High-tech ways lead to higher farm yields Military satellites provide useful data

November 24, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

CORDOVA -- Space-age military technology that helped guide tank and troop movements in the Persian Gulf war is now being used by a handful of Maryland farmers with hopes of boosting the size of their corn, soybean and wheat harvests.

One of the pioneers in this area of agriculture's adaptation of the military system is Robert Hutchison, who with three brothers farms 3,700 acres around this rural Eastern Shore town.

Hutchison points to a shiny metal canister mounted on the roof of his giant John Deere combine and says it is part of a system that he thinks "could revolutionize farming."

The five-inch diameter unit, which resembles a lawn-mower air filter, is a satellite receiver. It's used to pick up signals from the military's global positioning satellites, orbiting more than 10,000 miles above the Earth. The signal is used to pinpoint the location of Hutchison's tractor to within a square yard as it makes its way through the fields.

Used in conjunction with a yield monitor mounted in the cab of the tractor, Hutchison is able to map his acreage and know exactly where he's harvesting 190 bushels of corn per acre and where the yield drops off to 150 or even down to 60 or 50 bushels.

That's valuable information that Hutchison can use to increase the crop yields and the efficiency of his farm.

Farmers have traditionally managed their land on a per-field basis. With GPS, as the satellite system is commonly called, they can micromanage their land, becoming precision farmers. Instead of applying an even amount of fertilizer over the entire field, farmers can be site-specific, adjusting the use of chemicals in sections of the field.

Some Midwest growers claim that the GPS system has allowed them to cut fertilizer costs by as much as $10 to $12 an acre, saving thousands of dollars.

In addition to saving money, it reduces runoff of chemicals -- especially critical in the areas that drain into Chesapeake Bay.

"One of the biggest benefits that I see at this point," said Hutchison, "is that it enables me to make better decisions and more confident decisions" that could be the difference between making and breaking the operation.

"It's not foolproof. Nothing is, but it will be a big help," he said.

Spurred by pressures to increase profits and limit the use of chemicals, GPS farming got its start in the Corn Belt about five or six years ago, according to R. Ronald Mulford, a research farm manager with the University of Maryland in Poplar Hill.

Farmers there use GPS to map and analyze their fields to determine the number of plants the soil can support and the amount of seed needed, as well as how much herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer is required for specific sections of the fields.

Now, farmers like Hutchison are trying to determine whether precision farming techniques can pay off on the much smaller farms of the East.

According to Mulford, the Hutchison farm is one of four in Maryland that started experimenting with the technology two years ago, with the Maryland Grain Producers Association helping to pick up the costs.

The association rented the satellite receivers and paid the $500 a year for the computer printing of colored maps that show crop-yield variations over an entire field.

Even now, he said, only about 20 farmers are tinkering with it.

"It is still in its infant stage here," said Mulford. "It is still experimental."

When it comes time to plant next spring, farmers involved in the test will have to pay the full cost themselves.

An entire GPS system, including yield monitor, receiver and computer to print maps, will run between $10,000 and $13,000, according to Mulford.

He said that some of the farm equipment manufacturers are beginning to install GPS systems on new tractors.

Farmers are generally a skeptical group, and they will want to know that it's worth the money before upgrading their equipment.

Savings can be immediate, Mulford said.

At Frank Dill's farm in Kent County, for example, soil samples showed that only about half of a 65-acre corn field needed a coating of lime. Lime costs about $33 a ton, said Mulford, and a ton normally covers an acre.

"So, there was immediate savings," said Mulford.

"It has the potential to pay for itself, but we still need more information," added Mulford. "What we suggest is that instead of farmers making the investment in GPS immediately, they run yield tests for a number of years to see if there are variations."

In a report earlier this year to a symposium held by the Northeastern branch of the American Society of Agronomy, Matthew A. Bower questioned the potential of precision farming in the Northeast.

The environmental specialist with the University of Maryland's Department of Biological Resource Engineering wrote that "while the technology offers great promise, both economically and environmentally, the specifics do not exist to define farmers and farm enterprises for which the technology will be profitable.

"In the Midwest, precision farming's potential has been demonstrated," he said. "But the Midwest is not the Northeast. We think a closer examination of precision farming is warranted here in the Northeast before farmers can adopt this technology with confidence."

Hutchison says that while it's too early to say for sure -- he believes five years of data will be needed -- his guess is that the technology will pay off.

"In my opinion, this is a change on the magnitude of the introduction of hybrid corn seed that doubled yields overnight in the 1940s. It compares with the mechanization after World War II when farms switched from plowing with horses to tractors, and the advent of no-till farming in the late 1960s."

But, as in the case of any new technology, Hutchison said, it is "kind of scary to know you have to keep up with it."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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