Kent Stones knows the costs of high technology. "Sometimes we're on the cutting edge; sometimes we're just on the bloody edge," says this Lebanon, KS, farmer. He speaks with the experience of a man who has switched completely to no-till and has begun to bring his farm under the precision agriculture umbrella.
That combination could make the Great Plains the mecca of low-cost farming, according to Stones. "If the low-cost producer isthe last dog standing, the Plains farmer will be there," he says. "With lower land, labor and production costs, I can grow soybeans for $3.60/bu."
Stones' conversion to no-till began in the mid-90s when he was still growing two crops every three years in a wheat-milo-fallow rotation. By 1997 he no-tilled roughly 20% of his acres and in 1998 he no-tilled all his acres for the first time.
The switch to no-till allowed Stones to use a four- year rotation of wheat-wheat-corn or milo-soybeans or sunflowers and then back to wheat.
"With no-till we eliminated the fallow year," he says. "In a high-yield environment I can net $500 an acre over variable costs in the four years. That's more than twice the income compared to conventional tillage."
Stones' dryland corn and soybean yields are impressive. Corn yields of 130 bu/acre aren't unusual and he's disappointed if beans don't top 40 bu/acre. His average bean yield has topped 50 bu on occasion.
Like most no-tillers, Stones enjoys the equipment that he doesn't have and the extra time he does.
"When we made the decision to go all no-till, we sold a 400-hp, 4WD tractor and a 36' disk. We used to disk 24 hours a day after harvest. We were killing ourselves and our soil, getting it in condition to wash and blow. No-till has made farming more human. We used to put 1,200 hours a year on that 4WD tractor."
After trying different no-till planters and drills, Stones bought a Flexi-Coil 8100 Series air planter for 1999. He uses a 7.5" drill attachment for wheat and soybeans and a 12-row, 30" attachment for corn, sunflowers and milo. He also uses a 60' broadcast spreader with the air unit to spread dry fertilizer in winter.
The air seeder was his most recent advancement in precision ag technology. He has already mapped 100% of his fields, and 25% of those have been grid sampled. On-board computers allow him to vary seeding and fertilizer rates as he plants.
"The most valuable part of precision agriculture is the focus it puts on details. It has made us more aware of the small areas in our fields," Stones says. "Ultimately, it will lower our cost of production."
The savings that Stones has seen with no-till and precision ag have changed his philosophical focus as well as his balance sheet. "In the last couple of years our philosophy has become that we want to be leading-edge stewards of all the resources that we have been put in charge of," he says. "That includes land, capital and associates."