Bob Metz flies, but certainly not by the seat of his pants. This Browns Valley, MN, grower has married his love of flying with precision farming - and there's no doubt he's committed to both.
Critics might say that flying over fields to make cropping decisions is hardly a scientific agronomic practice. Metz would disagree, sort of.
"I don't rely on visual inspection alone, but it does allow me to check for weed pressure and wet spots. Often, I simply land in the field and take a closer look," he explains.
With 2,800 tillable acres stretching over 20 miles - another reason for an ultralight aircraft - Metz enlists a crew of consultants for advisory services. That includes an agronomist, a banker, an accountant and a variety of other crop specialists. But, more importantly, four years ago he and several other farmers helped organize a small, informal high-tech precision farming club with members from west-central Minnesota and east-central South Dakota.
"We started with eight farms, all from different counties," Metz says. "We try to meet four times a year and try to conduct a farm tour annually.
"We learn a lot from each other and I think we're a cohesive group because we live far enough apart so there's no competition. We have open discussions where everyone feels free to talk."
Communicating is the key, of course. "If no one talks, how are we going to learn from our mistakes and successes? Really, we're kind of a production-oriented support group," he admits. "If something isn't working right and you're frustrated, you can talk to someone in the group."
The group also works with researchers from South Dakota State University to help with computer mapping and setting up test plot protocols. Eventually, those research results are shared with the group.
Originally, the basic criteria for being part of the group, Metz says, were to have a yield monitor and an interest in sharing ideas. However, it turns out most in the group are much more technically savvy.
Four years ago, for example, Metz soil-sampled his entire farm in 4.4-acre grids and started yield mapping. Based on that, he's now in the process of taking some of the poorer acres out of production because, as he puts it, "It's all about the bottom line. I don't want to pay for inputs that don't work. Grid sampling helps us put fertilizer in the right spot and saves us money."
Metz's soils vary so much in pH that he can lose half his soybean yield by not planting the right seed. "With our high-pH soils, we need different bean varieties for those hill knobs we identified when sampling," he says.
Metz solid seeds (in 10" spacings) all his beans with a Case IH 40' Concord air seeder. Soon, when the software is available, he'll be changing varieties on the go. For now, though, he manually changes seed from the two seed tanks on the air seeder.
Metz changes varieties partially based on aerial photos that show iron chlorosis. He also hires someone to take infrared photos. "We do a lot of test plot work, too. We're always putting a strip of a new bean next to an existing bean field to see how it works," he says.
For corn, Metz uses a 12-row Case IH 900 planter and seeds six rows with one hybrid, six with another. Currently, he's planting in 30" rows, but is exploring narrowing to 22". "I'm more interested in increasing yields than cutting costs," he says. "Essentially, with maps and a yield monitor, I'm test plotting entire fields. I use one variety as a constant across most all of my fields, then plant and test other varieties against that."
His 80'-wide sprayer also split sprays from two separate sources: one holds 500 gallons (two, 250-gallon saddle tanks), the other holds 70 gallons. "That's saved us at least $4,000-5,000 a year," he says. "Now I hardly ever spray without mixing both tanks."
With all the new technology, like satellite imagery, for example, farmers need to learn practical applications, says consultant Bob Narem, who has been consulting for Metz since 1987. "We used to have 20- to 30-acre fields on smaller farms. Now, we have quarter-section fields on 3,000- acre farms and we need tools to measure and manage the variability."
At this point, Narem says, much of what the precision group contributes is just setting benchmarks. "You might say we're still in an exploratory phase," he says. "But because this is a group of leading-edge farmers and early adopters of new technology, we're able to short-circuit the learning curve by drawing in expert speakers to help us learn to use these new tools."
Narem has been an advisor to the group since its inception. Another group member, Dave Diedrich, who farms 4,000 acres with his brother Larry near Elkton, SD, wanted to experiment with different on-farm research, then trade ideas. The group has enabled the brothers to compare varieties, plant populations and fertility rates with other members.
"When we started, a fair amount of our focus was checking the accuracy of our yield monitor," Diedrich says. "We wanted to go to different geographic areas to get different data."
The Diedrichs have been no-tilling since 1991 and have been zone-tilling (strip-tilling) on corn for three years.
"When we went zone-till to help eliminate compaction and get a uniform seedbed, I went to look at the other guys in our group who were doing it, too. I learned a lot from them.
"Now, we're even comparing zone-till to non-zone-till in some side-by-side research. So far, we're happy with it," says Diedrich.
In the fall, the Diedrichs fertilize into a zone and use 18" covering disks to make a 3-4" ridge. They then plant into that ridge in the spring.
"We're also checking yield difference maps on corn and soybeans to see if it pays to change varieties on the go. It's possible I could pick up a 2-bu/acre yield by planting the right variety in the right spot. I could even use two extreme varieties in extreme topographies.
"I'm more interested in looking at varieties than fertility," Diedrich says. "In some fields a variety change isn't going to do any good. But in some fields, especially on hills, it definitely will."