“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself,” wrote the late English playwright George Bernard Shaw, who stressed that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The Glenns – father , Eugene, and sons, Don and Brian – are three such unreasonable men, and they are benefiting enormously because of it.
As interest in precision farming gained steam in the mid-1990s, the Glenns quickly grasped how they could use it to “adapt the world” to their own unique circumstances: Growing corn and soybeans in a region devoted almost exclusively to cotton.
They entered into a three-year agreement with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System through which their Tennessee Valley farm would function as a huge experiment in precision farming in return for equipment and valuable technical assistance learning how to use the new technology.
Money for the initial research was provided by the Grain Crop Check-off, “an example of farming helping farmers,” as Alabama Extension agronomist Paul Mask, project coordinator, describes it.
Phase one of the project involved equipping the Glenns’ combine with a yield monitor.
“This gave us an idea of the variability of their yields and allowed us to concentrate on those areas of the field that could be managed more efficiently,” says Mask.
Using the data acquired from this yield monitoring enabled the Glenns to develop a strategy for applying variable rates of fertilizer, lime and, most notably, nitrogen levels on corn.
“You take this hill up here,” says Don Glenn, gesturing to his right. “During a good year, it’s going to make 80 or 90 bushels of corn. But you fall off into that bottom,” he adds, pointing farther to the left, “and you see about 160 to 180 bushels of corn.
“Considering that it takes roughly a unit of nitrogen to raise one bushel of corn, 80 bushels here versus 160 or more bushels there amount to vast differences in nitrogen needs,” he says. “But with precision farming, we can go in with prescription and put it where it’s needed. It not only cuts costs but is environmentally sound because we avoid putting out nitrogen that will not be used by the plants and that eventually will leach into the groundwater.”
Adopting this technology has not enabled the Glenns to farm by the foot, but it has brought them very close, Don says.
“It’s essentially allowed us to turn every acre we plant, every crop we grow into a research project,” he says. “We got a 150 acres of corn planted this time in what I call a split planter. Using a 12-row planter, we planted six rows on one side with a corn hybrid, while the other six rows were planted in the same hybrid, but with Bt.”
The yield data, coupled with soil-type data they have collected, also has enabled the Glenns to do a better job matching corn and soybean varieties with the right soil type – another source of cost savings. And the way they do it almost reads like a science fiction novel.
“When we plant a field, an iPAQ (hand-held computer) is hooked up to a GPS receiver, logging where each variety is planted,” Don says.
“That way, when we harvest, we don’t have to go to the trouble of programming into the yield monitor where all of these varieties were planted. We just go out and harvest. And when winter comes, we sit down and overlay the planting maps onto the yield maps to see what the yield was by variety. Then, we pull the soil-type maps to determine what the varieties’ yields were across different soil types.”
There is the additional issue of labor. Raising corn and soybeans in the Tennessee Valley is difficult enough without the added challenge of finding and keeping farm labor. Fortunately for the Glenns, precision-farming techniques, coupled with the adoption of other practices, such as conservation tillage, have allowed them to remain an exclusively family-operated farm.
“A cotton farm this size would probably have between eight and 10 people on it,” Mask says. “But they’ve learned how to substitute technology for labor by becoming more efficient with every facet of their operation.
“All things considered, it’s easy to understand why they are among the top 1 percent among precision farmers.”
Jim Langcuster writes for the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.