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Lessening a farmer’s ecological footprint

Published (5/6/2010)
By Patty Ostberg
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Precision agriculture gives farmers and producers the ability to test the soil in their fields for 16 essential nutrients for plant growth. If one nutrient tests higher in a specific area the farmer can apply fertilizer without that nutrient to an area without sacrificing the yield.

Paul Trka, an agronomist with Cenex Harvet States, Inc., told the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division March 16 that precision agriculture, also known as variable rate technology, is “putting the right input, in the right price, in the right amount.” Certain nutrients, like phosphorus, affect water quality, and using this technology can help clean up groundwater and soil for future generations while decreasing farmers’ ecological footprints.

Included in the division’s omnibus bill (HF2678/ SF2737*) is an extension of grant money previously dedicated in 2007 and 2009. The fertilizer research grant money would help farmers purchase VRT equipment. Sponsored by Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar) and Sen. Dan Skogen (DFL-Hewitt), the bill awaits conference committee action.

“We can increase yields across a field without increasing fertilizer usage; we can decrease fertilizer runoff and fertilizer going into the ground water,” said Rep. Tim Faust (DFL-Mora). He sponsors HF3021, a bill containing the grant program language that was incorporated into the omnibus bill.

Two major manufacturers of self-propelled VRT application equipment reside in Minnesota, and Faust hopes the grants would stimulate job growth. The money could possibly improve the state’s rural economy by creating skilled and specialized jobs such as precision agriculture specialists, geographic information specialist analysts, high-tech applicators, lab employees and data acquisition specialists.

“The typical charge for variable rate equipment can be $60,000 to $90,000 over the price of a non-variable rate piece of the equipment, so there is a pretty substantial up-charge to that technology,” said Craig Jorgensen, business development specialist for AGCO, an agricultural equipment manufacturer.

“It makes it tough for (farmers) to want to accept that new technology even though they can see that it’s better, because there isn’t a lot of extra income that comes along with it,” Jorgensen said. More advanced equipment also requires more tech savvy staff and a longer process of mapping nutrients resulting in a much different approach compared to the “old days.” Approximately 40 dry fertilizer units that can variably apply three or more fertilizer products simultaneously are sold annually in the state, Jorgensen added.

“We’re really trying to be a part of the whole clean water thing in Minnesota,” Juhnke said. “The more units we get out there the better for our water.”

Using VRT includes sampling field areas to determine which are rich in nutrients or lack key elements to keep the soil in good production. Certain locations are of importance, including buffer zones and setbacks from streams. Technicians gather soil from specific locations and send it to a lab for testing. Once the samples are evaluated an application map can be created.

Factors that determine fertilizer application rates for field areas include: soil type, soil fertility levels and yield goal.

That information is useful when, for example, an application map shows high levels of phosphorous just outside an area where an old barn used to be located. The farmer could then make decisions on what nutrients needed to be applied and where, Trka said. Using VRT a farmer could efficiently apply five to six different nutrients in one shift while simultaneously controlling the application of herbicides.

Working on these types of applications takes timing and patience, but it’s worth the investment, Trka said. VRT has shown improvement in the quality of grain, “better protein content in wheat and improvements in sugar content in sugar beets.” It’s also valuable for crops that are used for industrial canning because the process creates an electronic copy of when and how fertilizer is applied to crops, he said.

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