September 18, 2008

More Farmers Fighting High Costs With High Technology

By Stephen Zook

A. Dale Herr isn't ready to invest in an advanced spray control system.

"The day I have to have a machine drive my tractor, I'll quit," the Kirkwood farmer joked.

However, even Herr acknowledges the usefulness of some technological advances in farming.

"I think it's the thing to do, but I don't think I'll do it. I'm a little old-school," said Herr, who farms 220 acres.

Precision technology, common on expansive, thousand-acre farms in the Midwest, is starting to be found on some large Lancaster County farms.

Precision agriculture encompasses an array of techniques and technology that make farming more efficient.

Among these are sprayer controls used to avoid overlapping fertilizer placement and Global Positioning System guidance that automatically adjusts spraying in different parts of a field.

Another system uses field output information, gathered through crop sampling, to adjust spraying rates automatically.

All of these systems can prevent the farmer from wasting costly fertilizer and seeds. Rising fertilizer costs make the case for introducing technologies that can pare back farm expenses.

For example, nitrogen, the most needed nutrient that local farmers apply to their fields, cost $180 per ton five years ago. That cost soared to $360 per ton last year and currently is $500 per ton, said Jeffrey Graybill, Lancaster County Cooperative Extension agronomy educator.

Similarly, a bag of seed corn that will plant about three acres cost $150 three years ago; now the same name-brand seed corn lists for $260.

Sprayer control is the most common system used by farmers in the area, according to Ken Diller, who heads the precision agriculture department at Hoober Inc., a farm, construction and groundskeeping equipment dealer in Intercourse.

It's one of the most economical types of precision systems.

"The fastest payback is in sprayers," Diller said.

Mel Lapp is one of the farmers who has found it profitable to use precision technology.

"I think we're seeing a payback," said Doug Lapp, Mel's son. "It's a way to control input costs."

The Lapp farm in Cochranville has been using precision technology for two years, said Doug. The Lapps have been using yield maps since 1995.

The Lapps also use SeedCommand and auto-guidance on their tractor, as well as sprayer control.

SeedCommand allows a farmer to synchronize his planter with a yield map, so that a computer increases or decreases the rate of planting as needed in different parts of a field.

The Lapp farm has 1,600 acres producing corn, wheat and soybeans.

Most farmers in Lancaster County, where the average farm is 77 acres, do not have enough cropland to make more advanced systems feasible.

The systems can be found on some larger farms here, though, and some local custom operators who plant and spray for multiple farmers are starting to use GPS guidance on their sprayers.

Sprayer control systems cost between $1,500 and $40,000, Diller said.

Precision technology doesn't come without challenges. Trees growing near fields sometimes interfere with the GPS signal and systems need technical support from time to time, Diller said.

But if fertilizer and seed prices continue to rise, he said, more farmers may be willing to make the technological leap.

(Staff writer Ryan Robinson contributed to this report).

(c) 2008 Intelligencer Journal. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.