FREDERICKTOWN — Every day there are more mouths to feed in the world, and less farmable land to grow the food needed to feed those mouths. Now technology is being used to increase the production on the land left to farming to feed a growing population.
Mark Crunkilton of Butler uses advanced technologies — together known as precision farming — to gather, store, view and analyze vast amounts of data, which can then be converted into usable knowledge to make better farm management decisions for crop production. Crunkilton grows corn and soybeans, rotating the crops between the fields each year.
Precision farming is not all that new. It has been around for a while, and it keeps growing as the devices, software and algorithms get more and more sophisticated.
Crunkilton uses global positioning systems along with sensors in his farming equipment to generate maps of the land he farms. These maps show crop yields, soil humidity and fertilizer application requirements that will optimize his yields while keeping his costs down.
“We use a lot of GPS and other technology for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “Mostly it’s to become more efficient. Actually, we use less fertilizer, chemicals and fuel. Being more efficient is the name of the game. Stuff is so much more expensive these days.
“We can’t afford to over apply fertilizer, for example. When we used to put fertilizer on the field, we would just spread it. But some parts of the field might need more fertilizer, and some parts less. Now, with GPS, we are able to use a variable rate on the field, using yield maps and soil-type maps. We can change the fertilizer setting as we are planting. That gives us a lot better return on our investment because we are not putting as much money into our chemicals [herbicides] and fertilizer. And we’re getting better yields.”
Crunkilton said that although it’s expensive to get into GPS equipment, computers, sensors and software, it pays off in the end. The reduction in time, effort and costs is worth the investment in the equipment.
“We look at everything as a return on our investment,” Crunkilton explained. “It’s kind of pricey to get into GPS equipment and all the programs you need to get that stuff done. But it’s something you’re going to eventually have to get into. If you don’t, you’re going to get so far behind, I think, that it’s hard to catch up.”
Crunkilton said using this technology means he is farming fewer acres than he was five years ago, but getting yields that are the same or higher than before. And he is getting a higher return for those efforts.
“As long as there is a demand for what we’re producing, we will be here,” he said. “That’s the key.”
The decision to go high tech was not difficult for Crunkilton. His operation consists of him and his son, Dustin. It is a small family operation, and he needed to find a way to stay competitive under those conditions.
“Without having to hire a lot of extra help and to keep our costs down, we had to do something,” he said. “We had to keep our yields increasing, but we needed to keep a pretty good hold on what we were spending.
“It’s quite an investment to put out an acre of corn. Last year our out-of-pocket expense was almost $500 for seed, chemicals and fertilizer per acre. So if you’ve got 1,000 acres you’re planting, that’s $500,000. That’s a lot to gamble with that you’re going to get a crop back in the fall. Now, we can’t control the weather, but the things we can control, we have to do the best we can to control them.”
Crunkilton farms about 1,500 acres. Of that, he owns about 400 acres; the rest is farmed on a cash rent basis. He feels using precision farming techniques is a plus with the landowners from whom he rents.
“As far as using precision techniques for people that we rent from, they don’t want the land destroyed. They want it kept up,” he said. “We aren’t in there mining all that nutrient out of the soil. We try to put back what it needs. And that makes it a lot easier for us to pick up ground to rent. Because if you take care of it, word gets around.”
The equipment Crunkilton uses begins with a GPS unit. This unit communicates with sensors on his equipment that will read things such as the density of the crop itself, moisture content and other data. This information is used in conjunction with the GPS information to produce several different kinds of maps, including a yield map showing how productive any particular section of a field is. This information can be used to precisely apply fertilizer on the field based on the yield information. For instance, areas of a field where the crop yield is lower than the rest of the field might get a heavier application of fertilizer to boost the yield.
Spreading fertilizer is another area where GPS information can save the farmer lots of money. Using GPS to guide the sprayer, fertilizer can be applied with pinpoint accuracy.
“We don’t have any overlap between rows like we used to,” said Dustin. “We use a lot less fertilizer that way by not overlapping.”
“When our dads and grandpas did it, they just went out and spread [fertilizer] everywhere,” Mark said. “Now we have — even when we are planting corn — we have it down to how many seeds we are planting.”
The sprayer is guided by the GPS info and information programmed into the sprayer. Crunkilton also has two planters that are guided using GPS information and yield data.
“All we have to do is get it to the field,” Dustin said. “After that, they drive themselves.”