Big Bucks for Big

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2006-10-02 Print this article Print

Crop farmers wield global positioning systems and business intelligence tools to nurture profits in the field.


Big Bucks for Big Bushels

So, why hasn't everyone gone to precision farming?

Poor integration between different vendors' technologies has kept some farmers away, says Dusty Sonnenberg, who owns the 3,000-acre Sonnenberg Farms in Hamler, Ohio.

A lack of standards for sharing data between, say, Deere and Trimble equipment means farmers must choose one proprietary system or another, he says: "What can you do? You can't put Dodge parts on a Chevy."

But the bigger issue is cost. GPS systems and on-board computers for a tractor cost $20,000 to $25,000. A GPS base station with receivers to relay signals between it, an orbiting satellite and the farm machine costs another $15,000 to $20,000, Sonnenberg says. Tools from SPSS or Ag Leader go for about $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the module. "It's only innovators and early adopters now because of the price tag," he says.

Still, the financial returns do come, says Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue. When fertilizing, for example, a farmer pulling a sprayer behind his tractor will usually overlap up to 10% of the ground, to be sure he covers everything, Lowenberg-DeBoer says. But a tractor with auto-steer and a variable-rate sprayer overlaps just 1% to 2%, he says. More accurate spraying requires less labor and results in less wear on machinery. It also means spending less on expensive diesel fuel and fertilizer, both of which shot up more than 15% in price this year over last.

At Rubenacker Farms, Robertson likes to quantify the value he gets from agricultural consultants. Specialists come to the farm to scout for bug infestations or plant diseases, and to test soil for nutrients and moisture. Then, they recommend treatments.

The only way to know how effective their advice is, Robertson says, is to collect data and isolate different variables. Say aphids are eating the wheat crop and a consultant advises insecticide. The chemical plus labor might cost $12 per acre. To pay off, that investment must return at least as much in increased crop quality or increased yield.

Analysis of the situation would put Robertson in front of his Access database, querying for similar conditions at the farm in the past. Maybe there was similar insect trouble four years ago. Perhaps at that time, he sprayed some fields but not others because he didn't want to spend too much money not knowing how effective the treatment would be. No one wants to see a $12-per-acre activity result in returns of just $12.01. On 9,000 acres, one extra cent per acre—$90—isn't worth the trouble.

However, if past yield data shows that treated fields turned out several extra bushels per acre of higher quality—and more lucrative—corn than unsprayed ones, that's a different story. If, later on the open market, a farmer got 15 cents more a bushel for the corn because it's top-notch, and he harvested 148 bushels from each acre, that's $22 per acre in extra value from that $12-per-acre chemical spray.

"We would look back and see that not only did it pay, it paid in a big way," Robertson says.

His 400-acre double-crop corn gamble, however, is still an unknown. "Right now, it's looking like a good choice—if we get another rain in a couple of weeks," he says. "The database can't tell me when it might rain."

Like other precision farmers, Robertson may have data at his fingertips but he'll always have dirt under his nails.

At A Glance: Rubenacker Farms Headquarters: Rural Route 1, Dahlgren, IL 62828
Phone: (618) 648-2257
Business: Crop farming.
Top Technologist: Kelly Robertson, agronomy manager
Size: 9,000 acres for wheat, corn and soybean crops; also runs irrigation tiling and trucking operations.

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Senior Writer
Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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