February 08, 2023

45 years of AgriNews: Farming transitions to digital revolution

Editor’s Note: AgriNews is celebrating its anniversary by reviewing some of the top agricultural issues over the past 45 years.

PONTIAC, Ill. — Over most of the past 100 years, there were step-changes in farming technological advancements. But that rate increased exponentially the past few decades, transitioning from the Green Revolution to the Digital Revolution.

Jason Webster, Precision Planting commercial agronomist and Precision Technology Institute director, has seen this growth both from the prospective of his family farm and on the research side.

As a youngster, Webster worked with his grandfather and father on the family farm and had the opportunity to farm his own ground in 1988 as a junior at Tri-Point High School in Cullom. He has since ridden the tidal wave of change.

“My grandfather saw it all with horses and look where we are now with a whole different form of horsepower,” Webster said.

His family used a John Deere 7000 planter with only the basics that were available in 1988.

“There was a spring to keep the thing downforce-wise, there’s like no control at all. There was an old monitor that didn’t even show population. There was just an orange little light saying if it was planting or not,” he said.

“Wow, have we come a long way since then. I remember running that planter when I was a junior in high school planting my corn. I knew with the lights it was dropping seeds in the seed tube in the ground, but I knew nothing else that was going on behind me.

“Now, I know population by row, I know how much fertilizer I’m putting on the row, I have the ability to put fertilizer in five different bands on each row. I can change hybrid on the fly if I want to.

“What does the soil that I’m in right now need, and I can address fertility, seeding rate and the actual germplasm that we’re planting in that area. Talk about taking control and saying, here’s what we’ve been given for soil, this is what we’ve been given for weather, now react, take control, do something different so you don’t lose as much yield or, even better yet, you make yield and make more dollars per acre.”

In today’s planters, down-force control and electric row units have replaced a chain-drive drive shaft.

“Also, the sensing, that monitor that monitor in the cab showing me everything. I wish my grandfather could still be here to watch everything on that monitor. It would just blow him away,” Webster continued.

“It’s us learning more as we plant. It’s measuring, reacting and taking control. Measuring, know you have a problem, go fix it and keep it from happening again. Those are the things right now that have changed and we’re doing it.”

Autosteer

Real time kinematic, or RTK, autosteer technology using the global positioning system was first put into a tractor in 1999.

Webster was skeptical of its success. Not any more.

“When it first came out I didn’t think anyone would buy it. There are too many farmers that like to drive. They want to do it themselves. I was totally wrong. It’s efficiency. It’s less passes in the field, less overlap with tillage and things like that,” Webster said.

“The biggest thing for me with autosteer is I don’t have to worry about driving the tractor. It’ll just drive a straight line and I can see how the planter is actually performing. Even for those who don’t think they’re making any money on it, there’s convenience there that everybody wants it and is going to take advantage of it.”

Genetics

Advancements in technology the past several decades extend beyond iron and software into how seed genetics have improved farming.

The breakthrough in genetically modified technology came in 1973. The first field trials of GMO plants were in 1986 with tobacco plants engineered to be resistant to herbicides. The following year saw the first genetically engineered insect-resistant plants.

The Webster farm saw firsthand the benefits of these scientific developments.

Corn rootworm was first found in Illinois in 1987 in a Ford County field near where the Websters farmed and by the 1990s there were large populations in Illinois and Indiana. In 2003, the first Bt corn rootworm trait products were introduced for hybrids.

“When I started farming, we were just getting into the rootworm problems. We were kind of the epicenter of corn rootworm problems. Corn was falling down. We didn’t have any traits at that point and that when we started putting liquid on the planter, putting the tanks and the pumps on to put liquid insecticide on the planter. It absolutely failed. It didn’t give us the control that we really wanted,” Webster said.

“That was the first time of dealing with liquid on the planter and trying to go after it that way. That was the first time we put technology on the planter and trying to address that issue. Then the traited corn came out and it kind of took care of the problem for the most part.”

