Farmers use creative mix of new technology, adapted equipment to grow row crops
By Carolyn Olson, Fairview Farms
When Jonathan and I started farming together 28 years ago, computers were still large desk-top models, car phones had cords, and all tractors had to be guided manually. Today, we can search the internet for parts on our smart phones while the tractor is driving itself down the field. On our 1,100-acre organic crop farm, we use a mix of old and new ideas to ensure our equipment fits our needs.
Upgrading equipment and electronics can be expensive—it doesn’t happen overnight. We have pieced together our equipment lineup slowly over the years. We really enjoy organic farming. We feel good about the technology that we have adopted, which helps us to be better stewards of the land. Here’s some of the equipment and tools we use on our farm.
Soil testing is an important way to determine soil health and fertility. We have our soil grid sampled by our local agronomist following our wheat crop. Along with fertility grid sampling, we are in the process of having our soils typed by a Veris mapping system. The data gathered by these soil testing methods show our certifying agency that the measures we are taking to improve soil health are working. The numbers also help us determine our basic soil fertility needs.
We use hog manure from confinement barns as our primary source of fertilizer, but our soil tests have shown that we need to increase our phosphorus in certain areas. After doing some research and looking at available options, pelleted poultry litter seemed like it would be a good choice for spot spreading on the areas that need the boost. We purchase the pellets by the semi-load, and store them in a shed. It makes it pretty easy to fill the spreader with a tractor and loader bucket.
A couple of years ago, we purchased a Chandler poultry litter spreader with another organic farmer. There are spreaders available with variable rate technology (VRT), but at the time we purchased the spreader, we decided that the VRT wasn’t worth the extra cost.
The agronomist creates a map of the areas where the field is low in phosphorus which is then downloaded onto the auto-guidance computer in the tractor. The driver watches for the areas where the spreader needs to be activated, and flips the switch on or off as needed. This is done ahead of our soybean rotation. Spot spreading helps to make sure we are not over-applying nutrients, and saves on the overall cost of our fertility program.
When the planter is moved from its winter home in the machine shed to the shop, it’s always an exciting time of year—especially if you live in the upper Midwest where the winters can be long. A few years ago we installed the very first part of the Precision Plant system on our planter. The SeedSense 20/20 monitor allowed us to see how well our planter was working, including spacing and accuracy. We were able to make adjustments to the planter to improve seed spacing and population.
Two seasons ago we installed the vSet and DeltaForce systems, which also enabled us to use variable rate technology. Using the Precision Plant technology means that getting the planter ready involves more than just greasing the chains and filling the boxes. There are software updates to run, and adjustments to make on each row. We use a John Deere 7300 18 row planter, so making adjustments can take a little time.
Our agronomist can take our fertility maps, soil type maps, as well as yield data from previous seasons, and create a seeding rate map for the Precision Plant system to read. When we are planting corn or soybeans, we have the John Deere 2630 monitor for the auto-guidance, the SeedSense 20/20 monitor, and an iPad in the cab of the tractor. The SeedSense monitor and the iPad are connected, which enables us to monitor the population, accuracy, and spacing while the iPad monitors the variable-rate seeding map. Using this system, we are doing everything we can to set us up for maximum yields.
It has been said many times that organic farmers like to collect cultivators. The thought is, there must be one out there that will be the magic cultivator. We, too, have amassed a small collection.
Our newest cultivator was one we had spotted at the MOSES Conference a couple of years ago. The K.U.L.T. Kress Fingerweeder cultivator looked like it could reach closer to the plants and eliminate weeds in rows, which our other cultivators could not do. This cultivator also has an optical guidance system which appeared to be a better system than the Navigator with feeler rods that we were using at the time.
Most of the prebuilt systems were too small for our use, so we needed to do some creative thinking. Working with the dealer in the U.S., we figured out what it would take to build one in our shop. We ordered the parts, and searched for a cultivator bar that would be strong enough to support the weight of 18 rows of cultivator shanks and Fingerweeder assemblies.
All new equipment comes with a learning curve. This cultivator is no exception. It isn’t a magic cultivator, but it works in ways our others do not. Jonathan and our employee, Adam, are already dreaming about how they can do things a little differently next year to make this cultivator work even better with our system.
Probably the coolest—and scariest—piece of equipment we own is our flame weeder. This was another winter shop project that started with conversations about how we could make our existing flame weeder better. Instead of tweaking our basic flamer that was made out of an old anhydrous bar, it was decided that a complete change was needed.
Jonathan watched a few online auctions and found a heavy duty sprayer with booms that could raise and lower. He and Adam started by tearing apart the sprayer to get it down to the basic structure. They painted it John Deere green and yellow before starting to assemble the new flame weeder. The 36 burner units from the old flame weeder were cleaned up and installed on the booms of the new flamer. The tank holds 1,000 gallons of LP, and is attached to the platform where the water tank used to sit. We kept the wash-out tank so we could have a small water supply in case we accidentally ignited residue or grasses.
The shields are made out of the sides of old stainless steel hog feeders. They are adjustable to create a solid heat shield, or you can open them to allow the corn plants to fit in between the them. The shields are closed when doing pre-emergent flaming, and opened when flaming corn that is above the six leaf stage. The idea of flame weeding may be old, but there are ways to improve their safety and efficiency.
There are many times when thinking outside the box has led to a great idea. We have all tried to figure out how to clean out the planter, grain truck, or combine between buffer strips and organic crops. We used to haul an air compressor in the back of the tool truck to blow out equipment. It worked great until the little tank ran empty, which would require a trip home for a refill, and a little longer down time. Then we started using a gas-powered leaf blower. That had great power, but it was heavy, and sometimes the fumes could be nauseating when blowing out the grain tank in the combine.
We used the gas-powered blower until the day that Adam came to the farm with a DeWalt 20-volt rechargeable battery leaf blower. It is lightweight, but strong enough to clean out equipment. Cleaning out trucks and equipment is so much easier when using a lightweight blower that isn’t attached to a hose. I’m not sure DeWalt thought about their product being used to clean equipment, but we’re all happy that Adam did.
Organic farming doesn’t necessarily mean that we cannot take advantage of newer electronics and technologies. We use the John Deere auto-guidance system so we can use the same wheel tracks for every pass in the field that we take, with the exception of the combine and fall tillage. Not only does that make us more efficient with fuel and time, but it also minimizes compaction in the field. The auto-guidance system works in conjunction with the other systems we use, and helps us to determine what we need to do to make next year even better.
At the same time, dragging, cultivating and flame weeding are often mentioned as things grandpa used to do. We are not farming like grandpa did, but we do appreciate where we have been, and where we are going. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to equipment and technologies that could help you to meet your soil health and yield goals.
Carolyn Olson and her husband, Jonathan, own and operate Fairview Farms near Cottonwood, Minn., where they grow certified organic corn, soybeans, and small grains on 1,100 acres, some of which have been in the family for over 100 years.
From the November | December 2016 Issue