HARRISONBURG — The tractors, sprayers, planters, combines and other types of equipment that roll over Shenandoah Valley fields look similar to the machinery farmers have used for decades.
But more than a few don’t act like their mechanical ancestors.
Farmers embracing technological advancements can plant seed more efficiently. They can apply nutrients and spray pesticides and insecticides precisely — and in varying amounts — where needed.
And those tractors and combines? They can drive themselves.
Welcome to the world of precision agriculture, a breakthrough widely trumpeted as a key to a big dilemma: how fewer farmers, working fewer acres, can feed more people in the future.
“As the population of the world grows,” Wes Marshall of Weyers Cave said, “this technology is going to make it so we can feed everybody.”
Precision equipment allows farmers to reduce guesswork. It helps them cut costs and improve yields. And it enhances safety and safeguards the environment.
Matt Kowalski, Virginia watershed restoration scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the state is starting to support farmers that adopt precision practices. Rules are being finalized for a cost-share program that provides a tax credit for some precision nutrient applications.
“The potential of precision agriculture is something we’re pretty excited to see,” he said. “It’s nice to see the equipment becoming commonplace, and it seems like more custom farmers are doing more precision nutrient application.”
Fred Martin, 35, is one of those custom farmers.
The Hinton resident launched a poultry litter and lime application business three years ago and switched to precision equipment in year two.
Aftermarket equipment he uses include global-positioning systems that help apply litter and lime on about 5,000 acres in a territory roughly bound by Woodstock, Orange County, Stuarts Draft, and Brandywine, W.Va.
His trucks are driven by auto-steer. On-board scales monitor application rates for the proper poundage per acre. Variable speed control adjusts the application rate with the speed of the truck. And GPS technology controls swath width so no spots are missed and no areas get a double dose.
The consistent spread of litter or lime, Martin said, helps farmers grow a more uniform crop. And that can boost average yields.
“I wouldn’t want to [custom farm] without it,” he said of the technology. “It’s improved our business, and it’s taken a lot of the intense guesswork out of it and given us the ability to ... tell the farmer we’re putting down the rate that he requests.”
Marshall, who farms land he owns or leases in Rockingham and Augusta counties, raises corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, orchardgrass and timothy hay, as well as cattle. He’s been farming for about 12 years and used precision agriculture equipment about half of that time.
The 36-year-old uses auto-steer on sprayers and planters. When spraying fields, swath control governed by GPS systems turns off sections of a 90-foot boom if they pass over areas already covered. His combines monitor and map yields during harvest. His equipment adjusts fertilizer applications by zone based on soil-sample data.
“You may have one area that’s a higher-producing area, or an area that needs more seed or fertilizer and others need less,” said Marshall, a Burketown Road resident. “Instead of going out with just a blanket application, you’re really getting a lot more efficiency out of your fertilizer and seed that way.”
Plenty Of Options
Derick Shank, a salesman at James River Equipment’s Harrisonburg location, and Quentin Knicely, precision farming specialist at Binkley & Hurst’s Dayton location, say operation size tends to separate farmers that use precision equipment from those who don’t.
For the most part, the technology has been embraced locally by those who farm hundreds of acres. The larger the farming operation, the greater the return on investment.
The most common precision agriculture equipment is a guidance system that allows farmers to operate on auto-steer, Shank said. A system that costs $1,500 to $2,000 can be used on different pieces of equipment, providing savings on various operations.
The technology, he said, allows farmers to travel over basically the same tracks each time. That reduces soil compaction and helps prevent overlapping when seeding or spraying.
A farmer who saves two bags of seed at $300 a bag will get a quick return on investment, Shank said. “That’s where you get the best bang for your buck.”
Knicely said auto-steer also aids operator comfort. It allows them to watch their planter to make sure it’s working properly; they don’t tire as quickly; and night work is easier.
A majority of the area’s farmers working 1,000 acres or more use a guidance system, Knicely said, and many smaller producers have also embraced the technology.
