Employing precision in farm-runoff battle Satellites: With timely help from above, some farmers are employing precision agriculture technology in their effort to stem the flow of nutrients into streams.

January 10, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

WILLARDS -- In their battle to control nutrient runoff from their fields, a few Maryland farmers are turning to a space-age military technology originally designed to guide long-range rockets to their targets.

"It's a satellite receiver," Brooks Clayville said of the soup mug-size canister atop a 3-foot pole mounted on the front of an all-terrain vehicle. "And it's changing the way farmers farm."

The receiver picks up signals from a global positioning satellite orbiting more than 10,000 miles above Earth, and is tied into a Dell laptop computer mounted above the rig's handlebars.

"We use the vehicle to take soil samples," Clayville said as he revved the engine to keep it from stalling.

"The satellite signal pinpoints our exact location in the field, to within a few feet, and we use map fields so that we can return to the same spot over and over again."

The soil samples tell a farmer how much nitrogen and phosphorus is already in the ground and how much manure or chemical fertilizer the farmer will need to spread for healthy crop growth.

The key is for farmers to apply just the right amount of manure or chemical fertilizer to supply only the nitrogen and phosphorus that will be absorbed by the plants as they grow, eliminating any excess from building up in the fields or leaching into streams.

Nutrients from farm runoff are suspected of contributing to the toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks in Maryland waters during the summer that prompted the governor to order the closings of sections of three Eastern Shore waterways.

Clayville, is owner of Eastern Precision Services Co., a Snow Hill concern that does soil sampling.

Eastern is part of Ecosystems Management Inc., a consortium based in the Harford County community of Street, established to assist farmers in the use of precision agriculture technology to reduce the amount of animal waste, commercial pesticides and fertilizers making their way into streams feeding into the Chesapeake Bay.

James C. Richardson, president of Ecosystems, said farmers should be able to reduce their use of costly chemical fertilizers, increase productivity and improve the environment by making use of the precision farming practices laid out in the consortium's AG2000 program.

"We have got to save the farmer money, and we are sure we can do that," said James Richardson as he demonstrated the technology on a 1,600-acre poultry and grain farm near this Wicomico town.

hTC After the satellite system is used to develop a computerized map of a farm, Richardson said, the land is divided into 2.5 acre grids. A sample of soil is taken from each section.

The samples tell how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potash is already in the ground and how much more is needed for healthy crops. "We know how much nitrogen and phosphorus is in the manure, and we come up with a prescription that tells farmers how much manure or chemical fertilizer they can use on each section of land," Richardson said.

With the prescription and guided by the satellite positioning system, a farmer pulling a manure spreader across a field can speed up or slow down the application depending upon the needs of each section of land. The company charges $8 per acre for its service, which does not include the cost of fertilizer application.

Can the technology save the farmer enough money to make it worthwhile?

"I'm sure of it; we have already proved it," said farmer Lee Richardson (no relation to James), where the technology was demonstrated.

He said it is common practice at the farm to use a starter fertilizer on corn planted each year to get it off to a good start.

"This system said that was not necessary, and this year we didn't use any starter," he said. "Our corn yield was the same. It showed we didn't need it."

The savings realized by not using the starter fertilizer, he said, amounted to between $12 and $15 a acre.

Us of the global positioning satellite is not entirely new for Maryland farmers. Some have been experimenting with it for the past three years.

The technology is getting new attention now, according to James Richardson, because of recent pressure on farmers, especially those on the lower Eastern Shore, to reduce runoff from their fields as a result of the Pfiesteria outbreak.

"I've been involved in precision farming for two years," he said. In the beginning I said the technology was still 10 years down the road. But the situation is changing. My guess now is that in two to five years it will be implemented by most farms in Maryland."

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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