Practical Research

After graduating from college, Webster’s career path led him smack-dab in the middle of new technological advancements.

For 11 years beginning in 1996 he was farm manager at then-Pontiac National Bank where much of his time was working with absentee landowners.

“I quickly noticed that the landowners asked why we are spending money on this seed trait, this technology, and I had to explain it to them. I said wouldn’t it be easier if we just did it in the field and showed it to them that way. So, we show them the data or if they want to come to come out to the field and they can look at it,” Webster noted.

He began hosting field days with side-by-side trials, showcasing new technologies and providing learning opportunities for farmers.

“We started doing field days and that’s where we starting doing all these side-by-sides, bringing the technology out, learning, and farmers loved it,” Webster said.

“They would come out and say this is great, this is what we want to learn about, and we tried to keep it new and fresh, and the stuff that wasn’t even available yet we’d try to keep it out there and learn. That was a big part of what we did, explaining why we are doing some of the things we’re doing,” he added.

His move on to Beck’s Hybrids as director of the then-new Practical Farm Research facility near Downs expanded the opportunity to deliver research that focused on new genetics on a larger scale.

His work there led to a focus on planting the right genetics for a variety of soil, including the notion of a multi-genetic planter.

“I still remember making a phone call to an equipment dealer in Milford, Indiana, and I said I wanted to build a planter that can change corn hybrids or soybean varieties on the fly. He said, ‘you’re crazy that will never happen.’ As we got talking about it he said maybe it can work,” Webster said.

“We went to John Deere, Case IH, all of the big planter companies and asked if I could buy a multi-hybrid planter. They said there’s no such thing available, and so we made it. We created one and did it so it would change the hybrids where the management zone change and then we ask if we made money, and we did.”

Webster used a modified Kinze twin toolbar planter to plant trials in 2012 and 2013. Multi-hybrid planters were available on a limited basis for the 2015 planting.

“Now that’s a product being sold by not only Precision Planting, but there are others who are offering that, too,” he continued.

“It makes total sense on fields that are variable. If you’re flat, black and beautiful, you don’t need it, but if you’re variable like a lot of farms are, it makes a lot of sense.”

Game-Changers

Of all of the technology that’s been rolled out over the past several decades, Webster said the biggest game-changer were advancements on the breeding side with better hybrids and varieties and the planter itself. Farmers are no longer limited to watching the orange light indicating if it was or was not planting.

“Equipment-wise this measuring ability of knowing what’s happening on the planter is incredible. It’s changing they way we’re farming and guys are doing a better job. We’re not guessing anymore,” Webster said.

“Yes, we’re Precision Planting and we sell stuff for the planter, but it’s still the most important pass a grower makes. Yes, you have to pick the right seed out and that’s important, but it’s so much more. You have to get it in the right depth, you’ve got to get it into moisture, you’ve got to have the right downforce to keep the depth and you have to close on the back side properly, remove the sidewall smear and remove the air pockets.

“You want that beautiful stand, that consistent, uniform emergence, and how do you get it, and I don’t think we were getting it before, but it’s a heck of a lot easier now. Now we have the tools. We have eyeballs in the trench, if you will, to get that measurement and if it’s not right we can fix it on the fly without even stopping.”

A third game-changer is “figuring out how to feed these plants,” Webster said.

“Once you get the uniform even emergence, now we’ve got to feed them right to get full yield and full profit. The tools we have right now in the toolbox are just tremendous,” he said.

What’s Next

Looking ahead to the next 20 years of technological advancements, Webster said what he would like to see fixed in farming is crop scouting.

“Crop scouting is probably our number one problem in the industry. Once the crop is up, we make that last herbicide pass, that last shot of nitrogen, we’re done, it’s vacation time and guys will say it’s up to the good Lord now,” he said.

“I don’t want to give up. I don’t know what’s happening in the field. I can’t listen to a corn crop and ask it what it needs.”

Webster said crop scouting could utilize autonomous technology that would go though the rows, monitor the plants and gauge what they need so it can be addressed immediately.

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor