PONTIAC, Ill. — With an aim to challenge the status quo, Precision Planting opened its Precision Technology Institute five years ago.
The farm that focuses completely on research has since hosted visitors from across the globe to see equipment and agronomic technological opportunities.
“We’re testing things farmers are implementing on their farms because they think it’s the right thing to do, the best way of doing things,” said Jason Webster, PTI director and Precision Planting commercial agronomist.
“But there are farmers who do things on the farm because they feel comfortable doing it because they’ve done it for so long. Dad taught them how to do it, Granddad taught him how to do it, and it’s kind of just what we do, it’s what we do every single year, and that’s OK, but we test to see if there’s something better.
“What do I mean by that? Something that can give us higher yields or something that maybe it’s not increasing yield, but maybe it’s just being more efficient and we make more money on a per acre basis as a result.
“Farmers have a hard time doing trials on their farm. It takes time, it takes money and those are two things in farming we don’t have near enough of.”
Nearly 160 agronomic trials are being conducted across PTI’s 400 acres, most of which will be published and available to the public once the data is collected.
“We have to be looking outside the box.”— Jason Webster, Precision Technology Institute director and Precision Planting commercial agronomist
The agronomic trials are replicated three times over three years. There are also long-term trials.
“‘Patience is a virtue’ is what they tell me. I want instant gratification. I want answers right now. But one of the things I’ve learned in farming is you have to test it not only this year, but you have to replicate it for as many years as you can,” Webster said.
“Academia would say you need to test things at least three times in a given year, but then you need to do it for three more years to prove whether something is repeatable.
“We have trials on this farm that we’re doing over 10 years, trying to be patient, looking at not only the agronomics, but also the economics of it, and I can’t wait to see the results at the end of 10 years.
“As an example, a lot of people talk about soil health and things like that. That doesn’t happen overnight. I have to give it time and look at it over 10 years and say, ‘What did we really do here? Are we moving the needle in the right direction?’ That’s what we have do and we have to be patient.”
A unique feature at PTI is its “sandbox” where visitors can drive planters and applicators.
“We built this farm to look the way it does today because as a farmer this is what I want to see when I got to a field day and I couldn’t get it,” Webster said.
“Farmers are planting corn every day in our sandbox area. I wanted to go to a research farm and say, ‘Tell me what the technology is on that planter,’ but I’m the type of guy that has to go do it. I have to see it and feel it to believe it, to experience it.
“I can’t go demo farm equipment from my Case IH or John Deere dealer. It doesn’t work that way. So, we get the full experience here. We learn what equipment is available and then get to go plant corn. It’s an experience we can’t get anywhere else. I don’t know of any others that are like this.”
Outside The Box
Passersby may sometimes do a double-look when they drive by the farm and see something out of the ordinary rather than the typical corn and soybean fields in the area.
“People would say we do weird things at this farm and that’s OK. We have to be looking outside of the box. One of the newest things we’re doing this year is part of a sustainability program on the farm in regard to our strip-cropping,” Webster said.
The field features alternating blocks of corn and soybean rows.
“We get a high crop, low crop across the field, so corn gives us extra yield by getting more sunlight. The problem with that is soybeans kind of take it on the chin a little bit. They get shaded by the corn and I get lower yielding soybeans,” Webster said.
This year, the trials also feature alternate rows of corn and cover crops with livestock integrated into the system.
“I’m grazing the cover crops and utilizing multispecies of livestock to put fertility in the ground in the form of manure and we’re going to build the soil up that way,” Webster said.
“We have sheep in this autonomous confinement center that moves by itself with GPS. The sheep in the front of it graze the cover crop down and then the chickens scavenge on the backside. It is amazing. We’re getting this free manure, this free fertility.
“I won’t have to put fertilizer on this fall when I strip-till, so that will be part of the economic package, and then I’m going to plant corn into it next year. I expect to see higher corn yields as a result of this not only this next year, but the year after that and the year after that. It’s this patience thing. We’ve got to give it multi years to kind of develop.
“Next year, I think we’ll put hogs in so we’ll have three species and maybe a goat in there, too. It’s going to be really interesting to look at the total feasibility aspect of it to see if we can make more money, as well as increase soil health.”
Several other unique trials are featured on the farm each year, along with the typical equipment and crop management research.
Webster said many of the trials are the result of what he hears from farmers.
“First and foremost we listen. So, when growers come to this farm they may say, ‘Jason I want you to test this.’ We listen, and there are a lot of trials on this farm that are a result of this. Strip cropping is a great example of that. Cover crops is another example. We definitely will put that in if it’s a nice fit for the farm,” he said.
“The other aspect is learning from what we’re doing on the farm and seeing what’s happening and say, ‘How could we change this?’ That’s a lot of the reasons we’re doing things on the farm, just trying to tweak the system a little bit, be different, challenge the status quo and let’s just try it and see if it works.
“About 50 to 60% of this farm is testing Precision Planting technology, but we invite the industry in, too, to bring in some of their technology.
“For example, we show the progression of where we’ve been with UAVs, how far they’ve come along, what are the advantages and disadvantages of using them. We fly one here at the farm and they’ve come a long way.
“I hadn’t been a big advocate of technology like that because I didn’t think it was efficient. However, I have been proven wrong. I’m at a spot right now where I do think the technology is very good. We got a rig in here. We can get acres covered with it and I feel very comfortable with it, much more comfortable than I’ve ever felt.
“It’s fun watching that progression and we’re in the farmers’ shoes. We’re battling the same thing. So, it’s great when a bunch of farmers can come out and say, ‘I’m battling that, too, how are we going to fix this thing?’”
Webster was asked where the funding comes from to be able to provide this large-scale research.
“That’s Precision Planting. There’s no subsidies such as the government programs on the farm. There are no farm payments or anything like that,” he said.
“This is out of Precision Planting’s pocket and we’re doing it for farmers to understand problems out in the field, if we can identify those problems, then we can come up with some products to address some of those problems. We’re having conversations with farmers in the field and hopefully developing products that will help them do better.”