A look at the latest advancements in precision application technology and how to put them into action.
Forefront Ag Solutions owner, Erich Eller (right), reviews variable rate manure plans with Mike Hil, owner of M&C Hill Family Farms in Indiana. Contributed photo.
Farming has become more precise with advanced tools to apply such essentials as seeds, commercial fertilizers and chemicals. This has opened the door to more precise variable rate application control of manure.
However, cobbling together a workable manure application system takes time because of the amount of customization required.
What hasn’t changed is the manure application math, with the simple calculation that application rate times speed equals volume applied per hectare. The technology and variability provide the ability to adjust on the fly.
Advances in such communication, application and data-gathering technology as global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), weight and flow sensing equipment, electromagnetic flow meters, electronic application controllers, and radar and ultrasonic speed sensors is helping farmers and custom manure applicators willing to invest in the latest technology to maximize the benefits that variable rate application of liquid or solid manure can bring.
These tools are making it easier and quicker to determine manure’s nutrient content, to harmonize application rates based on nutrient content and the crop being fertilized, and to vary the application rate on the fly based on soil testing and GPS maps.
However, whether it is farmers or custom manure applicators interested in working with the most current variable rate application technology, research conducted by Indiana’s Purdue University indicates that there are few, if any, off-the-shelf variable rate application systems that fit all circumstances.
The current state of system technology is a bit like purchasing a new vehicle. There are many base-model manure application systems on the market, but for more precise control and the ability to vary the application rate and location, it requires the purchase of options that will deliver a level of performance to suit each farmer’s needs – at a cost.
In its publication, ’Implementing Site-Specific Management: Liquid Manure Application,’ Purdue University researchers, Daniel R. Ess, Stephen Hawkins, and D. Keith Morris, provide a roadmap of the current state of equipment for variable rate application or ‘site-specific management’ of manure, with a telling example of the daunting task faced by farmers to design an application system.
They identify two systems suppliers – Balzer Inc., headquartered in Mountain Lake, Minn., and Ag-Chem Equipment Co., located in Minnetonka, Minn.
They describe the Balzer variable rate system as a unit equipped with an electromagnetic flow meter supplied by KROHNE Inc., a pinch valve to control manure output from Red Valve Company Inc., a tank-mounted GPS antenna, a tractor-cab-mounted Raven electronic application controller by Raven Industries, and an AgLeader in-cab monitor provided by AgLeader Technology Inc.
Ag-Chem Equipment offers the Terra-Gator 2505 Nutrient Management System, which uses the Falcon CD controller to produce map-based, variable-rate liquid product application and as-applied records.
So, the advice provided here is to research and find companies like Balzer or Ag-Chem Equipment as a starting point who are willing to work with farmers or custom manure applicators to find and install options that work well together to achieve what the customer want to accomplish in the way of variable rate manure application.
Fundamentally, however, the major challenge with land application of either liquid or solid manure versus inorganic fertilizer, seeds and chemicals is its biological nature.
The nutrient content in manure is highly variable so to avoid application mistakes and to maximize nutrient uptake benefits, the entire process of using manure as organic fertilizer still requires a high degree of monitoring from the storage lagoon to the soil, whether the manure is surface applied or injected. In other words, success as it relates to precise variable rate application of manure is as much about process as it is about application of technology.
The Purdue researchers have identified four basic principles that manure applicators need to consider when drafting a site-specific manure management program. These are the ability to measure nutrient content, the ability to determine application rates needed for the crop being planted, the ability to control the rate applied, and the ability to produce a record of where and when the application occurred.
The next step is to go shopping based on this checklist for the latest or most affordable technology that will address each of these issues to the level of precision required by individual farmers or acceptable to the farm community where a custom manure applicator is working.
Erich Eller is owner of ForeFront Ag Solutions headquartered in Huntington, Ind. His company offers farm consulting services, including precision agricultural practices and manure nutrient management, to farmers in northeastern Indiana. A graduate of Purdue University, Erich and his wife, Jennifer, own the business.
