are often overlooked but have some of the highest return on investment.

Starting from the ground up

In many precision-farming conversations, soil mapping is overlooked, but remember: Knowledge is power. The more you know about your fields, the better you can manage them. If you want good forage, you first need to feed the soil, and to get the most out of your equipment variable-rate applications, you need to develop management zones.

You can use a farm management information system (FMIS) to compile and manage data that you collect. By looking at multiple data layers like yield and soils maps, you can lay out management zones. These different areas in the field have different needs or are capable of different results.

The key is that you start to collect and manage data and then use that data to make your decisions. These simple first steps will have many forage producers seeing huge benefits and at relatively low cost.

Use of drones

Drones continue to gain in popularity for scouting fields. You can fly a field and instantly see hundreds of acres. Early identification of plant stressors can allow you to correct issues before they become a huge detriment to the operation. If knowledge is power, then the ability to have the right knowledge at the right time is power to the next level. Aerial images collected from drones have been used in crop insurance and in legal cases.

Preservative applications

Quality and yield are two key factors that determine successful forage production. Therefore, it makes sense that many of the precision-farming advances specific to forage operations focus on further automation to ensure maximization of the quality of forages produced.

One early feature we saw automation in was preservative application. Available for forage choppers and balers of all sizes, there are preservative applicators that will automatically vary their rate based on the moisture percentage of the crop.

This means the machine uses moisture sensors to determine the moisture content of the crop and automatically adjust the rate to ensure the highest-quality feed possible.

Forage choppers have made good use of guidance for years, and in recent years, we have added guidance for the spout. This feature reads the position of the wagon and truck and guides the spot so that you are blowing the crop into the wagon or truck and not wasting any of that high-quality forage being produced.

Today’s forage choppers can also automatically adjust the length of cut and even have automatic knife sharpening to ensure it is making the highest-quality silage. All these features are available on the machine to give your forages the highest possible feed value.

Nutrient analysis

A relatively new and exciting bit of precision farming coming to forage choppers, as well as other machines, is nutrient analysis right in the field. This data can be collected and used to determine the actual value of the crop to sell or provide that data to a nutritionist to figure how to best use the crop in rations.

Bale consistency

More recently, we have seen the automation in precision forage using ISOBUS Class III Communication to allow the baler to direct the tractor in making adjustments to ensure consistency and improve bale uniformity. On large-square balers with capable tractors, the baler will adjust the tractor speed in the field based on the thickness of the windrow and the pressure of the plunger.

By telling the tractor when to speed up to feed more hay or slow down to decrease the amount of hay fed into the baler, you get more consistent flake size and number of flakes in the bales, and consistency is extremely valuable when it comes to dealing with ruminant nutrition. This makes these bales easier to manage and feed.

On round balers, we now have the capability to have the baler notify the tractor that the bale is full, which will stop the tractor, allow the baler to wrap, eject the bale and close the tailgate, all automatically.

In the near future, we will see even more communication between tractor and implements, which will enable even greater automations. These all add up to increased consistency and easier management and operation, improving your operation bottom line.

Maximize your control

Weather is out of our control, markets are out of our control, but using precision farming maximizes what control we have. New precision-farming features like advanced automation, data collection, data management and data sharing allow us to make the most of what we have. As we continue to learn more about making, storing and feeding high-quality forages, we will continue to see an evolution in our precision-farming forage applications.

While a fully autonomous operation may not be in your future, it will certainly have a place in the future of production agriculture, and we can all benefit from these improvements in automation that make us more productive. These are exciting times in the agriculture industry and staying ahead of the curve can only mean greater operational success.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Luke Zerby is the precision land management brand marketing manager with New Holland.