Playing In The Dirt

Technology Assists In Precision Farming Methods

(Part Three of a Four-Part Series)
MidAmerica Farmer Grower

   Field mapping is a boon to farmers like Howard G. Buffett who want to know just how their land, inputs and management are performing.
   “Field mapping is awesome,” he said. “The idea that you can go in and split your planter; you have a variety locator like on our apex system on our John Deere equipment. You can see and understand where those yields are down. On the end rows you think that’s compaction, but you can see where some water holes are and try to go in and fix them. Yield mapping really helps us because we can keep track of all the data. I don’t think we could be doing what we’re doing on our farms today that the foundation owns without that technology.”
   Other practices like using cover crops and planting into them prior to termination would be very difficult without RTK guidance systems. That technology has allowed farmers to try all kinds of things that would otherwise be impossible.
   “We have farms where we’ve had conventional farming in 60-foot strips next to strip till. You could not do that without guidance systems. Some have tried strip till before, but now you can really do strip till. You can get on that same AB line and it is perfect. The technology is pretty amazing, it’s convenient and it’s also gives you great data. For us, it’s critical for what we do.
   While Howard doesn’t use a smart phone to operate his irrigation system, his son does. “He’s way ahead of me. He operates all his pivots and checks them with his Blackberry phone and the time savings is huge. That’s a big deal. Another thing, with RTK I now have a rule that if I go into a field and I get my end rows done, I finish planting at night, especially if there’s a chance of rain. I’ll finish at 2 a.m. but I know I’m going to have a field done regardless of whether it rains or not with strip till or no-till. You couldn’t do that before. With Swath Pro and with the guidance systems I know I can plant it better with that technology than I could have planted it myself during the day. If you ever tried to plant into no-till corn stalks at night with a marker forget it. It’s impossible to get it right, with technology it’s unbelievable. I still remember the old brown box of 10 years ago with parallel tracking. You had to steer, but you had a line so you knew where you’re going. Even that was a big improvement but it would wear you out. Actually a lot of times in the past I got tired at 11 or 12 at night so I quit and it rained that night. You’re out of the field for two weeks and if corn is coming up that’s a problem. Beans are not as big a deal. So this provides a lot more options.”
   A lot of the experiments Buffett conducts are not for technical research but field-specific results are much easier to track with today’s technology.
   “You can go through the field and pick out one hybrid and you don’t have to keep track of anything; when you harvest and print the map out it’s going to tell you what those hybrids did. It’s going to show you where in the field they were.”
   He likes to pull an auger wagon alongside the combine and unload on the go unless the ground is too wet. “Normal years, we’ll unload on the go all the time. I will call on the radio and give my heading to the operator of the auger wagon. He will punch that into the auger wagon tractor and just line that up and hit the button. Incorporating those little things makes such a big, big difference, its more efficient,” stated Buffett.

“Loading on the go” says Howard G. Buffett of Decatur, Ill. is the way they normally harvest. He likes to pull an auger wagon alongside the combine unless the ground is too wet.        
Photo by John LaRose, Jr.

