John Woodhouse has the equipment and plenty of desire to continue the precision ag game. He believes the profit potential is significant. His problem? He doesn't have a game plan.

“I made the decision early on that if a farmer is going to make any money with precision agriculture, he's going to have to do the work himself,” says the Lucerne, IN, farmer.

But there are hidden risks when you buy your own technology. Woodhouse has learned that, at times, the cutting edge becomes the bloody edge.

His Rockwell controller is still one of his favorites. But that company left agriculture a long time ago. And now that Case IH has stepped back from its AFS Services support program, it isn't clear how he'll write precision ag prescriptions for his planter, drill, sprayer or fertilizer spreader. All of them are wired for variable-rate (VR) applications using Case IH technology. The company has assured Woodhouse that it will help him with his precision ag software concerns.

Despite the setbacks, Woodhouse is enthusiastic about the profits he sees with precision ag. He knows the software problems are short-term.

“Variable-rate applications are the future,” he says. “I know we can reduce rates and increase yields.”

Woodhouse saw his fertilizer bill cut in half when he started to apply phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) based on 2½-acre grids. “The only difference between us applying it and a commercial applicator is we had to make a trip for each element,” he says. “Our prototype spreader doesn't have the ability to apply several different products at once. I'm a stubborn character. I didn't want to pay what the dealer was going to charge for 3,200 acres.”

The Indiana farmer applied P and K according to soil tests. “Some areas needed just P, others just K; some didn't need either,” he says. “But we've learned it's important to get the macro- and micronutrients in balance.”

Eventually, Woodhouse intends to grid soil types rather than fields. “We've got too much variability within some fields for the straight 2½-acre grids to give us the accuracy we want,” he says.

Working with precision ag has taught Woodhouse that you don't always know what you think you know.

“With our AFS planter we varied the corn population from 33,000 on our low ground to 24,000 on the higher ground. We also left one strip with a flat rate,” he says. “The flat strip beat the VR for yield. That told me we did not know what we were doing.”

Woodhouse turned to Select Seed Hybrids' Roger Dillman, Logansport, IN, for help with hybrid selection. If you have a choice, switching hybrids will make more money than switching populations as you plant, says Dillman.

“I've worked with John and other farmers on getting the correct hybrid in the correct place and we've seen yield increases of 8-10%,” he says.

Dillman asks his customers a lot of questions before recommending hybrids. “You need to know the soil type, drainage, when you intend to plant, when you intend to harvest, what plant population you intend to use and how much fertilizer you intend to use,” he says. “Hybrids are just like people. If you put them in the wrong place, you've got a mess.”

Woodhouse proved himself wrong with soybeans as well. “On sandy soil we planted 250,000 seeds and on our heavy soils we dropped that down to 180,000. Germination was terrible in beans around here last year. I had one field that should have been replanted but I decided not to. It ended up being the highest-averaging field I had, at 58 bu. In some spots the yield monitor showed it was hitting almost 75 bu.

“It showed me again that I don't know anything,” Woodhouse chuckles. “In other years we've seen 90-bu spots on heavy ground with low populations and 85-bu yields on poor ground with high populations. If we can figure out what works consistently, we can make a substantial savings in seed cost.”

He jokes that this year he may use “Wes software” to vary rates. That means his son Wes will manually try to accomplish what the on-board computer equipment did last year. He'll get help from his brother Chip, who also is part of the farm operation.

A new sprayer equipped with chemical injection will be added to Woodhouse's list of VR equipment in 2001. Maybe.

“We're just software away from spraying VR. There's no reason to dump high rates of chemical on light soils. We can save money with VR and help the environment when we back off chemical use.”

Precision ag has proved profitable for Woodhouse in ways he hadn't imagined. “In the last two years, we've rented two farms because the landlords knew we were working with VR. They like the technology and believe that if we're treating each 2½-acre grid as a separate field, it has to be better for the whole farm.”

The whole industry will see benefits when people decide to work together, believes Woodhouse. “All these companies are working in their own direction. The precision ag community needs to throw its egos out the window and do some good.”

But his optimism always bubbles back to the surface. “I think precision ag is one of the greatest things in agriculture,” he says.