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Delaware farmers tap into precision agriculture, cutting edge tech

Katie Tabeling
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For today’s farmers, time is money — and today’s technology can save them both.

Just ask Paul Lester at Hunter Marie Farms in Middletown. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat for Perdue and Hostetter grain on his 2,700-acre farm with his brother. A few years ago, he decided to invest in some technology: a GPS-powered fertilizer sprayer.

Ellis Farms in Millsboro uses GPS technology in its tractors and combines for auto-steer capabilities, which enables it drive in an exact pattern to collect corn. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

“Before you’d use a marker system and your eyes to estimate where you need to fertilize. But with GPS, there’s no guesswork,” Lester said. “You’re using the system to run across the spots you miss and make sure you don’t overlap so your seeds are completely covered.”

It may seem like a small thing, but for Delaware farmers who harvest $184.5 million in corn and soy, every seed that does not germinate and grow is an investment with no return. Any edge is better than leaving the crop to the mercy of Mother Nature.

Lester has since invested in yield mapping — or using data to analyze the field — to make the best use of his fertilizer. That way, he can predict which part of his farm needs more fertilizer.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of money on this. We’re trying to strip till in 30-inch spaces and tying that in the GPS,” he said. “On average it’s saving about 10% of our costs, and that can add up if you’re talking about $2 million in input. If you’re not ahead on the practices, you’re behind.”

Big data down on the farm

Jerrod Miller, an agronomy specialist with the University of Delaware’s Georgetown campus, uses drones to map research fields. Drones equipped with multi-spectral cameras can detect a crop’s health. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

To the naked eye, a field may look like a field, but a farmer knows that each acre has data below the surface. Some patches of soil yield better crops than others, because of the soil composition, its slope and whether it has continuous access to sunlight.

With GPS trackers on tractors and geographic information systems (GIS) that can visualize collected data, farmers can harvest more with less. For example, on top of some combines sits a white dome, a sensor equipped with a real-time kinematic GPS that can measure on a sub-inch level. 

“I can come back 20 years from now and make the same exact pass within an inch of where I was back then,” said James Adkins, agriculture engineer and scientist with the University of Delaware’s Carvel Research and Education Center in Georgetown. “With your phone you can get up to 30 feet, but to get to the sub-inch level, you have to get another correction signal. That combine drops a data point every three seconds, not only GPS but it’ll also have a moisture and yield rate tied to it.”

That point is registered with a load cell sensor which detects force — or how hard the corn gleaned from the cob is hitting an electronic plate.

All that data can be combined and visualized on a color map using GIS, which can be viewed on a monitor inside the combine’s cab. Data collected can range from soil, hydration and pest conditions, and can help farmers pinpoint what areas are high-yield and low-yield zones. 

Years of data can help pinpoint patterns in the field, and set averages for fertilizer or seeds to be planted. The same technology in a planter machine can help register soil conditions and set the weight of the gauge wheel that drives a blade into the soil, determining how deep a seed will be planted.

With unique field shapes, GPS technology can also register which area has been covered by fertilizer or pesticide. Swath control closes off certain sections of farm equipment as it crosses an area that was already covered, preventing the farmer from applying fertilizer and pesticide twice. It not only saves money, but also minimizes environmental impact.

Precision agriculture methods, if adopted on a widespread scale, could reduce farming costs by $100 billion by 2030, according to a McKinsey study. But even on a smaller scale, farms like Ellis Farms in Millsboro are already seeing the benefits.

“Before we used to till 600 acres with five people, and now we’re close to 2,000 acres and only three or four of us. Soybeans are going 100 bushels per acre, and that’s pretty good. Technology got us to this point,” said Kenny Twilley, who has been working for Ellis Farms for 18 years. 

For the past three years, he’s been driving a computerized tractor that can hold 1,875 bushels of corn, transporting it from the combine to a waiting grain cart, where it will drive it off to a mill.

“Sometimes, I think the tractor’s smarter than I am,” Twilley said with a laugh.

Latest innovations

Auto-steering capabilities may be the most recent innovation on the market, enabled by real-time kinematic GPS with centimeter accuracy. Some tractors have the feature built in, while others can be retroactively installed. The function can help planters and combines to follow straight lines but can also take the pressure off a farmer in the cab. Farmers can work around 80 hours a week during harvest season, so auto-steer can reduce operator fatigue.

Jon Baker of Trap Woods uses an ear photometry app to estimate corn yield while out on a client’s farm. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM PALERMO

Self-driving tractors, like self-driving cars, are not quite ready for the market but UD’s Georgetown campus has tested some autonomous machines in its fields a few years ago.

Drones are also becoming more popular in the skies, using regular cameras or multispectral cameras, to scout and map crops. Much like satellite imagery in the 1970s, different wavelengths of light can determine what’s out there. If a plant’s healthy, it reflects visible light compared to near infrared light. 

Crop advisor consultant Trap Woods Inc. uses them today versus boots on the ground. President Jim Palermo noted that even smartphone technology can make a difference.

“There’s an app that we use where we can send a photo of a pest [plant] and find out what it is. From there, we can figure out how to treat it,” Palermo said. “My scouts can now have an entire catalogue of field maps and fertilizers out there while we’re using the drone.”

The cutting edge of technology at this point is robots automating tasks that used to be handled by farm hands. Adam Stager’s TRIC Robototics, which uses a robot that shines the right amount of UVC to kill pests on crops, is now working the fields in two California organic farms. In July, Stager was testing how to eliminate spider mites.

Up in Pike Creek, Woodside Creamery is now in its third year with the VMS Classic by DeLava, a robot that milks its dairy herd. A process that used to take up to two hours can now be done on a rotating basis with a cow opting to stand still or bribed with a snack while the VMS Classic lines up cups to each udder.

The robot can also detect disease or other anomalies with the milk, as well as which cows are producing milk and how well they’re fed.

“There’s even an app that uses a camera so you can see if a cup got knocked to the floor, as well as a data summary of the production of the herd,” said Janet Mitchell, of Woodside Creamery. “The biggest thing was my husband had to get a smartphone, and he was happy with the flip phone — until he got the smartphone, that is.”

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