SPARTA — By implementing auto-steer technology on tillage equipment, Jeff VanderWerff has increased efficiency by roughly 15 percent on his 2,000-acre Kent County farm.
The adoption of precision agriculture technologies — everything from guidance systems that use GPS to variable-rate input applications — is “continuing to accelerate rapidly,” said VanderWerff, an apple grower in Sparta.
“It’s something we’re going to see continue to increase,” he told MiBiz. “(Technology) is not something that’s going to go away anytime soon.”
In West Michigan and beyond, farmers are using precision agriculture technologies to drive down costs by saving time, reducing fuel consumption and maximizing yield performance.
VanderWerff’s farm started using precision technologies in the late 2000s, “and we’ve just continued to ramp it up from there, to the point now where every time someone gets into a tractor, a combine, a sprayer or a fertilizer spreader, every action they’re doing is being logged through technology.”
Tracking information helps with effective decision making on the farm, VanderWerff said, adding that he uses data collected over the last five to 10 years and “then I’m comparing it against weather trends and rainfall analysis trends and 30-year cycles of weather patterns.”
VanderWerff’s use of guidance systems comes at a time when more farmers are using technology to become more efficient and profitable.
The latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show farmers are using equipment rigged with guidance systems for about half of planted crops, such as corn, wheat and rice. In doing so, farmers are “boosting” farm profits, with GPS mapping leading to increased profitability by almost 3 percent, according to the report.
“The adoption of GPS guidance systems helps reduce operator fatigue and pinpoint precise field locations,” the USDA’s David Schimmelpfennig wrote in the report. “Field operators can use guidance systems to autosteer combines and tractors — and access timely, accurate coordinates from a screen in the cab. Guidance systems also save money by reducing over- and under-application of sprays and improving the seeding of field crop rows.”
The USDA findings indicate that farmers adopted about 45 percent to 55 percent of these guidance systems between 2010 and 2013.
“The ease-of-use and functionality of these systems have increased along with adoption rates,” Schimmelpfennig wrote.
Heffron Farms, a beef cattle and grain farming operation in Kent County, is using satellite-driven and satellite-guided technologies to improve the farm’s “efficiency, productivity and operator fatigue,” said Bryan Heffron.
Additionally, as new technology becomes more readily available and affordable, the investment in the equipment is helping save money at the farm, he said.
For example, an autosteer unit for tractor equipment once cost $6,000 to $8,000. Today, that same unit costs between $2,500 and $4,000.
“It’s reduced fuel consumption, reduced product application and even the spray down of accuracy of seed placement,” Heffron said of the available technology, noting its adoption is also playing a role amid the ongoing industry-wide workforce challenges.
“I can’t say that it’s helping with the worker shortage (problem), but it is helping me keep the workers that I do have,” he said. “It helps with their fatigue quite a bit, so you are not overworking or burning out your employees.”
The technology reduces some of the stress of working long hours for Heffron Farms’ team of up to 20 employees. According to Heffron, the autosteer technology on its tractors — which is guidance-based and uses directional driving — is now as simple as driving a car.
“I kind of relate it to cruise control on your car,” he said. “Once you flip cruise on, it sort of takes one or two strains off you so you’re not as worried keeping your vehicle up to speed. Tractors and combines are kind of the same thing. Where you are planting, tilling or harvesting, you have lines to be in and the equipment takes over for you.”
TO INVEST OR NOT?
Although not every farming operation has opted to adopt technology, industry experts cite an operation’s size and generational issues as the leading factors in farmers’ decision making.
However, VanderWerff said farmers who are “shunning” new tech now face an uphill battle.
“Those who have adopted are going to continue to, and those who have shunned it up to this point … probably aren’t going to innovate or probably aren’t going to incorporate that technology between now and the time they retire from farming,” VanderWerff said. “There’s very few people that have not adopted at this point that will successfully adopt going forward.”
VanderWerff added the generational divide can be prevalent even among mid-career farmers.
“I am 38 years old and I’m all in on this stuff,” he said. “My uncle, who’s 50, is more skeptical of the return on investment. I’ve seen that with other farm partnerships, too.”
Heffron echoes those sentiments, arguing “generational issues” often come into play at the farm.
“I look at software production,” he said. “I’ve seen it trim our cost of production simply by not having waste or overlap. Farmers who don’t use it have those additional costs that I don’t have.”
In a period of extended declines in farm incomes, every step to improve operations can pay dividends in the long run because “it increases profitability and efficiency,” Heffron said.
“I don’t think the size of farm is as big of a deal,” he said of whether agricultural operators invest in technology. “You will still get a return on your investment. It may take more time, but the benefits are still there no matter the size.”