For Bowman, S.C., farmer Landrum Weathers, coming home from college to farm was a given — and bringing with him a new outlook on precision agriculture was a welcomed benefit to his farm family.
Weathers farms with his father, Landy Weathers, and his uncle, Hugh Weathers. For the past few years Landy has been primarily responsible for the day-to-day production operation of the family’s row crop, dairy and milk hauling businesses.
Hugh has been responsible for the business end of the family farming operation and doubles as Commissioner of Agriculture in South Carolina.
When Landrum headed off to college, Clemson was the obvious choice, but he was torn whether to follow his father, an agronomy major at Clemson, or his Uncle Hugh, a business major at the University of South Carolina.
Ultimately he majored in Agricultural Mechanization and Business.
Like most kids growing up in the cyber era, Landrum grew up learning on a computer; he learned to drive a tractor and use a computer hard drive at virtually the same time.
Coming back to the farm, he found his family quick to put his knowledge of computers and their role in precision farming to use.
For over 80 years, the Weathers family had been involved in dairying. Their dairy was one of the largest in South Carolina, and spawned a large milk hauling business.
But, running a dairy definitely wasn’t in young Landrum’s plans when he returned to the farm.
The dairy is now in the third year of an agreement with an operating partner. The Weathers family continues to grow corn and they have contracted to provide feed for the dairy herd. They also will continue with the bulk milk delivery business for their own dairy partner and for 30 other dairy farmers across the state.
Focus on row crop operation
Making this decision about their own dairy farm, which was begun by Landrum’s great-grandfather, allowed the family to focus more attention on expanding their row crop operation.
Going from less than 1,000 acres of row crops to nearly triple that amount is an ongoing challenge for the youngest member of the Weathers farming family.
Precision agriculture will be a big part of the ongoing transition to more row crops, he says.
“Dad has always been very progressive — he might not be the first to adopt new technology, but he would be up there in the front of the line,” Landrum says. “Since I came back to work on the farm full-time, both Dad and my uncle have been very receptive to new ideas to make our farming operation run more smoothly.”
One contribution he made to the farming operation was doing away with the bulky GPS base station that guided their Trimble Auto-steer system and replacing it with a wireless 10x10x2-inch Intuicom blue plastic box that runs off a Verizon data card.
Pointing to the box, Landrum says, “It’s similar to having an external drive and plugging it into a laptop computer. The box gets on the Internet, via a phone number and ISP address, and connects to a transmission tower that broadcasts RTK correction signals.
“Not every county in South Carolina has a tower, but virtually all do — I think there are 45 in the entire state.”
The box is wireless and highly mobile. It picks up the RTK (Receptor Tyrosine Kinase) signal from an antenna mounted on top of his tractor and sends it to the Verizon data card.
The box converts the data signal into an RTK correction signal, which tells the computer where to make the tractor go.
Though the technology sounds high tech, the transmission is simple.
“We purchased the Intuicom box from Spectra Integrated Systems — our Trimble dealer. They set us up with an IP address. Then, we called Verizon and they assigned a phone number to the box.
“After that, we called the South Carolina Geodetic Survey and they set us up an account that allows our Verizon data card to receive satellite transmissions via their towers.”
Is a learning curve
He admits it’s not quite as easy as that, but contends it doesn’t take a computer guru to figure it out. And, it does cost money all along the way, including access to the RTK signals.
The South Carolina Geodetic Survey has played a key role in helping farmers implement some of their most sophisticated precision agriculture equipment.
One of the hold-ups in the implementation of Real Time Networks (RTNs) for machine control has been the vertical accuracies.
“You can go to some fields in which the signal strength isn’t good, but it’s very rare when the system won’t work because of geographic or weather conditions,” Weathers says.
“We bought virtually all our precision equipment for use with peanuts. Then, we had to figure out how to use it on other crops.
“It didn’t make any economic sense to let a $20,000-$25,000 piece of equipment just sit there in the tractor when it wasn’t being used for peanuts.”
Peanuts have been a big crop for the Weathers’ farming operation. Like most South Carolina growers, they started growing the crop after the Peanut Program was disbanded in the early 2000s.
It became clear early in their peanut growing days that finding an efficient way to dig the crop was the main obstacle to producing high yields.
Research indicates moving a peanut digger 3.5 to 7 inches away from the planted row will cost 15 percent to 35 percent of yield in a conventionally tilled peanut field and more in strip-till fields.
In the tests conducted across the Southeast peanut belt, researchers found a difference of up to 1,400 pounds per acre when using an RTK guidance system, which produced zero variation from planting to digging, versus conventional digging.
Played role in yield increases
There is little doubt among peanut specialists in the Southeast that increased digging efficiency has played a key role in the recent increase in peanut yields.
“With the Trimble system we’ve run for a number of years, we can plant our peanuts and then dig them within an inch of each other,” Weathers says. “No matter how good the tractor driver, it isn’t possible to follow a row as precisely as you can with autosteer.
“Peanuts paid for the GPS equipment, but we now have adapted it to use in other crops. The only thing we lack is a retrofit kit to go on our fertilizer spreader. We have all the software and all the maps we need to use our GPS and auto-steer equipment in all our crops.”
Variable rate fertilizer application is next on his to-do list of precision ag tools.
“Looking at computer generated topography maps and other field data, we can tell how many different soil types we have,” he says. “Being able to work off one map to vary fertilizer rates on different crops would be a big cost saver and labor saver for us.”
For the 2011 cropping season, they started growing cotton, but not just for the high prices the crop is bringing, he notes.
“We feel we can maximize our profits on corn by keeping those acres under irrigation, but we couldn’t do that with a corn-peanut rotation.
“The best rotation for us is corn, cotton and peanuts, because it allows us to grow cotton on our non-irrigated acres, which we feel is a much lower risk than growing dryland corn.
“We think corn, cotton, peanuts is the best rotation for our peanuts, and it helps reduce the risk of growing dryland corn.”
For the 2012 growing season, Weathers will be adding a new tractor and a new GPS system.
“The John Deere tractor we are buying comes with a GPS system — it’s sort of like buying a new car that comes with a radio. You could buy the car without the radio and add one from another car, but it never seems to work as well as the factory installed radio.”
Weathers notes they will keep the Trimble system and Intuicom to use on their old tractor.
“We could convert the old system to the new tractor, but it seemed more practical to have Deere equipment talk to Deere equipment.”
As they move forward in their row crop operation, Weathers’ agronomy training leads him to say they will continue to incorporate precision technology to help the overall operation run smoothly.
And the business side of his training says precision ag will give them more options to optimize profits and reduce risks.