Pictured Above: Self-described “nuts and bolt guy,” Cade Bushnell, farms 1,300 acres in Stillman Valley, Ill. Although he’s an early adopter in precision technology, he feels that he makes better use of the mechanical solutions the equipment brings compared to the data it provides.
As Stillman Valley, Ill. farmer, Cade Bushnell, rolls out newer technology on his 1,300 acre farm, he’s had a lot of luck with mechanical alterations. But he’s still striving to tap the potential that precision data can provide and one of his biggest frustrations is adequately analyzing data pulled from equipment to make informed adjustments to his operation.
“The amount of data we’re generating and have generated over the years requires a lot of time and energy from someone to go through,” says Bushnell. “Quite frankly, I don’t do a very good job of it. I’m a farmer because I enjoy raising crops, not because I enjoy sitting at a computer.”
Despite this, Bushnell is a great believer in bringing precision technology, new implements and farm management changes to the operation. He even has a personal philosophy on the rate at which farmers should be adopting technology.
“We really need to be using all the technology that’s available,” he says. “I don’t want to be the first person to get it, but I don’t be the last person to get it either. I want to be an early adopter, but not a pioneer. Pioneers are stuck working out all the bugs. But if you don’t adopt early enough and use the technology, it becomes standard and then you’re at a competitive disadvantage with your neighbors.”
This philosophy led Bushnell, in part, to break from a history of strictly no-tilling about 7 years ago when he made a transition to strip-tilling continuous corn. The change was mostly to improve soil health on several fields with low levels of organic matter.
• In addition to hardware and software support, dealership clinics should focus on “brainware” such as easily-forgotten fundamentals.
• Data analysis is rarely a farmer’s favorite task. Precision specialists have a role in helping them understand how to best organize and interpret it.
• Knowing how long it takes for a precision upgrade to pay for itself in years, can make the investment more palatable.
Some of his fields had organic matter content as low as 0.7% dating back to 1962, and it’s taken nearly 50 years to boost those levels to about 3.5%. He uses an 8 row Dawn Pluribus coulter strip-till rig exclusively for corn-on-corn.
“I still no-till all my soybeans and corn following soybeans,” he says. “I am at about 80% highly-erodible land (HEL) so I’ve got a lot of erosion potential. With the low residue left over from the soybean crop, I cannot strip-till and avoid the erosion.”
Two other strategies Bushnell uses to get the biggest return from his erodible and low organic matter soils are paying close attention to residue management and using precisely timed and calculated nitrogen (N) applications during the growing season.
The changes he’s made have been worth the effort as he’s averaging 200 bushels per acre on his strip-tilled corn-on-corn fields, which is comparable to his no-tilled fields. In addition, he‘s seeing more consistent stands with strip-till, which he attributes to planting into a cleaner seedbed.
The system also lets him reap the soil-enhancing benefits offered by leaving residue on the surface. As he’s upgraded equipment and looked into changing strategies though, his need for dealer assistance has intensified.
Owning the right equipment for the job is only half the battle for Bushnell. The other half is making sure that it’s set up in a way that makes the most sense for his operation. For instance, a planter that comes preset to plant in a tilled environment will need modifications if it’s to be successful on his fields.
About 7 years ago, Cade Bushnell started branching out into strip-tillage in an attempt to remedy some soil health and organic matter issues he faced on some of his acres. He uses an 8 row Dawn Pluribus coulter strip-till rig exclusively for corn-on-corn.
“If the planter is set up for a tillage-only environment, occasionally you’re going to go off the strip,” says Bushnell. “I’m using Martin closing wheels, John Deere single disc fertilizer openers and Dawn residue movers. They’re nice and heavy. Also, in a strip-till environment, the closing chains pull the furrow shut a little bit.”
Equipment guidance is also crucially important, especially since he’s using an 8 row strip-till bar matched to a 16 row Deere 1760 no-till planter. If fields were perfectly square, guidance is less of a problem, but this is hardly ever the case, Bushnell says.
“I use RTK extensively because I don’t have square fields and I’m not that good of a driver,” he says. “With RTK I’m probably on the strip 99% of the time, but I go off on the headlands. It’s the corners that raise issues. Even though my strip-till rig is a coulter style machine, it does not like to turn a corner. It’s worse than pulling a planter around a corner. It’s on the three-point hitch too, which makes it even harder to go around.”
Even though RTK is nearly ubiquitous now, especially among strip-tillers, Bushnell remembers a time when a request for increased accuracy was largely ignored.
“I’m using Deere’s GreenStar system because that’s what I started with,” he says. “I have my own base station now. About 10 years ago though, I went into the dealership and I said I was having trouble with accuracy even though I wasn’t strip-tilling at the time.
“I wanted to buy a base station and they said, ‘What the hell do you want that for?’ Talk about short-sighted. Now they have domes and base stations all over, so times have changed as farmers continue to demand a lot more accuracy.”
