Let's face it. Weed control was never simpler than when it was reduced to one or two passes with glyphosate. Not only was control complete, but also drift was undetectable and uneventful when Roundup Ready fields abutted. Those days are gone, as growers consider the need for resistant weed control, potential yield bumps from foliar feeding, fungicide applications and more.
Luckily, precision technology hardware and software can help make the transition from post-emergence simplicity to mind-numbing complexity easier and more productive for retailers, crop consultants and custom applicators. This is a good thing because for an increasing number of growers, precision technology related services are no longer optional.
"Customers today have learned so much about precision technology that they are demanding it from their retailers," said Chad Huedepohl, DirectCommand sales manager, Ag Leader Technology. "AutoSwath is almost a must for retailers who tell me their customers are also pushing them into variable rate technology (VRT) applications. I think we will only see such grower demands increase."
As an example, Huedepohl noted that OptRx Crop Sensor technology for VRT nitrogen application is expanding from being primarily a grower purchase to a retailer-provided service.
"The use of crop sensors to change fertilizer rates based on the health of the crop rather than last year's crop or soils data is growing fast," he said. "Now we are seeing more custom applicators picking it up, especially those who offer agronomic advising. It gives them more data to make the decisions farmers pay them to make. They know that by going the extra mile to maximize profits for their customer, the customer will stay with them."
This past year, Huedepohl said customers reported a 20 to 30-bushel per acre increase with sensor-directed crop feeding. The overall average payback on corn over the past four years has been $22 per acre. Those types of returns, he noted, are one reason precision technologies are becoming more and more mainstream with growers. Even late adopters have accepted the need for these technologies. The reason is simple—precision pays.
"Growers tell us they are saving 10 percent to 15 percent with AutoSwath and with post application of some of these products. That adds up," said Huedepohl. "They are also utilizing the SmartReport from our Integra display. The display provides a PDF containing weather information, crop information, start/stop times and any specifics with regards to the chemical applied, as well as an as applied map. With environmental concerns, controlling and knowing where product goes offers a huge advantage."
Although productivity benefits are key, environmental benefits deserve more attention, suggested David Swain, manager, Advanced Technology Solutions, AGCO. "With current technologies, you can scout for resistant or troublesome weeds, map them and using our on-board injection systems, treat only those spots with a second product," he said. "Cost implications are clear when we don't need that second chemical across the entire field. We are also reducing the potential for creating new resistant weeds. However, something we don't talk enough about is the environmental impact. We don't tout that enough to the public, how environmentally conscientious precision farming is by putting on only what is needed, not blanketing the entire farm."
Swain was quick to acknowledge that injection systems are not a new technology. Long before AGCO absorbed the application equipment company Ag Chem, injection systems had been introduced. "We had it in the early 1990s, but it never caught on with our customers or our competition," said Swain. "Until a retailer can charge for it or sell a feature as a value and not give it away, it won't pull through."
Swain and others in the crop protection industry see supplemental product injection coming into its own. Again, it is pure economics. If a single product is adequate for most fields with only occasional spots needing a second input, why not fill your tank with the first and inject the second on an as-needed basis. Not only are you saving input costs, but you also save time rinsing out between fields and between products, which takes time away from applying and often wastes product.
Such savings are going to be even more important as new and reformulated post-emergence products come online, indicated Paul Haeffner, product marketing specialist, AGCO. "With specific formulations for broadleaf and grass control changing from field to field, tank rinsing would be needed to prevent contamination or mixing of products from one field to another," he said. "With injection, you eliminate that need and risk."
Haeffner added that while only 10 percent to 15 percent of AGCO machines on the market have injection pods currently, adding them later is a simple after-market installation. "We are seeing interest in adding them ticking up, with a lot of people talking about it and some machines being equipped," he said.
Air pressure boom cleanout is another time saving option that is gaining in popularity, reported Haeffner. Operators can use it to clean product out of booms prior to rinsing when changing products, reducing the amount of rinse water needed to dilute product. "Rinse water can then be cleaned out as well," he said. "When the operator pulls into the next field, he can start out spraying, not waste time and product wondering if the rinse water is still emptying out."
Time is money when it comes to application efficiency. Tracking rinse time as well as other inputs is key to understanding where changes need to be made. SST Software is a leader in helping people gather data and helping them interpret and use it, noted Jeremy Bale. "Our Summit record keeping package lets growers, suppliers and applicators record inputs and when they were made, as well as track the crop through the field as it is scouted for weeds, insects and diseases with our Stratus software," said Bale. "Using our SST Field PC and agX data standards, a user can select the weed or pest pressure, rate how bad it is, mark it spatially and track if it is increasing. It even lets you evaluate the growth stage to consider what application method and timing is best for a post-emergent application."
Information is easily entered, for example, while scouting the field. The user can pick a weed from a list of more than 800, rather than typing it in, which can lead to misspelling. Information such as products used, speed driven, operator name and the commercial license number, with room for comments such as nozzle number or type, can all be referenced as needed should problems arise.
SEAMLESS DATA TRANSFER
With both software packages using the agX standards, data can move seamlessly from the hand held field unit of the grower or his crop scout/consultant to the office computer and on to custom applicators or retailers and their agronomists as needed. A consultant can use it to make a detailed recommendation for the grower or his custom applicator to follow.
"Retailers really like the ability and level of data in the agX standardized framework," explained Bale. "Reports are more consistent and cleaner than hand written and more likely to be up to date."
It is continued evaluations and end of season reports that really pay off, whether tracking a herbicide-resistant weed or tank mix efficacy, pointed out Bale. He likened it to being able to carry a file cabinet to the field. While everyone likes to think they have a good memory, it can be eye opening to go back to the site with data in hand, look at an infestation and evaluate the control used.
"You can see what product was used, what was targeted and what kind of performance was achieved," he said. "Was it superior performance, or are we seeing resistance and need to change the strategy to address it?"
Currently, accessing the data is restricted to using an office PC or the SST Field PC. That will soon be changing. "We are moving to other platforms, including a Windows 8 development pack, iPhones and Androids as well as tablets," he said.
In an industry where challenges are forcing change on growers, retailers and suppliers, it is hardly surprising that data handling systems continue to evolve as well.