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Technology a 'Game Changer' for DeKalb Co. Farmer

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, April 2, 2021

Thanks to modern technology, today's crop farmers are making better decisions, saving money on inputs, and communicating more accurately with their employees. The technology that makes these things possible may be expensive in some cases, but farmers usually see a return on investment within one or two years.

In the ever-changing world of technology, Jake Walker of Walker Farms in DeKalb County is an early adopter of technology. Armed with an iPad and cell phone, he can pull up an application map wherever he is at—the office, home or even his pickup—and see what his employees have done in the field that day.

The map is like a painted picture, with the recently sprayed areas showing up in color.

"When a sprayer pulls out of a field, that map is already uploaded," Walker said. "It used to be, at the end of the day, you'd have to ask them (employees), talk to them, to keep track of what's been done and what hasn't. Well, now, on my iPad or my phone, I can see where the sprayer's at, almost real time. When they pull out of the field, it shows the application map."

With the help of autosteer technology, the sprayer "paints" the field with fertilizer. There are no overlaps and no missed spots. As the nitrogen is applied, the colored areas show up on Walker's iPad. Thanks to remote desktop software, he can view the maps on his iPad or cell phone.

Walker said the data available to him in real time has made his life as a farmer "way easier."

So far this spring, he has already applied nitrogen to a field of wheat.

"We have started, and relatively early," he said.

Corn and soybean planting on his 5,000 acres will follow as soon as the soil warms up.

"If the conditions are good, the first week of April, we'll go," he said.

Jake farms in partnership with his father, Rory. In addition to corn, soybeans and wheat, they do custom baling and irrigate approximately 20 percent of their crops.

They also raised cover crops. Jake said they hadn't terminated those crops as of March 19.

"Chemicals don't work as well in the cold weather, and those cover crops are no different than a weed," he said. "They've got to be actively growing to terminate them."

As for communicating with his four full-time employees and two part-time workers, Walker said everyone on the team has access to Google Sheets. Walker relays instructions via the cloud, and the workers check that program before going to the field. That way, everyone sees the same thing.

As Walker explained, "There's no more passing notes, no more talking on the radio, misinterpretations or screwing up. He's (the employee) got it in front of him. He can see it while he's doing it. It can just be changed on the fly."

There's no cost involved with using Google, and it's effective.

When a new employee joins the team, one of the first questions Walker asks is, "Do you have a Google account?" Most of the younger workers do, so Walker simply shares a folder with him and the employee can immediately access the information.

"It's a lot better way of communicating and keeping everybody on the same page," he said. "Those technologies have made my life a lot easier."

Walker may be among the last generation of farmers who worked with planters equipped with drive chains. Those antiquated machines have been replaced variable rate planters with electric drives and the ability to diagnose different soil conditions. If the planter moves over a low spot, the sensors apply downforce on the planting unit to make sure the seed gets into the ground. Walker said the sensor can also provide lift when needed.

Walker said each row has its own "brain" that can sense differences in soil moisture, temperature and organic matter. This allows Walker to plant a seed that matches the soil in that section of the field. One zone may have dry soil while another area may have heavy residue and wetter soil. Each may require a different type of seed. Walker refers to these as defensive and offensive hybrids.

A defensive hybrid performs well under drought stress and can endure wet soil in the spring. On the other hand, an offensive hybrid may have very little defense against disease or drought but will outyield the defensive hybrid.

The lines separating the management zones aren't always straight, so he relies on the planter knowing which areas need an offensive hybrid and which ones require a defensive hybrid. The result is higher yields.

Another benefit of this planting technology is the rows don't overlap. This prevents seed from being wasted, thus saving money. However, he said it is important to have seed varieties with close maturity dates.

Last year, Walker Farms was among several hundred growers in eight Midwest states who participated in a pilot project with Bayer to employ climate friendly farming practices.

Bayer enrolled 200,000 acres in the first year and plans to continue the program again this year but with more acres and more growers. The goal is to achieve a 30 percent reduction in field greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in regions where the company operates.

Walker said participation in the program was relatively easy, thanks to his use of technology. He shared his crop maps and records to document his practices. Bayer also relies on satellite imagery to verify producer compliance.

"The technology is allowing us to participate in some of these new programs with a lot less legwork involved," he said.

For his part, Walker earned $10 per acre from Bayer.

He said the payments are nice, but he realizes he gives up some flexibility to farm those acres. Walker said the program limits his ability to perform any tillage on ground that needs to be smoothed up after a wet fall. Also, fields with cover crops have to be terminated before he can plant a cash crop. With 5,000 acres to farm, he needs good weather in the spring to terminate the crop before he can plant seed.

Walker noted that equipment technology is evolving. Farmers can now plant into an existing stand of clover. That's something that couldn't have been done 10 years ago, he said.

Nevertheless, he said that most growers apply cover crops on a small percentage of their acreage.

"Flexibility is a lot in our business," he said.

With technology, the rate of adoption is picking up speed. For Walker Farms, new technology has been a "game changer."

Walker isn't sure what the future holds, but he always has an eye on what's coming in the pipeline.

"We're probably an early adopter, but we have moved farther down the spectrum toward the early majority in recent years," Walker said. "We've had less tolerance for complication—simplicity has value—and high expectations for products to work straight out of the box. Therefore, we may let a new technology come out for a year before jumping in with both feet."

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