The spring rush is real — the challenge of completing spring planting and field work in a timely fashion is critical to profitability. Technology can lend a hand in the form of large planters and sprayers, bulk seed systems, and automatic guidance and control systems, but   the impact these can have on production cost and capacity are hard to determine before making an investment.

“Most farmers realize that doubling the width of their planter doesn’t double the acres they can plant in a day,” says Randy Taylor, ag engineer at Oklahoma State University. “The real impact depends on an illusive factor called field efficiency and that varies widely depending on implement width, speed, field size and shape and how often the operator stops to refill.”

Taylor says farmers are typically told to use a standard field efficiency factor of 65 to 70%, but he is involved with a group of researchers from three other universities (Kansas State, Tennessee and Georgia) in an effort to fine-tune a piece of equipment’s field efficiency for specific farms and fields.

Stop-watch research. Last season the team gathered time and motion data on five planters ranging from 36 to 80 feet in width as they planted a total of 9,000 acres. This data — and more like it — will be used to build a computer model allowing farmers to determine the planting capacity (and ultimately production cost) for specific fields and planting strategies.

“We want farmers to be able to determine the most productive and profitable way to farm,” says Taylor. “A typical question is, should they buy a bigger planter or use a smaller planter and drive faster. In some fields a larger planter may not save any time, but in others it may pay off big. The trade-off between width and speed is different for every farm.”

Kenton, Ohio, farmer Brian Watkins  answers similar questions with a decision tool he designed to optimize machinery investments on his family’s 8,000-acre operation. “Previously, our  decision process involved my brother and I talking it over and using our intuition when buying equipment.  Farmers generally do that pretty well, but we needed analytical information, so I went to work and built a farm management software program.”

Brian Watkins built a software tool to help optimize machinery investments and management decisions on his family’s Ohio farm.

Brian Watkins built a software tool to help optimize machinery investments and management decisions on his family’s Ohio farm.

Watkins’ CropZilla program creates a digital model of the farm, analyzes field boundaries to determine efficiency and uses algorithms to optimize machinery and labor. “We analyzed purchasing a high-speed soybean planter by simulating planting our farm with our current 40-foot unit, a new 40-foot high-speed unit and a larger 60-foot conventional option. The smaller high-speed unit planted the farm in the same time as the larger unit and 2.9 days faster than our current planter. We knew from 20 years of records that the yield penalty for missing the optimum planting window was steep—2.9 days meant an average loss of 3 bushels per acre. Also, better singulation gives us a 5% seed savings, so the combination is a favorable return on investment..”

Last year Watkins and his associates began marketing the CropZilla software (CropZilla.com). “We currently have 35 clients using it to analyze the financial and scheduling impact of decisions like adding or leasing combines, renting a distant farm or buying a sprayer versus hiring a custom applicator,” he says.

Hi-tech impact. Kevin Schmidt   became a student of field efficiency when he replaced a 16-row box planter with a central-tank 24-row unit on his Battle Creek, Iowa, farm. “On paper you expect a 50% increase in productivity and we got that, but only 30% came from the width while 20% came from the seed tank,” he says.

Records show the average days suitable for field work in a week during planting season in Iowa has declined by 1/2-day since 1980.

Records show the average days suitable for field work in a week during planting season in Iowa has declined by 1/2-day since 1980.

Schmidt says individual row clutches also improved efficiency. “Most people think these save seed and in our case that has been 7-8%, but preventing the yield loss from double-planting saves even more. However, our field efficiency is improved because we don’t have to idle — or  stop — at each turn to raise and lower the units right on the first headland row. Planting is much more fluid.

“Increasing field efficiency lets us  farm more ground or be more timely,” adds Schmidt. “We can get corn planted before the next rain or wait for better field conditions to get started.”

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