Planting at 10 MPH: Technology Can Be a Vicious Circle

Phil corn plant 510     Technology can be a vicious cycle in agriculture.  However, it can also be our Savior.  I think we all know that doing more acres per hour is almost ingrained in our farmer genetics.  When I was young three of us would run three tractors all day to plant 50 acres.  Now, I do three times that by myself.  It’s all about technology, all the time.

Of course this past winter I’m sure many of you have been reading about the unmanned aerial vehicles.  These drones have been in the news; the one most famous is the one from Amazon dropping off a package at the front door.  Of course in agriculture there is a burgeoning industry, with UAVs flying across our farm fields.  I have one neighbor who swears he’ll shoot mine out of the skies.

There surely is a lot of whiz-bang when it comes to technology.  And then there are head turners like I saw last week.   When John Deere announced at the Louisville Farm show that they had developed a new planting technology where we could run at 10 mph it stopped me in my tracks.  We all know that planting speed is a limiting factor.  Plan too quickly and the seed is not placed properly, so many of us plant 4 to 5 mph at top end.   Thinking for a nanosecond on reading about that new planting technology and it just made me think everything could be done twice as fast.  Of course, what would that mean?

At first glance I thought it made all of our regular planters obsolete, but of course any secondary look might change that.  Nothing is ever so good that it can’t be improved so why should that apply to the seed tube as well?  At the same time John Deere with its brush belt technology has added a lot of complexity to the planter.  You’re adding about 2 electric engines per opener and it is all based on sensors, engineering and good luck.

The good luck part in my mind has to do with the maintenance of all this new equipment.  There is a lot of wear parts within those brush belt delivery systems.  I understand that John Deere says they will have to be replaced within 3 to 5 years.  We move on with expectation.

The machinery technology is one thing and the effect on the agricultural economic market is another.  For instance if we could plant our crops twice as fast what does this mean to our agricultural commodity markets?  For instance, if we can get the crop in earlier does it mean more consistent big supplies in the future?  Will this drive price down?  Will it affect the price of land in certain areas based on planting efficiency?  There are so many questions.

I zeroed in on this technology because it’s so easy to understand.  I plant now at 4.5 mph top end, so planting at 10 mph means I shift gears and push the throttle.  When we talk about UAVs, computers, GPS, integrated steering and a whole host of other things, in my mind it’s not as breathtaking.  Give me simple technology at break neck speed and I will take it every time.

I recently spoke in Ottawa to the Western Canadian Wheat Growers.  While there I talked to many growers that planted many more acres than me, reflecting the scale of Western Canada.  I talked to one grower who had a big enough planter that he could plant 55 ac/hour.  He said he would like to plant more per hour but he could not get that much fertilizer with the planter when it was needed.  Volumes were just too significant and it made it practically impossible.  That same thing would definitely be a limitation to this new John Deere technology.

So that means we need more concentrated fertilizers and chemicals to not only plant faster but to plant longer, further pushing agricultural production efficiency.  Imagine 200 pounds of nitrogen repackaged with the same chemical efficiency at 15 pounds/acre?  All of those things would be a game changer to push the production envelope further.  Maybe that is the future world of 350 bushel per acre corn at $2.00/bushel.

It is the proverbial go around that we have seen throughout agricultural history.  The reason nobody is dragging out the oxcart anymore was that that was too much work and putting those acres behind us is what it’s all about.  The only problem is it is a vicious cycle.  Prices go down so we increase production to keep the same revenues, enlisting new technologies along the way and then it happens all over again.  Planting at twice the speed does it in spades.  Hither, the next big thing.