Precision agriculture on display for small farms

AFP Correspondent

DUNNSVILLE, Va. (Sept. 27, 2016) — Farmers gathered at Brandon Farms last Wednesday to see how precision agriculture can work on small farms.
The field day was part of the National Small Farms Conference, which was held Sept. 20-22 in Virginia Beach.
About 50 people attended the tour of the Waring family farm in Dunnsville. The crowd included a diverse mix of farmers as well as university and agency representatives from across the United States.
Robert Waring Jr. led the tour of his 400-acre farm. He said he wanted to show that you didn’t have to be a very large farmer to afford precision agriculture.
“The whole idea about today is to show that small farms like us can afford technology,” Waring said. “It used to be that technology was so expensive, but the technology that’s coming is a whole lot more affordable for small farmers.”
Waring is a nutrient management specialist for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and farms with his father, Robert Waring, Sr.
His son, William Karrh Waring, is the fourth generation farmer in the family.
He said Brandon Farms is considered a small farm. The average farm size in his area is about 1,000 to 1,500 acres, he said.
The field day was broken into five parts that focused on planting, soil mapping, soil health, aerial imagery, and precision agriculture.
Keith Balderson, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, demonstrated the importance of uniform corn emergence and plant populations for full-season soybeans.
“Whether you’re producing corn or not, if you start off bad, it’s not going to end up good,” Balderson said.
He showed corn that was harvested from a 40-foot row test plot.
Observations illustrated that corn plants that emerged three days or later resulted in yield that were 30 to 50 percent lower than the plants that emerged on day one.
Producers should strive for uniform emergence, Balderson said. Many factors contribute to late emergence, but he believes the one of the most important, regardless of the crop being grown, is planting depth.
“Farmers should pay close attention to planter speed, strive for uniform planting depth...and select hybrids with good stress emergence, especially when planting early,” Balderson said.
Other trials Balderson is conducting are looking at plant populations for full-season soybeans that are planted in May.
Weather had a negative impact on this year’s results, but Balderson expects to demonstrate that lower plant populations will produce good yields.
Typically, 80,000 soybean plants per acre is adequate for all row widths of full-season soybeans for May plantings, he said.
Marcus McDonald, an Integrated Solutions Consultant with James River Equipment, showed how the precision agriculture tool, Veris, can be used on small farms to provide information about soil zones within a field.
“This is one soil, according to the soil survey,” Waring said of an 80-acre field on his farm.
The yield map shows significant variability, though, and that got McDonald and Waring wondering why. McDonald said one of the biggest determining yield factors is water.
“If we can figure out where the water holding areas are, we can use precision agriculture to improve yields in those areas,” McDonald said.
The Veris machine measures electrical conductivity in the soil. McDonald said this was one of the least expensive soil measurement tools available to precision farmers today.
In Waring’s field, the Veris tool revealed that there were about five different soil zones in the 80-acre field.
Each needs to be managed differently, McDonald said.
One of the ways Waring and his father are improving soil health is through cover crops.
Chris Lawrence, a cropland agronomist with the National Conservation Resource Service in Virginia, said the goal in using cover crops is to build living organic matter in the soil.
Combined with other practices such as no-till, Lawrence said cover crops can help improve soil structure, which in turn improves the soil’s ability to hold and filter water.
Staff from the local NRCS field office showed cover crop test plots on Brandon Farms, which are being used to analyze the benefits of various cover crop mixtures.
Dwight Forrester, a soil conservationist in the Tappahannock Soil Conservation District, said cover crops aren’t just for row crop producers.
“The basic principles of cover crops can be applied to any type of operation including vegetable operations,” Forrester said.
A highlight of the tour was the inaugural demonstration of Hawkeye, a multi-system fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Ken Kroeger and his colleagues flew a mothership drone at a high altitude and showed how it can communicate with other drones, flying at a lower altitude to collect a multitude of data.
“You can have multiple aircraft in the same airspace working together collaboratively,” said Kroeger.
He said the biggest challenge for farmers isn’t necessarily the cost of UAV systems, it’s interpreting the data.
“A lot of companies have the science down, but what do you do with the data, how do you handle it and use it to make decisions in the field,” Kroeger said.
His team has been working with Waring to solve some of those questions.
Waring said drones aren’t a substitute for traditional field scouting, but they can point you in the right direction. A major benefit, he said, is that you can fly drones throughout the season and collect data that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
The farm tour stops led up to a demonstration with Southern States to show how the integrated data from field, soil, and aerial tests can improve variability in the field.
“The goal is to manage what you have better and not put down more than you need,” said Chris Conway, precision agriculture specialist for Southern States in Tappahannock, Va.
Pastor Al Jones was on the tour and said even though he is managing a small community garden at his church, he sees how precision agriculture can benefit his operation.
Jones said he learned ways to better manage his church’s garden, especially paying attention to the depth of planting and management of soil areas.
“I’m hearing we don’t need a lot of tilling,” Jones said. “I’d like to use cover crops this fall and try to improve the soil for next spring.”
Michael Brown and his wife Odette Calendar said they also got a lot out of the field day. Brown is a retired IT professional with hopes of starting a farm in South Boston in the near future.
He said he came looking for information and said the Brandon Farms tour was very beneficial.
“We have a vision,” Brown said. “We want to combine that vision with the best farming practices.”
Many of the practices that Waring has adopted on his farm are voluntary. In recognition of that, he enrolled in the Virginia Resource Management Program, which was established in 2014 by the Virginia General Assembly and administered through the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Brandon Farms is one of the first few farms to be certified in the program.
Scott Ambler, Virginia’s Resource Management Plan Coordinator, said the goal is to capture the voluntary practices farmers have in place, outside of the cost share program, and credit them in the Bay Model.
In turn, those farmers receive recognition for their conservation efforts and “certainty” for a nine-year period from any new state regulations.
Conservation is part of his job, Waring said, but it’s also part of his life.
“A lot of farmers are doing the right thing and it’s hard to take credit for that if you can’t show what you’re doing,” Waring said. “I grew up on the river. My heart is in saving the waterways...and being a good steward of the land.”
Ambler said the Resource Management Program currently has about 320 farms enrolled and is on track to have 70,000 acres in the program by the end of 2016.