Technology turns farming into a high precision business that protects environment, controls costs

Back in 1916, Ward Bailey began Bailey Terra Nova Farms north of Schoolcraft in Kalamazoo County with teams of horses. But when gas-powered tractors soon came along, "those horses were gone," says his great-grandson Matt Bailey. 

Ward Bailey was an early adopter when it came to tractors, but he never could've imagined the technology now commonplace on tractors this century. Satellite-guided GPS auto-steering systems keep the planting and harvesting locked on course and record the good and bad areas in a field. Spot application sends just the right amount of fertilizer to each corn stalk and spritzes herbicide on each weed. At harvest, yield monitors record the results.

As Matt Bailey was showing off the technology on his family's farm one day this fall, he turned on the many monitors in one of their tractors. Field maps and number grids popped up, showing the record of that October's harvest in one field. The amount of data would likely be overwhelming and bewildering to a farming, or computer, novice.  

And, the technology keeps evolving and growing in the era of precision agriculture. The Bailey's don't have all the cool new toys. For example, they aren't ready to buy drones yet, but Johansen Farms a few miles south has buzzed the Baileys' fields as part of their fertilizing and yield mapping service.

Maybe someday the Baileys will get a drone of their own. It's always exciting to get a new piece of equipment, but would it be of use to them? More importantly, can you pay for that? asks Matt's brother Darren Bailey.

Despite great-grandpa Bailey's switch from horses to the tractor, today they are no longer early-adopter types, father Curt Bailey says. They began to buy their systems piece-by-piece around eight years ago. "We're happy with what we've done so far," he says.

Curt says great-grandpa Bailey "had five teams of horses, farmed 200 acres, worked hard every day. And now we go out and do in a couple hours what he'd spend all year trying to do." 

He boasts of seed delivery systems that "tell you continuously the population of corn you're planting. You can put field maps in it and it will drop the population in a dry corner if it's not irrigated, or on a hillside, or increase it in a good spot in the field. And it records all that data, so if you wanted to in the middle of summer, take a GPS device, go out in the middle of the field, if there's a corn plant missing in a row you can look and it will tell you if you put a seed there or not. It's that sophisticated." 

"There's more-high-tech stuff out there," he adds. But the big questions his business has to ask are, "could I afford it? Is it important or relevant? Do we need it?"

Precision farming, precision research

Bailey Farms primarily grow feed for their hogs, which go into the other family business, Bailey's Meats.

They work 1,620 acres--not a small operation, but just large enough to make the investment in precision ag technology worthwhile. For smaller farms, "it's very difficult for it to pencil out and be economically feasible. You've got to be farming large averages," Dennis Pennington, wheat systems specialist with Michigan State University, says. 

To outfit a tractor with a GPS-based auto-steer system, "you're looking at a $20,000 investment," he says. The cost rises with more devices on multiple tractors, combines, sprayers, etc.

The benefits are an increased acres-per-hour harvest rate, no overlap (where a tractor might cover the same rows more than once), and savings from reduced use of fertilizer and pesticides.  

The bigger the farm, the bigger the savings. "Vast majority of larger farms, if they're farming a thousand acres or more, they have at least some part of this technology," Pennington says. 

His work with MSU involves research with working farms on soil fertility, disease management, or whatever question a farmer might have. "On-farm research used to be much more difficult, and took a fair amount of time," he says. "With the technology now, we can write a prescription, and (farmers) plug that into their controller to, say, the spray applicator, and they drive the field."

At planting and harvesting, precision ag technology harvests data for later analysis. 

"From the standpoint of the farmer, the ease and the benefit of all this is they get to see research on their farm--maybe it's a new herbicide, maybe it's a new fungicide, maybe it's a fertilizer treatment--they get to experience that on their farm with very little investment of time and effort." 

This also allows researchers to do more on-farm research and shows farmers new practices that are proven to increase yields and reduce waste.

Saving money and the environment

In the past, crops were covered evenly with the same amount of fertilizer. With precision ag practices, fertilizer use is dramatically cut back, reducing fertilizer runoff into waterways.  "Now you have the ability to give each plant what it needs, and not more. That's the really cool part of this technology," he says.
"So this allows us to be better stewards of the environment by not over applying nutrients. It also allows us to keep track of what our crop yields are in those areas, and sometimes fine tune and adjust the right nutrient rate for specific areas in a field."

When it comes to herbicides, accuracy is also being improved with "weedseeker" technology, now being tested in the Northern Plains, he says. "Sensors identify a growing plant, and it turns a sprayer on just in that area, to spray that one plant." 

Montana State University found "they've cut herbicide application rates by 55 percent to 65 percent" with the technology. "Not only does that save the farmer money, but it also puts less herbicide out in the environment." 

Farmers don't like to gamble more than they have to

Farming is all about facing a series of risks, from the season's weather to crop prices. So farmers aren't known for their tendency to gamble with their livelihood. 

That means farmers have been a bit conservative in accepting this technology. There's been some hesitation, and a bit of a "generation gap," Pennington says.  

As anyone who works behind a desk knows vividly, when the computer freezes or the internet goes down, technology can quickly become a major pain.

Pennington says, "I saw it in the field. The son was trying to get a yield monitor to work in a combine, spent half a day working on it, and the dad said 'I could've had half that field harvested by now. Forget the technology, just get out there and run the combine!'" 

Precision ag tech began appearing on larger farms around 2001 but didn't really catch on until 2007-'09, when a boom in crop prices meant farmers had more money to spend.

Back at the Baileys' farm office, Curt Bailey is outlining the costs and benefits of precise equipment versus extremely precise equipment. 

"You can be within 12 inches or you can be within an inch. But the more precise you want to be, the more you're going to pay," he says. "Is it really worth it, can we afford it, what's the payback?" 

Then there's auto-steer. "In theory at least it's more efficient, less time, better job." He's not sure of the dollar value, but, "we would never go back," he says. 

"The fatigue of the operator trying to guide that tractor all day long, just kills ya. Mentally you're whipped." With auto-steer, "hit the button, the tractor's going, you can look at the monitors on what the planter's doing, you can look behind you, and the tractor's still on course."

The worst thing about the tech, Curt says, is that "cab of the tractor or combine fills up with all these screens." They've now got a lot of real-time info to pay attention to in the cab. He and his sons can't just push a button and relax. Not yet. 

Maybe in the future, they'll be like farmboy Luke Skywalker buying androids to work on Uncle Owen's farm. That's not a stretch, according to Pennington. "Part of that future will be robots."

He pictures a farmer guiding a fleet of robotic helpers in the fields, communicating with each other and with a base computer. "The sky is kinda the limit with what we can do with technology." 

There is one guaranteed future for all, he says: More hungry people, less land.

"How are we going to feed nine billion people, and how much land do we have available? We've got to increase our productive capacity of the land that we have."

To get the most food out of the land, farmers will have "to improve production, reduce input costs, and save time and energy on the farm. That really is the ultimate goal of the technology," Pennington says.

Since 1992, Mark Wedel has covered a variety of topics as a southwest Michigan freelance journalist. He also grew up on his family's nursery farm where he pulled weeds and planted roses and evergreens, but he never ran a combine.

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Read more in the series here.

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