Data-Driven Precision, Efficiency & Yield

by Patrick Kirchhofer
Peoria County Farm Bureau

Sophisticated technologies for today’s farm equipment seem to be coming at a faster pace every day.

Above: 360 Yield Center in Morton is at the forefront of increasing efficiencies and yields in production agriculture. Photo courtesy of 360 Yield Center

Innovations in agriculture are prevalent throughout the Peoria area. Precision Planting, Inc. near Tremont and 360 Yield Center in Morton, for example, are at the forefront of increasing efficiencies and yields in production agriculture. Bottom Line Solutions, also based in Morton, works with numerous ag-tech companies in offering an array of precision products for farm equipment, as well as servicing and maintaining that equipment.

The first step in precision agriculture is to gather data. Farmers and technicians need to know exactly what is going on in the field and with their equipment. Once the unknowns are organized and interpreted, a specific prescription can then be applied.

Tech-Equipped Combines
What are some of these unknowns? Yield data is a good starting point. Most of today’s combines are equipped with a yield monitor—a screen in the cab that gives farmers detailed, color-coded maps of the yields in specific locations of the field. Looking at one of these maps, farmers will see shades of green, yellow and red. Green indicates a good yield, red indicates a poor yield, and yellow is in between. In addition, the monitor will reveal the moisture of the grain as it is being harvested.

It gets better. An attachment on the front of the combine is either a cornhead (for harvesting corn) or a platform (for harvesting soybeans, wheat or other small grains). They are easily interchangeable, depending on what the farmer is harvesting that particular day. 

Most cornheads are made to harvest between six and 12 rows while traveling through the field. Newer versions are equipped with cat-like “whisker” feelers, which rub against the row of cornstalks and automatically guide the direction of the combine. If the combine has a platform attached to the front for harvesting soybeans, a guidance system known as “autosteer” can be equipped on the unit. This allows the combine to operate in the field without an operator turning the steering wheel. Of course, there are some preliminary setup requirements, as the combine needs to be equipped with some sort of GPS, or Global Positioning System.

Finetuned Planters
Today’s planters are also highly specialized to create efficiencies. And once again, data is critical to finetune planter adjustments and attachments. A baseline of information is needed—such as yield maps from the previous harvest and data on the fertility of the field, which can be gathered through soil tests. Grid maps of a field’s fertilizer needs can be created by taking soil samples every two to three acres and creating a soil fertility map. This provides information on key yield-limiting factors such as phosphorus and potassium availability, soil pH and organic matter. 

The monitor, or “brains” of the planter, can be programmed to adjust seed populations on the go. Why would a farmer want to vary the seed population? Because different areas of the field vary in soil type, drainage, fertilizer, etc., their yield potential will also vary. A lighter type of soil, often referred to as “timber” soil, typically yields less than a darker soil with high organic matter. The monitor can be programmed to plant a higher population of seeds on darker soil to take advantage of its higher yield potential. 

What other innovations can modern planters be equipped with? The planter’s most important job is to place seeds at a consistent depth with even spacing between the seeds within each row. But a field’s terrain can be bumpy, creating challenges for perfect seed placement. If a kernel of corn is planted too deep or too shallow, it may germinate two or three days later than the rest of the kernels. That delay in growth often prohibits it from developing a full-sized ear of corn—yet it still competes for water, nutrients and sunlight, robbing its “seed” neighbors of yield potential. That late-germinating corn plant essentially becomes a weed in the field.

To combat this uneven emergence, planters are equipped with hydraulic down-force systems for each row planting unit and specialized tubes that release the seed as close to the soil seeding depth as possible. (In older planters, the seed is released a foot or two above the soil surface. The seed bounces around in the seed tube before finally settling in the soil, causing uneven spacing between seeds.)

I’ve just scratched the surface of the sophisticated technologies being developed for today’s farm equipment. Farmers are either learning these technologies or working with companies that offer their efficiencies. Like all technology, it seems to be coming at a faster pace every day. iBi