Everyone knows all the cornfields in Illinois have deep, black soils that will produce better than 200 bushels of corn per acre at the drop of a hat.
What “everyone knows” isn't always true. Take the case of Tim Seifert who farms 2,480 acres near Auburn in central Illinois. Seifert plants corn — white and yellow — and soybeans on 17 different soil types.
“I also have 21 landlords whose farms range all the way from 3.8 to 700 acres,” he says. “I farm 500 acres for the University of Illinois. So I have to use all the help I can get to hone in on those inputs.”
Seifert, whose farm was on a tour held in conjunction with this year's InfoAg Conference in Springfield, Ill., has been doing some form of precision farming for years, beginning with variable rate seeding in 1981. He tried strip-till even before that, in 1979, to reduce costs and retain soil moisture.
His first variable-rate field had seven soil types spread over 100 acres. “The ground was rolling, and I was having a problem with corn lodging at the top of the hills. I decided I could cut my seeding rate on the hilltop.”
Seifert's rudimentary variable-rate system worked. The lodging was reduced, his yields stayed up and he saved three bags of seed that he says were not contributing to yield. “Ten to 12 years ago, that seed would have cost $65 to $70 a bag. Now it's more than $200.”
Over time, Seifert has expanded variable rate seeding to all of his corn and most of his soybeans. He's also branched off into other areas of precision farming, including an Auto Steer project that appears to have taken on a life of its own.
“We were just going to do a simple little Auto Steer just so somebody could drive the tractor,” he said. “I let them slip in the door with it. But once you get RTK (a real time kinematic system that provides sub-inch accuracy), you don't go back.”
Although he's taking a gentle dig at one of his “sponsors,” Seifert says Auto Steer is proving to be a valuable tool, allowing him to open up several new avenues such as controlled traffic patterns and improved spraying for weed control along with the simple task of helping the owner relax.
“My wife told me when I came in one night that RTK must really be working because the stress level is totally down,” he said. “There's no stress. I have a lot of other stuff going on on the tractor, but I don't have to worry about keeping it right on the row.”
Higher nitrogen costs have been driving him to experiment with variable nitrogen rates. “Nitrogen prices went through the roof last year, and they're going to continue to go up,” he says. “Anhydrous is $500 a ton, and that's not cheap. $4 corn will help offset that a little, but prices will continue to increase.”
Seifert says he's found variable rate seeding to be relatively easy over the years. “A number of companies can do this — it's almost a turnkey deal. Variable rate nitrogen, now that's something else.”
In 2007, Seifert applied all of his nitrogen at variable rates, side-dressing most of his 1,300 acres of corn with 28 percent UAN. The rates ranged from 40 gallons of 28 percent to 52 gallons per acre.
At his farm and when he spoke at the InfoAg Conference in Springfield the following day, Seifert talked about the network of specialists he's created to help him with projects such as adopting variable rate nitrogen applications across his whole farm.
One of his sponsors — “I feel just like a NASCAR driver sometimes because I have all these sponsors that I talk about when I come to one of these meetings” — is Brandt Consolidated, a regional farm supply firm that has been providing fertilizer and other inputs to Seifert almost since he began farming.
Seven years ago, Brandt began offering a decision support system program called HighQ, developed by AgVenture Software. Seifert was one of the “guinea pigs” because he had reams of yield data from yield monitors.
“I had all this information, and I had no idea what to do with it,” said Seifert. “HighQ is a program that enables you to put all your inputs in from the time you plant, to how fast you plant, to how much you're planting, to nitrogen rates, to the hybrids you plant.”
“We all know that hybrids perform differently under varying soil conditions, drainage conditions and fertility conditions,” says Pat Schaddel, technical support district manager for Brandt who appeared on the InfoAg program with Seifert. (Brandt's HighQ program shows an average yield difference of 12.4 bushels per acre by hybrid in its customer base.)
The HighQ program gives farmers index ratings on the number of bushels a soil type is capable of producing. Growers can take that and other information in HighQ and determine the variable rate planting population.
“With HighQ I've been able to pinpoint six or seven key hybrids for each field,” says Seifert. “I fix up a prescription for each field: it gets its own nutrients, its own seed and so on. HighQ program allows me to fine-tune all of the inputs for each field and optimize the yields.”
One of those benefits has been helping improve yields in marginal areas of his fields. “Where I find myself really saving dollars is on the low productivity side,” he says. “I got to thinking when I looked at my yield map that the marginal side of those fields was a drag. So my first instinct is to cut my fertilizer.”
That was when fertilizer was significantly less expensive than it is today. Realizing it would be difficult to increase his yields on the low side, Seifert decided, instead, to reduce his plant population in those marginal areas.
“I started cutting back the population in those areas and with the INCT (nitrogen efficiency) test that Brandt puts out, I've been able to cut back on the population and nitrogen and get a healthier stalk. Actually my yield has increased because the quality of the stalk was a little better.”
Over the seven years he's been using the program, HighQ has helped Seifert increase his overall yields significantly.
“My historical yield index rating ranges from 95 to 165,” he says. “I don't know when the university took all that data, but we're way over that now. The fields with a 95 index are producing 180 to 190 bushels per acre and the 165 is producing 240 to 250 bushels.”
Seifert has been increasing his seeding rate over time, but he doesn't think his corn is reaching its maximum yield potential even though Brandt Consolidated's database shows him to be within 2 or 3 bushels of its top yields.
“I have some plots out there that I'm planting with 60,000 seed per acre,” he says. “With as good a seed and genetics that we have I'm not sure where we're going to be at 60,000. But the yield potential's there and with the nitrogen technology that Pat talked about and being able to variable rate that, I think we'll be there sooner than you think.
“If you don't push yourself a little bit and try this, you'll never know where you are.”
Although the learning curve can be steep and the experience can lead to some sleepless nights, Seifert says he knows the new technology he's using is having a positive impact on his bottom line.
“Starting with variable rate last year (2006), I actually kept my nitrogen use down by about 8 gallons per acre. If you take a look at the seed savings and you cut back on your nitrogen usage and increase your yields by 3, 4 or 5 more bushels per acre, when it's all said and done on that 100-acre field, I put $3,000 back in my pocket.”
Dealers like Brandt Consolidated and agronomists such as Tim Smith with CropSmith, a Springfield crop-consulting firm, who has been helping Seifert with variable rate applications, are essential, he says.
“I know how to grease the planter and how to go out and set some of this stuff,” he notes. “But when it came time to change the population from the low side to the high side and prepare to change the nitrogen rate, I had no clue. But I do know that I have Pat's cell phone number and everyone else's cell phone number that I can call.”