Pictured Above: Jamie Blythe is getting accustomed to using Remote Display Access, which allows her to keep tabs on equipment and operator performance. “I can use my smart phone and check on the performance of any piece of equipment within a 20-mile radius,” she says. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Blythe)
Blythe Cotton Co. has deep roots in northern Alabama, but today, with three of the four family partners living in Tennessee, operators are finding farming via the cloud makes it possible to stay on top of the corporation’s 3,500-plus acres of corn, double-cropped wheat and soybeans and cotton.
Jamie Blythe manages the operation near Courtland, Ala., and her Tennessee-based parents, Betty and Jim Blythe, and her sister, Ellen Fennel Blythe, are finding precision farming and no-till improve their ability to manage their operation.
Most of their acres are in the rolling red hills of northern Alabama where cotton was once king. However, years of intensive cotton production have depleted the soil and exposed it to the ravages of weather.
“Dad started no-tilling in 1993 and we’ve been almost 100% no-till ever since,” says Jamie. “We find that no-till simplifies our operation.”
Harvest and planting overlap part of the cropping season and the Blythes find that timing is everything when it comes to successfully farming in their part of the state.
“During the past 6 years, we’ve seen impressive increases in yields,” Blythe says. “We used to consider 120 bushels per acre of corn a good yield, but this is the second year in a row that we’ve gotten yields that have topped 200 bushels.”
The Blythes start the crop rotation with corn followed by a wheat-soybean double crop the next year. Occasionally, they add red clover or tillage radishes, followed by another crop of corn, and they plant cotton the following year followed by another double-crop of wheat and soybeans. They also farm 200 acres of full-season soybeans.
When the crop year begins, the Blythes’ crew performs much like a relay team, and no-till helps them cover the 3,500 acres without more help or more equipment.
“We have limited equipment and labor and we cover all this ground with one John Deere S670 combine,” Blythe says. “It has a 12-row corn header and a 35-foot draper header for wheat and soybeans. It’s the right size for us, but if we add any more acres, it wouldn’t be possible.”
Wheat is a relatively new crop in the Blythe’s rotation, and they are learning that attention to detail can achieve 100-plus bushel per acre yields. Similarly, the Blythes pay as much attention to the double-cropped soybeans.
They plant with two 12-row Deere MaxEmerge XT 1770NT planters, but plan to upgrade to one 24-row model next year. They use two GreenStar 2630 monitors in the planter tractor cabs.
A combination of precision farming technology and no-till are increasing productivity on the red hills of Jamie Blythe’s family farm in Alabama. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Blythe)
“We think good emergence is related to controlling your speed and using enough talc on the seed to help assure singulation,” Blythe says. “We don’t go any faster than 4 mph while planting and with myjohndeere.com’s Remote Display Access, any of us can check their speed remotely. Slower planting speed is so important on this hilly, rough ground to get a good stand.”
The Blythes have been using precision farming technology since 2008 when they opted to replace their planter row markers with AutoTrac steering. Since then, they’ve adopted variable-rate seeding and prescription fertilizer rates based on ongoing soil testing and yield maps.
“Auto-guidance allows me to multi-task in the cab,” Blythe says. “The cab becomes my office. I can look back at the planter. I can be on the phone. I can take care of business. This technology increases my ability to take my office with me.”
Blythe says they will upgrade to an RTK signal in 2015 for one-inch accuracy, which is a big improvement over the StarFire2 (SF2) signal that has at least a 4 inch drift.
“With the SF2 signal, we really struggle with drift, especially with the hooded sprayer we are using more often to control herbicide-resistant pigweed,” she says. “For nitrogen applications on corn and cotton, we need 1 inch accuracy. Our current signal may be OK for dry spreaders, but we need greater accuracy when applying liquid fertilizer.”
Blythe has penciled the cost vs. savings of the more accurate signal and RTK pays its way. They want to plant on the old row pattern to control traffic and if they don’t plant precisely on the corn row, the cotton picker pickups hit the old corn stalks, which hurts cotton quality and yield.
“With RTK, we won’t need to chop the stalks, saving a field pass,” she says. “When we spray for weeds in soybeans after wheat, we won’t have a major drift.
This change will allow the Blythes to stay on the exact same tracks and reduce field traffic compaction. Blythe sees an additional advantage to using an RTK signal — less wear and tear on equipment tires.
“With our current signal, the equipment often runs right over the top of old corn residue and it’s like driving the tires over knives because the new corn varieties have such stiff stalks,” she says. “A more accurate signal will help reduce tire damage.”
