Adopting the tools and technology of precision agriculture has its ups and downs. In the Palouse country of the Northwest, the ups and downs are literal as well as figurative. Severe slopes are common here, and so are wheat yields of 100-plus bushels per acre.
Many of the gifts of precision ag that growers and retailers in other parts of the country take for granted don’t play out the same way in the big fields and hills often as steep as 40 percent.
“You can steer the tractor all you want, but when you have implement drift down the hill (it makes many practices more difficult),” explained Dean Walker, manager of precision agriculture for The McGregor Company.
More than 250 million bushels of wheat are grown in this region of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and a good share of that is grown with the help of The McGregor Company. McGregor is making precision ag progress, and Walker sees the company’s measured, deliberate methodology paying off.
“A majority of our customer base now has auto-steer with correction from Deere or Slingshot (Raven) or other manufacturers,” he said, but the technology in the field is capable of much more than what’s
“It’s used for application control and guidance, but the record-keeping and telematics half of the system is not really being utilized,” he explained.
McGregor has a history of innovation out here, fabricating rugged fertilizer rigs and building systems of people, trucks and outlets to support them. It acquired software company AgWorks in 2012 to enhance its information technology capabilities. McGregor is a deliberate and cautious company though, not the one to “jump on the latest bright and shiny thing,” as Walker puts it.
“We prefer to vet out ideas before we take them to our growers,” he said.
He feels the greater precision benefit will come from analyzing data, especially as it is applied to matching new wheat varieties to site-specific field conditions. Although this practice is well along with the hundreds of corn varieties in the Corn Belt, it’s lagged in the Northwest. That’s beginning to change. With more varieties in the pipeline, matching seed to soil types, field moisture, slope and other variables makes precision data more desirable.
“Back in the day, there were only two varieties. You plant A or plant B. Growers had a lot of experience with them,” Walker said. Having more new options is good, he says, but getting new genetics to work is a site-specific, grower-specific challenge. Having more data can take some of the trial and error out of it. “We can only learn so much from a test plot,” he said.
Growers are hungry for research results that are field-scale, Walker says. He sees the day coming when a McGregor account manager goes to his producer with information on varieties, fertilization and rotation that’s benchmarked on the producer’s own ground and maybe compared with data from a focus group of similar producers.
“When you can walk in with that kind of data, that is powerful, powerful information,” he said. “No magic in this. We just have to do the right thing for the grower.”
K. Elliott Nowels is a veteran ag journalist and agribusiness counselor with more than 30 years experience in precision ag technology, the crop input distribution channel and issues management in food and agriculture. You can connect with him at wideopenwindow.net.