21st Century Farming
How farmers are using technology in this age of precision agriculture
Three interlocking concepts head the list for Kentucky's larger farmers in this first decade of the new century. Wise management of resources--including energy--is vital to success. Also at the top of the list: incorporating the latest technological innovations. Farmers still rely on excellent breeding stock and superb seed, but now these farming classics must be combined with a third, distinctly human, factor: precise business judgment.
Managing Greenhouses with Technology
Growing and marketing blooming plants by the thousands year-round at the wholesale level, the folks at Color Point greenhouse in Paris, Kentucky, use technology to manage every aspect of farming in a controlled environment.
Ken Vanwingerden, one of the owners, says, "With 13 acres under glass, from an energy point of view, we are very aware of the cost of everything." Each bay of the huge greenhouse is 26-1/2 feet wide by 200 feet long; the number and varieties of plants within each bay vary according to seasonal needs.
"Our whole greenhouse is environmentally computerized," Vanwingerden says. "We use computers to control all aspects of heating and cooling, watering, and light."
Vanwingerden says, "The fully operable roof can be opened to the outside air. We don't need any fans to pull air through because we let the heat rise naturally during the warmer months. This is a major energy-conservation measure."
Their single greatest energy-conservation measure also involves outside air: "Energy curtains" throughout the entire greenhouse are closed at night to hold in the heat of the day and keep out the cold night air. This, Vanwingerden says, saves them 20%-30% in energy costs.
The concrete floor of the huge greenhouse is embedded with poly-tubes through which hot water can be circulated to provide heat for the plants during the colder months. Additional steel heating tubes are mounted above the plants.
Those concrete floors also make it possible to add the correct amounts of water and fertilizer to thousands of trays and pots throughout the year with an "ebb and flood" system. "We can flood individual bays with two or three inches of water under the plants. Using an outdoor pond, we can capture and recycle the water so none of it goes to waste." Fertilizer can be added to the water in distinct areas of the greenhouse as needed.
Vanwingerden notes with pride that one of his brothers invented the hanging basket watering system. A separate mechanized and computer-controlled system, rather like the moving chairs on a ski lift, allows hanging baskets to be moved to a special area for watering.
Computers can also operate the system of black cloth curtains that control how much natural light enters the greenhouse during each 24-hour period. "We can close them in different parts of the greenhouse so that the 'days' are either shorter or longer, to bring the plants to the peak of blooming when it's time to send them to market."
Color Point has its own fleet of trailers with specialized rolling racks inside to hold the plants on their way to markets in Kentucky and surrounding states. "We contract with Kentucky trucking companies to haul the trailers," says Vanwingerden, "and each of the carts inside are RFID-embedded (Radio Frequency Identification) so we can track their location with a unique radio frequency identification."
Fields of Green with Satellites
Growing commodities for sale in bulk to processors requires a completely different strategy. Multi-acre, irregularly shaped farm fields with natural rainfall, and sunlit, rocky outcroppings--perhaps a stream bed or creek--and variable soil conditions present unique problems. Combining global positioning satellite (GPS) technology with computerized controls for machinery is helping row crop farmers manage planting, fertilizing, and harvesting better than ever before.
Mike Ellis, who operates Worth and Dee Ellis Farms in Shelby County with his brothers Bob and Jim, first got involved with GPS data collection more than a decade ago. Back then, odd things used to happen.
Ellis says, "In those early days we didn't have the proper differential correction, and sometimes we'd get data telling us one of our combines was over in a neighbor's field!" Since the Army Corps of Engineers installed more accurate equipment in the region, GPS data is much more reliable. And creative minds at universities and tinkering fingers in barns and equipment sheds have invented lots of ways to use the new information.
"It's mind-boggling to me what's happened in the last four years. Things have just exploded in the technology area," Ellis says. Farming a combination of owned and leased land that encompasses 5,618 crop acres (not including pasture or woodlands), Mike recalls one of their early projects. "The first year we took a soil sample representing a whole field. Analysis showed that field didn't need anything. But when we soil sampled that field in acre-sized grids the next year, we found 12 acres that really did need fertilizer."
As they've been able to pinpoint the exact areas within a field that need attention, GPS technology and computer-controlled equipment is now enabling them to put the information to practical, money-saving use. A variable-rate spreader truck now applies the exact amount of lime and fertilizer recommended by soil tests.
"We visited a farm in Iowa in 2005 that had sprayer technology to control each nozzle on the sprayer. We came home and immediately began developing individual nozzle control on our equipment. As we're out in a field here in Shelby County, the computer touch screen mounted by the steering wheel in the sprayer cab uses GPS information to tell which parts of the field need to be sprayed. It also shows a map and where the centerline of the sprayer should be. The technology we now have shows where the last pass was so the sprayer will not overlap--it turns off nozzles to prevent double spraying an area. And the computer will not allow spraying outside the field boundaries."
Ellis continues, "That worked so well that during 2007 we tried auto steering. We steer the sprayer to turn at the end of a pass, then when we get within eight feet of the centerline for the next pass, we can flip a switch and the GPS system takes over the steering automatically until we reach the other end of the field. A horn sounds, you steer to make the next turn, then you turn loose of the steering wheel again and let the sprayer's controls take over."