Technology Trial & Error
Over the years, Blythe has fine-tuned her field zones based on soil tests and yield maps, and the yield maps have revealed that conventional thinking about soils and yield potential don’t always hold true.
“Our first assumption was that the soil maps and yield maps would match up, but that is not so,” she says. “The field map data helped us identify elements that can be refined to increase yield.”
Blythe continues to become more familiar with John Deere’s Apex farm management software and mixes and matches its capabilities with various pieces of third-party systems. In her mind, developing prescriptions for seeding and fertilizer rates is so important that she must do it herself, but she is frustrated by the incompatibility between brands.
The Blythes have been using precision farming technology since 2008 when they opted to replace their planter row markers with AutoTrac steering. Since then, they’ve adopted variable-rate seeding and prescription fertilizer rates based on ongoing soil testing and yield maps.(Photo courtesy of Jamie Blythe)
“The system’s inability to pass along information for other brands of equipment is frustrating,” she says. “So it’s been a learning experience.”
Currently Blythe takes data from her farm management software and incorporates it into Ag Leader’s SMS software to produce a prescription program that non-Deere equipment can read.
“We need to do that so our custom applicators can read my variable-rate files,” she says.
Blythe also uses MapShots’ AgStudio program to combine and exchange information from various cost and crop share analysis spreadsheets with data from the Apex software and the SMS system.
“It’s trial and error. I work on it at home at night and during the winter,” she says. “I find it exciting to know your fields so well after working them for so many years and then being able to use that knowledge to prescribe fertilizer and seeding rates.
“It can also be so humbling. Application mistakes can show up fast.”
They are working on improving their sprayer calibration and swath control to minimize overlaps. One lesson learned from their trial and error is that double fertilizer applications show up in the field when wheat grows too fast and then falls over.
A Helping Hand
Blythe admits that she is one of the last in a generation who grew up in a home without a computer and realizes that earlier exposure to technology would have made the transition to precision farming easier. But it also makes her even more appreciative of the insight her precision farming equipment representatives offer.
“My data management reps have helped me get the programs set up and have helped me work through the labyrinth of help screens,” she says. “With the precision farming equipment, we try to be self-sufficient, but so many problems develop and if we are confounded, we call the precision specialists at our Deere dealership.”
Will Gotcher and Shannon Norwood are Blythe’s primary points of contact at TriGreen Equipment in Huntsville, Ala., and have been instrumental in incorporating cutting-edge technology into the Blythe’s operation.
Blythe is getting accustomed to using Remote Display Access, which allows her to keep tabs on equipment and operator performance.
One of the early returns for the Blythes with John Deere’s precision system is the ability to capture yield data wirelessly and get it formatted into yield maps within 24 hours. This helps them identify trouble spots in the field faster. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Blythe)
“I can use my smart phone and check on the performance of any piece of equipment within a 20-mile radius,” she says. “I can see what our operators are seeing to help them work through an issue. If we have a problem we can’t figure out, our dealer can tap into the system and help us.
“This maximizes my and their time instead of having them drive up to 2 hours to our field. They can pull up what we are seeing and that saves time, which in turn saves money.”
Norwood is the integrated solutions manager at TriGreen and says the Blythes take a practical approach to adopting precision equipment.
“They are interested in technology and are willing to see how it can help increase efficiency and stay in touch with the operation,” Norwood says. “Their situation is a bit unique with their remote locations, and this technology helps them work together better.”
Working on the Future
Norwood says the Blythes use the complete package of Deere’s JDLink, which includes remote support and data transfer. The system will be marketed as a complete package under the JDLink Connect name in 2015.
One of the early returns for the Blythes with the system is the ability to capture yield data wirelessly and get it formatted into yield maps within 24 hours. This helps them identify trouble spots in the field faster.
“Jamie has been using all three components already and the wireless data transfer speeds up the process of managing data,” Norwood says. “When farmers are considering the value of this extra service, I ask them, ‘What is an hour of time worth at planting or harvest?’ That’s when they begin to understand what this can do for them.”
While Blythe agrees that remote support helps them solve problems quickly, she also recommends that dealers check in on farm customers as often as they can. This type of on-farm customer service is still needed, she says.
“Sometimes, we’re struggling with something and aren’t quite ready to call for help,” she says. “Checking in is welcome. Also, if we can keep informed when there are software upgrades or training available, that is very helpful.
“The bottom line is, this technology is like a new planter or tractor. It has to pencil out.”