They are working with some dairy, hog and poultry operations helping them to develop plans to land apply their manure, which typically aren’t a high percentage of their overall customer base, but they are large, with all the manure management challenges that come with that.
He says that there is no doubt that the availability of more powerful technology over the past 20 years has had a significant impact on today’s farming practices. Farmers understand the value that organic nutrients can bring to them, and Forefront has witnessed a fertility savings to customers of $62 to $185 per hectare of phosphorus and potassium alone based on rate of application and cost of fertilizer, without even considering what micro nutrients and organic matter dividends that it also provides. The company works with farm customers to design variable rate manure prescriptions based on their needs.
Erich cautions that the actual cost of hiring someone to apply the manure has to be factored into the cost benefit versus commercial fertilizer if the manure is being sold by the livestock operation. Sometimes a dairy, hog or poultry farm will give the manure away, as long as the recipient is willing to pay for the application cost. So, it isn’t free fertilizer. If the manure is being used in-house, this is a mute issue, as there is a need to dispose of the manure one way or another.
The level of interest among farmers to use manure and develop a variable rate application plan varies. There are definitely instances where some farmers have tried variable rate application in the past, it didn’t work out as expected, and it cost them some yield. So today, there is some reluctance on their part to try it again versus commercial fertilizer.
Erich says that what he has noticed is that manure users are putting in a lot more effort to understand its nutrient content prior to application, including the use of products that help to break down the solids in lagoons, which is an important step to drafting a workable variable rate application plan.
“We also have various ways to agitate that lagoon to arrive at a fairly consistent product,” he says. Recently, some companies have developed amphibious vehicles to agitate lagoons and pumps that descend to the bottom of lagoons to stir them from the bottom up so that accumulated solids on the bottom are mixed in better, resulting in a more consistent and verifiable organic fertilizer product.
The Purdue researches also point to the current availability of nitrogen meters that, “can be used to provide a relatively accurate, direct estimate of the plant-available nitrogen.”
Eller says he aims for agitation and lab sampling to occur within three to five days of actual land application, and in addition to nitrogen, he strongly considers the phosphorus content and how much and where it can be absorbed on the land base.
“When we look at manures and the way we start to make recommendations is truly based on the phosphorus,” says Eller, because based on current issues related to phosphorus content in soils and the danger of leaching into waterways, it is the determining factor for calculating safe application rate in many areas.
New government regulations in places like Indiana regarding responsible manure application and development of nutrient management plans is also driving more precise manure application because inspectors require regular soil sampling where manure is being applied to avoid issues like phosphorus build up. So advanced soil sampling is now simply a given, with the use of that data in GPS-based applications systems to customize rate application rate by soil type in specific geographic zones. That technology to adjust on the fly exists.
“As far as software, I am aware of three or four that should be able to do the job fairly well,” says Eller, and these location, speed, and application control systems are designed to plug into current operating systems in tractors. There is a bit of a learning curve with customers he now has using the technology, but he adds that its fairly easy to learn. Custom manure applicators in particular have been leaders in adopting more advanced variable rate application technology because there are strong business reasons to make the investment in time and money.
He’s also noticed advances in the ability to generate ‘as-applied’ maps, that correlate application plans with actual delivery maps for both verification and future planning.
Because equipment related to manure application and options that provide variable rate application is still somewhat of a niche industry, farmers and custom manure applicators likely will not find a lot of equipment dealers right around the corner. It likely will require some research time, travel to investigate systems, and meetings to discuss and cost out proven systems that meet a particular customer’s needs.
A critical aspect of making a purchase is the after-sales training and support to ensure the system works as advertised.
“I think the biggest advances with variable rate application have been better communication with all parties involved, along with better agitation and products to create better material consistency, and certainly there have been many advances in computer technology and it will continue to advance,” says Eller.
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