Iott FarmsIott Seed Farms produces seed potatoes used to grow spuds for potato chips near Kalkaska in northwest Michigan. Owners Dennis and Greg Iott also grow wheat, rye and sudex in their potato rotation. This specialty crop presents challenges as the Iotts strive to collect better data to fine-tune their cropping system.

They’ve had few problems migrating their equipment to Trimble RTK auto-steering, but the programs are not set up to handle the record-keeping functions needed for growing seed potatoes.

Still, the Iotts find precision farming equipment helpful in their operation. “We’ve used lightbars for spraying for more than 10 years, and started using an RTK auto-steering system to guide the planter and hiller about 6 years ago,” says Dan Marcusse, who works full time for the operation.

The RTK-guided auto-steer system makes it possible to follow the 6-row Grimme potato planter with 4 row equipment. “It eliminates guess rows and also helps protect the roots from pruning during hilling,” Marcusse says. “We find it maintains control within 1 inch of previous passes year in and year out. We can run the hiller after planting very accurately.”

The planter and tractor have Trimble AutoPilot auto-steering systems to maintain straight rows. “Potato planters are very heavy when full of seed and tend to drift sideways in the field,” Dennis says. “The RTK auto-steer system on the planter compensates for this drift.”

The Iott’s farm equipment dealer installed the auto-steer systems and they report the units have been nearly trouble-free. “Once in awhile, we lose satellite signal, but usually rebooting the system gets us back on track,” Marcusse says.

The same tractor is used for hilling operations, but they don’t use auto-steering for windrowing or harvest. They continue to use lightbars for sprayer guidance.

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“We wouldn’t spray without it. It makes such a difference in accuracy,” Marcusse says. “This year, we will be keeping track of how many times we have overlaps to identify how much we could save by going to section control on the boom. I think that will be our next precision control upgrade.”

Point of Pain: Record Keeping for Specialty Crops

The Iotts work with their fertilizer distributor, Wilbur-Ellis, to build soil maps based on soil samples and then have fertilizer variable-rate applied to match crop needs. This practice has resulted in more uniform potatoes and earned the Iotts The Fertilizer Institute’s coveted 2014 4R Nutrient Stewardship Award.

But adapting the Wilbur-Ellis software challenges the Iotts as they continue to fine-tune their potato growing operation. “We need to get used to the recordkeeping software that Wilbur-Ellis provides,” Dennis says.

That’s compounded by the problem that the auto-steer system can’t capture planting records easily.

“Growing many different varieties and seed lots requires extensive place-based records that cannot be captured with the auto-steer system while planting,” Dennis says. “We are also not aware of any practical way to do yield mapping with the potato harvesters. There is too much tare in the field.”

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