Monday, 29 July 2013

Advanced Ag solutions with Daryl Starr

My second day in Indiana was spent with Daryl Starr the founder of Advanced Ag Solutions. Daryl started his company in 2006 after leaving the family farm. AAS now does soil sampling, scouting (crop walking) and has its software yield prediction tool, Optmzr, on 350,000 acres and across 27 States.

Daryl Starr
The optmzr software is a yield prediction tool used for Corn, which is the main crop in central Indiana. It can be used as a planning tool or an in crop decision making tool. It combines the variability of the major inputs of a corn crop, soil, seed, fertilizer and weather. Some of this data is known, such as soil type, seed characteristics, and up to date weather data,  and some such as  future weather is predicted. Optmzr amalgamates all the data across the different field zones and produces a yield prediction and also shows what is potentially the limiting factor for yield. This means that farmers and agronomists can quickly compare different management options. It also allows farmers to change management decisions for each zone from year to year, as even though soil zones are constant their year on year management is variable.
After lunch we visited some farmers that Daryl works with our first stop was Solid Rock Farms, near Remington where we met Mark Waibel, a young farmer fresh back from his honeymoon. Mark farms with his parents and uncle, 1000 acres which is 100% corn, alongside a Pig (Hog) enterprise. The Waibels are also involved with Precision Planting Ltd and install and service their products on other farmers planters.
Mark Waibel, Solid Rock Farms
Mark is using optmzr to help with the management of their corn crop, and it's making some recommendations that are different to the normal farm practice, and are being met with normal farmer cynicism. Optmzr is recommending applying more  nitrogen fertilizer in crop as a side dressing, as it was predicting a good yield response. Although it is not always practical to implement all these plans due to time and equipment restrictions, therefore most of the corn grown will have more than enough nitrogen applied pre and during planting to grow the crop. This is partly tradition but also helped by the price of corn and no real necessity to be totally efficient. This is in complete contrast to the efficiencies used on the planters, where they have single row sectional control and can vary the seed rate for each row unit according to a prescription map which is on an ipad in the tractor. Mark was trialling variable down pressure on the planter as it has been shown that there is a range of down pressure where you get good seed coverage but don't compact the soil below the seed, as soil conditions change.  
Automatic coulter down pressure control ram, which is varied according to a reading from a strain guage on the planter arm.
On the way to our next visit we passed a field of seed corn, where there is on row of male corn between every four rows of female corn. This field would have been established using a full tillage system, common for the area, and the soil looked lifeless but fortunately for the farmers is very forgiving and will still grow a very good crop of corn even if it is abused.

Seed corn crop, one male row between the females

We also visited Dan Desutter another of Daryl's clients, who farmed 4500 acres further south near Attica. The area changed from the very flat land of Remington, to a more rolling landscape.

Dan Desutter and I
Although the majority of Dan's land was cropped with corn he also grew some winter wheat, was totally no-till, used cover crops and had a herd of beef cattle that mob grazed his pasture. Dan was trying to harvest wheat when we arrived but the weather had a different idea. Dan grows wheat and cover crops after corn, because he truly believes that the land should be growing something all year round and capturing sunlight to pump carbon and eventually organic matter back into the soil. It also along with no-till reduces soil erosion on the slopes. Depending on planting date a different cover is used, early planted is a mixture of turnips, clover and annual ryegrass, with less turnips and clover planted as it gets later, then the last cover crops are either cereal rye or wheat. The following years corn crop will be planted directly into the cover crop, which may or may not have been sprayed off depending on workload. The corn has some starter fertilizer, normally 25lbs/ac of 10-34-0, at planting, which Dan says needs to be with the seed and not to the side and below, the placement of the fertilizer is critical to the corn getting away in the thick cover crop. This will then be followed by an application with the herbicide and a final application side dressed. Dan says that the combined effect of no-till and cover crop break down delays the mineralisation of the available nitrogen, and delaying the nitrogen side dress application matches the demand of the corn and leads to better yields, even though his corn may not look the best in the area in its early stages. As Dan was one of the first users of yield mapping, since 1993, he has copious amounts of data to substantiate his claims.

What is left of last years corn and cover crop residue
We ended the day with an excellent steak in a restaurant owned by a cousin of Dan's. It was a very enlightening day and I thank everyone who gave up there time to speak to me, and especially Daryl for organising the day.

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