Precision Ag: Its Not About the Sizzle, Its About the Yield

This past week saw the last six rows of corn disappear underneath me.  With no wheat this year I had a lot more work in spring and fall.  The beautiful fall weather here in southwestern Ontario made it so much easier.  I had my share of troubles this year in the early spring with lots of water but at the end of the day I had record corn yields.  My soybean crop was the third highest in my career.  I have much to be thankful for as I looked toward what will be a Canadian winter.

Of course, the finish line of harvest is often a time when you need to look back and see what management you might have done differently.  I say that because in agriculture change is our only constant.  I read with interest this week the John Deere has acquired Precision Planting LLC from the Climate Corporation, which is a division of Monsanto.  Earlier, John Deere had acquired Monosem, a French Planter technology company with operations on both sides of the pond.  Simply put, some of this technology is amazing and I am hungry to learn it, but unfortunately I’m somewhat of a skeptic with regard to how tangible it is to the greater farm community.

I say that because I often tell agricultural salesman that fertility is about eighth on my list.  First on my list is always drainage as any crop under a foot of water effectively makes the fertility question mute.  So I try to invest in drainage almost at every turn.  However, if John Deere knows something that I don’t about precision planting, I want to know about it.  Yet, plant spacing I don’t really see as critical to the profit potential on my farm.  2015 proves that.  Of course, it is always important to keep an open mind.

The John Deere acquisition of these new planting technologies is much to do with their own particular profits and vision, but also about agricultural data.  On huge farms around the world I can see how some of this is very relevant.  Sharing data on the go in real time can ultimately lead to greater efficiencies in the planting season, which should ultimately show up in harvest results.  However, for a farmer like myself who farms 865 acres in southwestern Ontario by himself, it’s somewhat more difficult to see the application.  Generating data for the sake of generating data doesn’t lead to more profits.  Then of course there is that agricultural economic economy.  Crop prices are low now and keeping overhead at bay might mean cutting out certain precision agricultural purchases.

In Canada, I know that the low value of the Canadian dollar currently at around $.76 US is hurting the sales of precision ag equipment priced in American dollars.  However, that is across the board whether it is precision equipment or big iron.  In my own case I run RTK when I plant corn on a John Deere system, but switch to a Trimble system with my older equipment pulling a no till drill.  This equipment is not inexpensive, but it is addicting and it makes my life so much easier as I grow older.  However, I do question its tangibility as we move into the future.  This past week while I was loading corn, my auger was driven by a 50year old tractor.  I openly question how all this precision software may work in five years versus 50 years.  It will certainly be a coefficient of cost.  Something tells me, it’s half life will be much shorter than that Massey Ferguson tractor driving my auger.

I know it is not about me.  Where once I might’ve been considered a large farm, that is no more.  Sure, I’m able to make a good living farming everything by myself, but you only have to look at Twitter to see how inconsequential my farm size is compared to others.  Farmers in places like Russia, Brazil, Australia, the United States and Western Canada run such large operations, which facilitate a much greater payback to precision ag technology.  With more limited farm sizes in places like Southwestern Ontario and Québec, that payback becomes much more fickle.  Needless to say, I would still like to take advantage of the new technology the John Deere might be offering in the future with their new acquisitions.

We will see.  Clearly though, the acquisition of new technology, whether that is precision planting or precision documentation or precision data transfer will have much to do with farm size as time moves on.  Having the capital to acquire it will be key.  For smaller and more medium size farms we’ll have to pick and choose.  Driving that corn planter less than 10 mph might needs to be our option.  At the end of the day, it’s not about the sizzle, it’s about the yield.  Maneuvering our way through that trade-off with new technology will surely be a future never ending challenge.