Accurate guidance isn’t only important for lining the strips up with the planter though. If a farmer is applying N through his strip-till bar and planter, as Bushnell does, not planting the seed the appropriate distance from the band will negate the whole effort.
“If I’m off the row, I’ll take a huge yield hit,” he says. “If I get 8 inches away from the N, it might as well be 2 feet. The N needs to get to that young plant as it’s growing.”
Bushnell also has Deere’s passive implement steering system set up on his planter to help keep it in line. He notes that the steering, overall, works great and gives him added control, but occasionally gives him issues on curves.
After getting closer to where he needed to be with accuracy, Bushnell started upgrading section control systems on various implements. He was pleased with how quickly the systems paid for themselves.
“Swath control doesn’t end up costing anything,” he says. “It saves me money. It only took me 2 years to pay for my first swathing upgrade, which cost about $6,000. If only I could get a payback that fast on everything. I have swathing on the planter, the sidedress bar and the sprayer.”
“I want to be an early adopter, but not a pioneer. Pioneers are stuck working out all the bugs...”
Bushnell recently rounded out his planter’s precision hardware by installing Precision Planting’s vDrive system.
“I added the systems and they’ve been doing an excellent job,” he says. “There are no chains, no shafts and no bearings. Their row shutoffs work great and I’m using it on the planter to record hybrids as well.”
Another important modification he’s made is to his combine. Because his task is to raise organic matter in his soils, residue management is crucial. If it’s not done right though, residue can quickly go from friend to foe. Proper residue management starts at harvest, Bushnell says.
“It’s been extremely important for me to use Calmer BT Choppers on the head,” he says. “I used to have a lot of issues with plugging when I’d get a long stalk in the strip-till bar and it would catch a lot of residue because 200-225 bushel corn is a lot to flow through. The head has done a nice job processing it because the stalk roll processing is not a lawnmower. It doesn’t redistribute residue evenly across the field. It concentrates it in that old corn row so I have a lot to sweep out of the centers of the row.”
Having the ability to react quickly to circumstantial changes is one of the main cases Bushnell makes for a farmer to own his own sprayer.
“I think that everybody needs to own a sprayer or have a very cozy relationship with their sprayer operator,” he says. “I need to be able to get in the field and treat with herbicides when weed problems pop up. I don’t want to call someone and wait 2 weeks.”
Seeing the potential of the worthwhile investment is what convinced him to purchase a Hagie sprayer. Crunching the numbers on the cost of custom application vs. his fertility program goals is really what drove the idea home though.
“The custom application rate in our area is about $8 per acre, which might be a little cheap, but for my strip-tilled corn I do a burndown, a herbicide application early post, and a post-emergence application with Roundup — and I also use a lot of glyphosate and do a late season N application on about 750 acres,” he says. “That costs about $24,000, and I also do some foliar N application when we have a wet spring.”
Bushnell says one of the fastest returns he’s gotten from the sprayer investment is being able to make late-season foliar applications to treat wet spots in cornfields that are under N stress. While the application won’t help break any yield records, it can “take 60 bushel corn and make it 150 bushels per acre,” Bushnell says.
“As we move forward, we may be able to understand more of the interrelations between the data we’re gathering and dealers ought to help us make those connections...”
“I’ll spend $20 an acre to make an extra 90 bushels of corn,” he says. “But you have to be able to do it on a timely basis. The real advantage of owning a sprayer is controlling when and what time of day I make those applications.”
Dealer’s Role in Analyzing Data
Bushnell sees a future in which the copious amounts of data pouring in from his precision equipment will enable him to make more and more real-time, crucial field-level decisions. The problem is understanding what message the data is conveying.
A self-described “nuts and bolts guy,” he laments the amount of data he must crunch while coveting the practical information it can provide.
“There’s no question that my biggest point of pain with precision farming is analyzing the data,” says Bushnell. “Filing it, accessing it easily and being able to sit down with the specialist and go through it just takes time. By the time I’m done with harvest, we’ve generated reams and reams of data.”
Trying to get a handle on using the data pouring in from all his implements, Bushnell frequently looks to his dealership for support. He says every time a dealership holds a training or education course, he attends even though his expectations aren’t very high. He considers it a great success even if he walks out with one new insight.
He benefits particularly when dealers focus on what he calls “brainware,” or when the training revolves around users’ interactions with precision equipment and fundamentals rather than just on everything the equipment can do.
“Dealers need to offer the hardware, the software and then the brainware support for operators,” he says. “They can save themselves a lot of work by getting some of the dumb questions out of the way early on. Anybody who uses precision equipment occasionally has brain fade.”
On top of having difficulty combing out actionable information, Bushnell also wonders about how all the data he’s currently collecting, but not using, will come in to play in the future.
“I think the expectations will be changing, but also the way we analyze the data will change, too,” he says. “For example, down force monitors on planters produce data that I hadn’t gathered in the past. It may be pertinent in the future, but I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it now. As we move forward, we may be able to understand more of the interrelations between the data we’re gathering and dealers ought to help us make those connections.”