But Knicely and Shank said other types of precision equipment can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“There’s all kinds of options you can add,” Knicely said.
While smaller farmers might find the latest technology too costly, Kowalski said some use custom farmers like Martin to gain the benefits it provides.
Cory Guilliams, district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Harrisonburg, said precision agriculture was embraced sooner in eastern Virginia than the Valley because farms there tend to be larger. It’s also popular in the Midwest, home to some of the nation’s largest crop operations.
Twin-row corn planting is a precision technique “a handful” of Valley farmers have adopted, he said. It involves planting two staggered rows of corn closely enough that combines harvest them together but far enough apart that plants don’t compete for water or nutrients.
The planting system allows more efficient nutrient uptake and reduces the time needed for the corn canopy to close over the ground, which helps conserve moisture and control weeds, said Guilliams.
“You’re able to get more out of the land,” he said.
Precision equipment’s use grows as its cost falls.
According to MarketsandMarkets, a global market research firm, that segment of the industry is projected to grow to $7.87 billion by 2022 from $3.2 billion in 2015.
That’s a drop in the bucket, though. Jerry Revich with Goldman Sachs Research has estimated that precision agriculture equipment could be a $240 billion market by 2050.
New technology is hitting the market or under development.
Knicely said equipment is being created that uses hydraulic downforce to plant seed at the right depth regardless of how hard the ground is. Sensors detect hardness and adjust the pressure accordingly.
Manufacturers, he added, continue to improve seed-meter accuracy so farmers get the spacing they desire.
Kevin Cubbage, the Virginia Cooperative Extension information technologist for a 28-county area that includes the Shenandoah Valley, told attendees at March’s Farming Leaders conference at Blue Ridge Community College that Case New Holland and Case IH are teaming to develop an autonomous tractor that requires no driver.
The programmed machine could disc, spray or act as a grain cart running beside a combine during harvest.
Expensive equipment not yet used locally allows farmers to switch seed varieties based on soil types, Guilliams said. Other technology uses sensors to analyze chlorophyll content based on the color of corn and adjust fertilizer amounts as needed.
Knicely said many farmers ask about precision options for machinery they buy. Those not wanting it right away usually ask if they can add aftermarket technology in the future.
Marshall wasn’t an early adapter of precision agriculture equipment, but he converted after hearing farmers in eastern Virginia and the Midwest sing its praises. The technology helps by increasing yields and decreasing seed and fertilizer use.
“For most farmers, whether they’re using [precision agriculture equipment] or not,” Marshall said, “fertilizer is one of the biggest input costs or production costs.”
When he runs his combine in the fall, he’s harvesting plants and valuable data.
The soil in his fields has been tested, Marshall said, and the yield data his equipment stores allows staffers at Houff Feed & Fertilizer in Weyers Cave to calculate how much nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous was drawn from the soil and must be replaced to get the best results.
The data help him decide which hybrids he plants where, too.
Precision machines also aid recordkeeping, whether it’s data Marshall uses to improve his operation or saves to prove he used best-management practices to avoid over-applying fertilizer so excess nutrients won’t foul water sources.
Kowalski hailed precision agriculture as an eco-friendly practice because applying only the nutrients needed improves water quality above and below the ground.
“One thing we’re seeing more of with ongoing research is that by reducing the amount of nutrients applied to the surface of the land,” he said, “reductions also are being seen in the groundwater. In the Shenandoah Valley especially, with its karst [geology], nitrate levels in groundwater have been high because of years and years and years of excessive nutrient application.
“When we see less nutrient concentration onto the surface of the land, we’ll get benefits down the road to groundwater, well water, and the streams the groundwater feeds.”
Many farmers do well with traditional farming methods, Marshall said, but he’s convinced precision agriculture helps his operation.
“Overall, I generally feel like it makes us more efficient,” he said. “I’m using it from seeding through harvest. The whole growing cycle, we’re using it.”