A combination of precision technology tools, equipment to match the tasks at hand and tedious time management helped Darrin Stowell enhance production efficiency by 10-15% or more for 2009. And he's confident efficiency will remain high even as grain margins get tighter in the next decade.

Stowell manages crop production on a large operation in southeast Kansas near Pittsburg on the Missouri border. He also handles shop and employee management and has been part of the JCB Farms management team for five years. Raised on a farm near Hutchinson, KS, he earned an environmental engineering bachelor's degree and used those skills while working for a Kansas City company.

“But farming was my first love,” he says — reason enough to return to the turn row.

Stowell admits he felt spread too thin after the farm saw major expansion three years ago. “My most precious commodity is managing time,” he says. “We had a major growth spurt and were spread out over 30 miles. My biggest issue was logistics. I spent an enormous amount of time on the road.

“Fortunately, a second crew was added, as well as a second planter,” he says. “Those were major steps in the farm becoming more efficient.”

A BANK OF computers is also helping him be a better manager and sometimes occupies as much of Stowell's time as that spent inside tractor and combine cabs. Near year-round data analysis is charted for future planning. Everything is assisted by GPS. And probably nothing is more important in the precision program than variable-rate application (VRA).

“The farm has used VRA about eight years,” says Stowell. “It's used both for planting and fertilizer applications, based on soil tests and yield history. We pull all the data from yield monitors to develop yield maps for every field,” he says. “That information and our soil tests go a long way in helping us manage inputs without sacrificing yields.”

The process paid off more than ever for 2009. “Because of the higher prices for fertilizer and other inputs, we wanted to reduce our input costs from 2008,” says Stowell. “Soil tests indicated we could reduce phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

“We held our nitrogen (N) application at the same rates (1 unit of N/bu. of corn). But we had enough residual P and K to reduce both by about 20%. To maintain a 9-23-30 fertilizer rate, we cut back our P and K from 225 lbs./acre to 175. Those rates should still produce a 150-bu. crop, which is a little above our average yield,” he adds.

Fields with low yield capabilities on one end and strong ones on the other receive different fertilizer rates. “We use AgLeader PF 3000 VRA systems and Outback auto-steering,” notes Stowell. “We can jump from the need for 100 units of N in one part of the field to 130-150 in another.”

The process saves on fertilizer and actually produces a stronger-than-normal yield from the poorer land.

The same field may see a 25,000 corn seeding rate in a thinner-soil area compared to 31,000 in a heavier-soil section.

Corn is planted in 20-in. rows. “We used to plant narrow-row — 15 in.,” says Stowell. “But the 20-in. works better for us.” Two John Deere MaxEmerge planters, one 24-row and one 36-row, are equipped with Tru Count air-activated row-shutoff systems. “We use 12 three-row systems and each shuts off separately,” says Stowell. “After you've planted headlands, you don't get any crossover planting and end rows are easier to pick. It provides a reduction on seed and seed costs.”

Overall, he figures he was 10-15% more efficient in 2009 than in 2008, thanks to the better use of the VRA, yield maps and other tools available.

FARM WORKS AND SMS software are used to manage the overall operation. As is illustrated by the arsenal of high-tech systems, farm owners John and Carolyn Burns are keen on staying ahead of farming's technological curve.

Stowell coordinates his operations manager duties with their son Jason Burns, daughter Lynn Moore and office manager Becky Newell. “It's not your typical farm with one boss,” he says. John and Lynn handle marketing, Jason handles farm maintenance and Becky handles accounting and procurement.

Stowell completed the Kansas State University (K-State) Management, Analysis & Strategic Thinking (MAST) program. The innovative farm- and risk-management program combines face-to-face workshops with Web-based distance learning.

He says the program improved his abilities in strategic planning, networking, marketing and other aspects of farm management.

Terry Kastens, K-State agricultural economist and a member of the MAST faculty, says the program helps growers base their decisions “on dollars and cents rather than a gut-feeling instinct.

“A gut feeling matters, but many decisions are subtle enough that until you do a little homework, you don't know how to choose between one situation or another,” he adds. “Subtle decisions can really determine the difference between being merely good and being profitable enough to be around in the long run. The goal should be to do a little bit better than the good farmers around you.”

STOWELL STRESSES THAT his ability to determine the breakeven cost per acre was improved by the program.

“Up to then I was still unsure about how to better determine costs per acre,” he says. “Now, I can look back at past experiences and see how this or that could be done better.”

He is confident his operating efficiency will continuously improve as technology grows and his time, people and equipment management skills grow with it. “I don't expect us to be 10-15% more efficient every year,” he concludes, “but we will see better efficiency each year.

“However, we won't cut corners on things that may reduce production,” he notes. “And if it's May 20 and we still have to plant corn, we do what we have to do to get the crop in.”