   “One big question is whether there is economic value in those systems,” Buffett noted. “Deere has a system now where the auger wagon, the tractor and the combine can talk to each other and it sells for about $20,000. I need someone in the auger wagon anyway, and all he has to do is push one button. I’m not spending $20,000 for that system. So I think there’s a point where the value isn’t there. Maybe someone farming 50,000 acres would like the way it’s all coordinated. That’s great. But for a guy like me it’s not worth the investment; so I think as time goes on, certain features will be valuable to certain farmers and not worth much to others. But everybody gets to make that choice.
   Irrigation is an integral part of the Buffett farming enterprise. He has a handle on all types of water distribution. “In South Africa, as an example, we have 22 center pivots. We can’t farm there without irrigation so only the acreage under a pivot is farmable; everything else is pasture or not used. It is all surface irrigation, with water pulled from a creek.”
   Some years a number of pivots can’t be used because there isn’t enough water. Last year, that happened for the first time in about 10 years. “When we do not have enough water, we save that water for our specific experiments or for any reproduction that we might be doing for hybrids and we just stop using it for anything else,” Buffett said.
   Arizona is all irrigated, and nothing can be grown there without it. Wells provide the water, and all the new wells are drilled 1,300 foot deep, so pumping is from around 700 feet. “Most of our old wells are either not very good or they’re only pumping 300-400 gallons a minute. Those are pumping from a couple hundred feet.
   In Nebraska, we have three pivots and each one has its own well. It’s an amazing place there; we have a 100 foot well and pump from 50 feet. We have all our spray nozzles set up for about 800 gallons a minute; we had all of them tested a year ago and our drawdown is minimal. We have great water; never have had a problem with it in the 30-plus years we’ve farmed there. Of course Illinois is all dryland.”
   Buffett finds that tiling is a controversial issue. While it carries water off it also can carry chemicals and nutrients away, so it’s hard for a farmer to know how much is there for the crop. “We have done tiling on some farms. I know there are systems today that help capture the runoff but they’re quite expensive and the average guy isn’t going to spend the money to do it. Our tiling is old style conventional type tiling. I think that’s going to come under more scrutiny. I don’t know what kind of data has been collected but it’s logical to assume that there’s going to be a higher rate of movement off that farm through that system in terms of chemical fertilizer. I believe we’ll be dealing with that in the next 10 to 15 years.”
   Seed is about the most expensive purchase these days, and Buffett wonders where the value point for the purchase is. “I think it’s getting harder to understand. I think what we have in terms of what’s available to us in seed today is amazing. I can’t tell you if I’m paying for the value I’m getting, if that’s a fair price or not. I think that is priced like everything else, it’s whatever the market will bear. As long as you have this environment, farmers have a very difficult time gaining any control over the price they’re going to pay; so the only relief is if one company starts to push the price up and somebody says ‘I’m not paying that, I’m going to a different company.’ Making a decision only on price is not what a farmer wants to do. You’re looking at productivity and years of history. In Arizona you can’t buy a DeKalb product. In Illinois I won’t plant anything but DeKalb. I think it depends on where you are and what the environmental factors are versus the hybrids you can get.”
   Buffett started with DeKalb seed years ago. Much of that is because the dealers supplied both seed and chemical. “I believe we’ll continue to break the yield barriers. We’ve done it fast with corn, but we’ve struggled to do it in soybeans. There’s still plenty of room to get better.
   He likes to begin planting in Illinois about a week later than the earliest.
   “I’m probably the earliest planter when it comes to soybeans. But with corn you might see guys planting April 1 in Illinois and I’m an April 10 - 12 maybe even 15th guy. Last year because it was getting late, I grabbed a couple of guys to help me plant beans and I got them in the field the same time I was planting corn. My rule is: The minute I get done with corn I start soybeans and in Nebraska we’ll plant a little later, more towards the end of April. So far I’ve never had to replant because of frost and I’ve never been hit on the other end either.”
   Buffett plans to increase his seed count a little this year. “I’m going to 36,000 plants per acre under the pivot which will be up from about 34,000. Most guys will plant 28,000 in the corner. I just think if it rains we’re going to get the yield and if it doesn’t rain yields will be poor anyway. But I’m not one of those guys that are going to bump it to the limit.”
   Grain storage is either on his farms or within a short distance. “I’m a huge believer in grain storage. I want to have enough storage so I can pick all my corn and soybeans and not have to go to the elevator. We don’t own trucks; we hire someone to haul it. We typically sell a lot of grain ahead in the summer for January, February. Historically, the prices are always better in July. I like to be able to haul at all hours of the night and not worry about waiting in line or anything slowing me up. We have gravity wagons and we’ll use the wagons and haul them to the bins. That way, we can keep moving.”
   He has some 42 foot bins and 36 foot bins on the farm so there’s a little better control of air movement. “We put the biggest fans on them and start running them right away when we load them no matter what; even if it is 15 percent corn, I’ll run the fans for a few days just to get it cooled down and blow out a little of the foreign material.”
   His father, Warren Buffett, had some advice about marketing for him when he first started farming: “You’re going to farm for 40 years, just be consistent when you sell because you’re never going to beat the market,” his father told him. “So I presell up to about 50 percent of my crop throughout the year,” he said.

His father, Warren Buffett, had some advice about marketing for his son Howard when he first started farming: “You’re going to farm for 40 years, just be consistent when you sell because you’re never going to beat the market.”
Photo by John LaRose, Jr.

   Harvesting decisions also are made according to his own formula:
   “Well, I do two things. If I can’t bring corn in under 20 percent moisture by late September and I already know that, then the middle of September, as long as I’m not picking above 24 percent or 25 percent, I’ll pick as much as I can and put it in my bins and dry it down. I have in-line dryers, I’ll put 4,000 bushels in each bin, dry it down to about 15 to 16 percent, maybe 14. We can pick about 30,000 bushels doing it that way.
   Buffett has a good relationship with an equipment dealer. “I’m like a few other farmers you talk to who breed green. I’ve had great luck with John Deere. I think they have been pretty progressive as companies go on their no-till and strip till tools. They have given us most of what we need.”
   His day to day activity centers on keeping up with his iPad. Technology helps keep him aware of all that’s happening on the farm scene. A typical day for him begins early. “Usually I get up about 6 and go straight to where the equipment is, grease everything, check the oil, it’s fairly new equipment so there’s usually not too much to worry about,” he said. “If I’m planting, I’ll get the planter filled, head to the field and just get going.”
   Lunch is on the go, he stops only if he has to. “At harvest it’s about the same. I get up about 6 and head out. If I’m picking corn, I’ll just grease everything and get going. We may pick corn for about 3 or 4 hours, then jump over and do beans if we can. We’ll fuel everything up the night before if it’s not dark.  I like to pick corn at night. I just love doing it.
   “We put in the same hours everybody else would put in on a farm,” he said. And a lot of it is just an adult version of “playing in the dirt.”∆
   BETTY VALLE GEGG-NAEGER: Senior Staff Writer, MidAmerica Farmer Grower
   Editor’s Note: Watch for part 4 in next weeks issue #13, of MidAmerica Farmer Grower.
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