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Precision Farming Pays Off

posted on May 4, 2007


The Senate Agriculture Committee this week approved a comprehensive Energy Bill that would replace 25 percent of the nation's gasoline with ethanol by the year 2022. The measure would require a sevenfold increase in ethanol production to 36 billion gallons annually by 2030. And with the national average price of unleaded gasoline surpassing the $3.00 mark this week, proponents of the measure are optimistic about its future.

U.S. growers are expected to plant more than 90 million acres of corn this year to satisfy current demand for ethanol. And in a business where yield often is a key to success, farmers always are looking for ways to squeeze another bushel out of an acre of land.

That's why last year we introduced viewers to Clay Mitchell, an Iowa farmer whose precision farming practices employ some high-tech methods of boosting yield.

A post-harvest visit by Market To Market to the Mitchell farm last fall revealed some interesting results. Laurel Bower Burgmaier has the story.

Precision Farming Pays Off

Clay Mitchell farms with his mother, father and great-uncle on a 2,500-acre centennial farm in Northeast Iowa. While the family raises typical Midwestern crops like corn and soybeans, the operation is anything but average. 33-year-old Clay and his father, Wade, essentially have turned their century farm into a technological wonder.

When Market to Market first visited the Mitchell farm in the spring of 2006, they were practicing controlled-traffic farming, where the machinery paths in the field are done deliberately and sequentially. The primary benefit is a reduction in soil compaction. Utilizing real-time kinematics, or RTK, tractor paths are repeated within the season, or from year to year with essentially perfect accuracy. The Mitchell farm is almost fully automated with a sprayer that knows when to turn individual nozzles on and off, and tractors and combines that steer themselves. Market to Market returned last fall to see how precision farming is paying dividends at harvest time.

Clay Mitchell, Geneseo Township, IA: "Despite dryness, it's been a good year. And, with prices, we are, like many Iowa farmers, pretty optimistic."

When harvesting, the Mitchells use laptop computers in the combine to contact the programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, that run the grain storage system.

Wade Mitchell, Geneseo Township, IA: "My brother and I started in the 70s and as Clay came in, we added more bins. Now, we have 300,000 bushels of storage."

It continues to change as new industrial controls allow them to do things they never imagined possible. Today, the grain storage system is completely automated.

Wade Mitchell, Geneseo Township, IA: "The PLCs have ethernet connections and that's what allows us to wirelessly control this from anywhere on the farm."

From the combine, the Mitchells control air pressure, motor currents, temperatures and running time --all without being at the actual grain facility. They also can check how much grain is in a bin and move grain from one bin to another.

Wade Mitchell, Geneseo Township, IA: "By being able to do this at home or remote location, it saves a lot of pick up miles, having to come back at night and check on it. It's automatic, so when you come to dump in the pit, it automatically puts it away and the pit unloads when done. Nobody has to babysit."

Not only does the automated grain system save the Mitchells time, but five years ago, they reduced drying costs dramatically by replacing their electric axial fans with a high-pressure centrifugal fan powered by a Ford 460 V-8 irrigation engine that runs on LP gas. By funneling all waste heat from the engine to a high-pressure fan, the Mitchells have dried 90% of their corn over the past four years without turning on the burner.

Wade Mitchell, Geneseo Township, IA: "It really helps keep the drying costs down, not to have to pay for electricity so much."

The Mitchells admit they have an advantage in adopting new technologies. Wade is a professional engineer and in 1999, Clay graduated from Harvard with a degree in biomedical engineering. He also has off-farm experience with computers.

Clay and Wade Mitchell, Geneseo Township, IA: "The one thing it's done is a good understanding of the state of technology. So, very often there is an ongoing need that we are aware of when a new technology allows us to come up with a good solution. It's always coming up with a solution to fill a need, not trying to create a need to fill a solution. But, when we go to do that our backgrounds give us the ability to incorporate the technologies to do the programming and mechanical design."

Hoping to maximize yields, the Mitchells employ a unique planting strategy. The system, known as strip-intercropping, requires growing different crops like corn and soybeans in alternative strips on the same field. While the practice is common in the developing world, where farmers plant by hand, U.S. experts say the Mitchells are the only mechanized example.

Tony Grift, University of Illinois: "The scale that the Mitchell's are doing, nobody does that. You know, the beauty of it is a lot of times the kinds of research we do we don't know whether it's going to work and secondly we never really know there it's going to be economically viable. But, the bottom line is you simply have to make money and that's what they do."

Profits that were apparent at harvest. On average, corn yields over the Mitchell farm were more than 200 bushels per acre, and exceeded 225 bushels per acre in the intercropped fields. The Mitchells note every field's success is dependent on location, weather conditions, seed varieties and soil type, but they are seeing a 25 bushel per acre increase in their strip-intercropped fields.

Intercrop soybeans did not yield as well due to the plants receiving less sunlight. However, the Mitchells say some fields planted solely with soybeans yielded over 64 bushels per acre. Yields, they believe, are attributable to precision farming.

Clay Mitchell, Geneseo Township, IA: "When a field is all corn and all soybeans, little errors don't matter when you're planting. But, when you have two different crops next to each other, it's important to maintain a precise distance or you lose the benefits. The most important thing is doing the most basic things well. We've had successes with strip-cropping and have seen an increase in profits and yields."

The Mitchells are considered by many in the agriculture industry to the most progressive farmers in the country. But, they say, the problems they try to solve are no different than any family farm. They value originality and look to take different approaches, but they insist like every farmer, their main objectives are to make a profit and to keep their family enterprise viable.

Clay Mitchell, Geneseo Township, IA: "The farm does continue to be profitable. The technology we buy and try to have has to be realistic with the economic constraints of the farm, and they are tight. So, in the end, what we do has to pay off."

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.

 


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