Other farmers using these new techniques appreciate that the GPS information "knows" where waterways are within fields. Sprayers can keep going in straight lines while the nozzles stop spraying as they cross waterways, then begin spraying again at the appropriate distance from the waterway's center, saving time, as well as chemical and fuel costs. The same technology works earlier in the growing season, allowing farmers to stop seeding when the planter is too close to field fences, over-exposed rocks, in waterways, or outside field boundaries.
When the Cows Come Home
In Adairville, in Logan County, the Robey family members combine technology and computers in a different way with their dairy cattle. Their new dairy facility, completed in 2003, allows them to milk a herd of 1,250 Holsteins, not just twice a day but three times every 24 hours. Using a combination of family workers, hired help, and the latest in automation, cows are milked on an eight-hour cycle.
Work in the dairy gets even more complicated each time a new section of the herd gives birth. When these new moms freshen (a cow having calved, now giving milk), they're milked six times a day on a four-hour cycle for the first three weeks.
Eli Robey, a 2007 graduate of the University of Kentucky, delights in the innovations available to dairy farmers today. "Every one of our milking cows wears a collar that has an electronic 'transponder' that is recognized by another device on the milking stall. The equipment records how much milk she gives at every milking and that information goes into a computer system so we can monitor each individual. We've set the computers to detect when a cow's production drops off a certain percentage in one day so we're able to catch cows much sooner when they're sick and need our help."
Computers also help the Robeys keep careful records of overall herd health, vaccinations, and the reproductive cycle.
Like the Vanwingerdens and the Ellises, the Robeys also pay careful attention to energy usage. The Robeys use cold well water to help chill the fresh milk. They also have conventional refrigeration units, but they've installed heat-recovery systems there, too, to get the most out of every kilowatt of power used.
Water and manure management for such a large herd is an around-the-clock concern, and one that offers potential for additional improvements in efficiency. Today, the farm uses an automated flushing system that moves water through the barns at regular intervals, removing manure. That water then goes through a separation system where the sand is recovered and re-used for bedding; the remaining water then moves on to other uses in a multi-part system.
Eli's dad Lee says, "Since fertilizer prices have almost doubled in the past 18 months, our manure has become more an asset than a liability. Our manure is analyzed by an independent lab, so we know what nutrients it has per every thousand gallons. We know how many gallons we put on per acre, so this allows us to measure exactly what nutrients we're adding as we grow corn for silage and other crops, such as wheat for forage."
Manure produces methane--and that could offer the Robeys yet another way to be more energy efficient or earn additional income.
"The most efficient way to use methane is to burn it as a gas, so we first thought about using it to heat water at the dairy. But we already have the heat recovery program, so we're looking at some other ideas."
One option could be selling methane to a natural gas company with pipelines that already run through part of their acreage. Another possibility is using the methane to power a generator and sell the resulting electricity to the local electric co-op, Pennyrile Electric.
Lee notes that the current flush system could be diluting the manure to a level that limits the production of methane too much to make it useful considering the technology currently available. "We're researching the possibility of a feasibility study right now," Lee Robey says. "We're trying to determine exactly how much methane we could produce from our herd and how best to use it."
As Kentuckians continue to find practical ways to use technology on the farm, other concepts are emerging as important to successful farming in the 21st century.
Dr. Tim Woods, Extension professor in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Kentucky, says, "Today we have a much better understanding about how to raise healthy plants and animals. Food safety is an important issue today, and there are all kinds of traceability tools that can help farmers manage massive amounts of information from the farm to the supermarket. But we're also seeing a very rapid proliferation in the kinds of products consumers want, whether it's a particular variety of soybeans for the commodities market, or a fruit or vegetable with a special health benefit important to individual families. There's a move toward more specialization in what individual farmers raise."
Gathering and using information and technology uniquely suited to their land, whether it's a few acres or thousands, 21st-century farmers throughout Kentucky are making this the age of precision agriculture.
TOP 5 FARM COMMODITIES IN KENTUCKY
by cash receipts in 2005
Horses 25.4% $1,010,000,000
Broilers 17.7% $704,297,000
Cattle & Calves 14.1% $561,348,000
Tobacco $8.6% $342,540,000
Corn 8.5% $336,060,000
Source: Kentucky Departmentof Agriculture: www.kyagr.com
SMALL ACREAGE FARMERS ALSO FIND SUCCESS
Sometimes the key to a profitable year is knowing what customers in your area want and selling it directly to them.
Number of community farmers' markets
registered with the Kentucky Department of Ag:
Number of certified roadside markets
registered with the Kentucky Farm Bureau program:
Number of U-pick farmers in Kentucky:
more than 40
Launching this month, agritourism venues will be listed on a new Kentucky Depart-ment of Agriculture Office of Agritourism Web site at: www.kentuckyfarmsarefun.org
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: KNOWING THE MARKET
To read one farmer's success story--Joleen Ramey of Ramey Oakridge Farm in Carter County--on how she switched her small acreage tobacco farm to an ornamental plant farm, go to: farm mums.