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Smart Farming

August 07, 2015

GPS farming for better harvest

Farming 101

Close your eyes and envision a farm. What do you see? Those amber waves of grain against a deep blue sky? Huge combines working off into the horizon? Maybe a classic farmhouse with a red barn and silo? Chances are good the one thing you do not think about is a crap shoot.

Odd as that may sound to most of us, farmers know all too well the gambling side of the business. There is even a term for it: “betting the farm,” meaning “to spend almost all the money you have on something that you think might bring you success.” While savvy farmers hardly “bet the farm,” they do occasionally roll the dice in a wager that the growing season actually turns out in their favor.

Unfortunately, not all bets are equal. Most farmers have historically struggled with some big bets in hopes of making a large profit or just making ends meet. Two of the most important decisions farmers make every year are what to plant and when to harvest. It is not as simple as it seems. Plant wheat and the bottom could fall out of the market before harvest time. Harvest moisture is also a huge wild card, along with late and uneven crop maturity. Then there are all of the unexpected frustrations: equipment failures, bottlenecks at drying silos and grain elevators, and market volatility, both locally and globally. They can all spell trouble for farmers. That is not even factoring in the potential impacts of global warming, El Niño, crop diseases, and the countless other concerns that have some prognosticators worrying about a possible meltdown in the global food supply.1 Against a backdrop of some stiff odds, it is no wonder farming can sometimes be a high stakes gamble.2

Think of it this way. Over the past century, millions of Americans have literally bet the family farm on the chance to beat the odds against Mother Nature or the marketplace… and lost. The result is sobering. More than two-thirds of those family farms are now gone.3 Of those that remain, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that fewer than 25% earn more than $50,000 a year.4 That seems like grim news. But not everything is gloomy. Far from vanishing entirely, family farms in the U.S. are actually growing, if not in acreage at least in number.5 Maybe it is the green movement or growing popularity of the farm-to-table trend. Whatever the reason, it you may be surprised to learn that most crop production in the U.S. today, including cereal crops, vegetables, and fruits, still comes from these family-run farms that continue to dominate American agriculture.6

Who are these farmers? In the developed world, many are college educated. By the age of 30, most can also claim at least two decades of experience deploying and operating modern agricultural technology on the family spread. From sophisticated seed drills and quarter-million-dollar combines to Internet-driven technologies, today’s farmers are the best equipped in history to make the most of their land, crops, and profits. Success is no longer simply left to a roll of the dice.7

Smart Farming

Of all the plants on the planet, those producing cereal grains – wheat, corn, oats, barley, rye, rice, sorghum, and millet – are the most important in sustaining life. Wheat, for example, is a critical source of calories and the main source of protein for billions of people around the globe.8 While the U.S. is only the tenth largest wheat producer, it is the world’s largest wheat exporter with nearly an 18% share of the world market.9 It does not take much imagination to realize just how important wheat is to the global economy or to the family farm that rolls the dice every year to grow it.10

In the past, most farmers lost sleep trying to determine the best time to harvest their grain. Too much or too little moisture or low levels of protein could cost them dearly at the grain elevator, especially since prices are based on a grain’s composition. While farmers have tested moisture levels for years, protein and oil content – both critical components in defining quality and price – were left to the elevator testing stations to measure. Newer, faster, and more accurate technology was needed to measure moisture, protein, and oil content right on the farm.11

A Portable Solution

Enter the Inframatic (“IM”) 8800 grain analyzer by Perten, a PerkinElmer company. Using Near-infrared (NIR) technology in an affordable, battery-operated unit, this rugged, new portable reference instrument allows farmers to test wheat, canola, sorghum, and barley for moisture, protein, and oil all in under two minutes right in the field.

“The IM 8800 is really a first for farmers,” Perten Business Area Manager Henrik Andrén says. “Its accuracy is similar to instruments used at elevators, but is economical enough for farm use. The instrument allows farmers to identify their highest value grain and to take advantage of the premiums paid for malting barley and high protein wheat.”

Since the Inframatic 8800 also has built-in GPS capabilities, farmers can develop protein maps of their fields. That makes harvesting decisions less of a gamble by identifying pockets of premium grain for higher profits.

For Matt Lane, a farmer in New South Wales, Australia, that is critically important. The IM 8800 not only allows him to sell more grain on advance contracts for specific protein content, he is confident that he can now deliver the right quality at a premium price. “Anyone using on-farm storage needs an Inframatic 8800," he says.

Those same sentiments are echoed by Per Landén of the Charlottenlund farm in Sweden. A supplier of low protein wheat to a vodka producer, and high protein wheat to flourmills, accuracy and alignment to the instruments used in the grain trade are important. "The performance of IM 8800 gives me peace of mind when selling the grain to a certain specification," Landén notes.

Michael Reimer, Perten’s general manager in Winnipeg, Canada, says it best in summing up the Inframatic 8800. “I love the technology,” he notes, adding that it provides farmers with a near-instantaneous analysis of their grain. “If wheat protein is high,” he adds, “it should make a ‘Cha-ching’ sound.”

References

  1. Foodmageddon could be just 3 steps away, USA Today.
  2. Farming is a gamble year after year, MLive.
  3. Losing the Family Farm, C Rogers, J Holmes, A Bunch, Texas A&M University.
  4. AG 101 Demographics, EPA.
  5. Cropland Consolidation and the Future of Family Farms, J. MacDonald, USDA.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Farmland , D&E Entertainment.
  8. Wheat Matters, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
  9. USDA Wheat Baseline, 2015–24, USDA.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The Composition of Dry-Farm Crops, Soil and Health Library.

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