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Matt Bainbridge, of Ethan, said his variable rate fertilizer has paid for itself in two years which he's owned for seven. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Embracing innovative farm techniques

ETHAN—Throughout most of his life as a farmer, Matt Bainbridge has embraced utilizing innovative agriculture technology.

One particular innovation the Ethan farmer has been using for the past 7 years is a variable rate fertilizer, which has helped him cut costs in crop fertilization, reducing harm to the environment. A variable rate fertilizer is a piece of agriculture machinery used by farmers to spread fertilizer on crop fields more efficiently.

"We can manage the sections of the field that we know aren't going to be as productive as the good ground and soil will be, helping cut down on costs. We don't need to use as much fertilizer in some of the areas in the field that are really high in fertility, because of the variable rate fertilizer," Bainbridge said.. "So that helps reduce excess fertilizer that can lead to runoff as well."

Because different areas of the crop fields have varying yield potential, Bainbridge will do a soil sample to determine what the fertility level is in those areas. Upon completing this step, Bainbridge will then use the software of the variable-rate fertilizer to make a map that tells him how much fertilizer is needed to spread in the sampled soil areas.

"We can take a large crop field and farm it like it's a series of really small fields, while being able to manage it efficiently," Bainbridge said. "I've learned how to do all of the software on my own, and I'm usually always interested in new ag technology."

For Bainbridge, implementing the innovative fertilizing technique has significantly slashed overhead costs.

Prior to utilizing the variable rate fertilizer, Bainbridge hired someone to fertilize his crops for $7 per acre. Now he fertilizes the crops himself, laying 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of fertilizer on 25 acres in just 15 minutes.

"This equipment paid for itself in less than two years. We can cover a lot of ground with it," he said.

The variable fertilizer averages a speed of 8 to 10 mph, which Bainbridge said is a steady pace, compared to the method he previously used.

The actual fertilizer that's being spread in the soil is delivered by the truckload, which is then loaded into the variable rate fertilizer machinery through a conveyor belt. According to Bainbridge, the fertilizer equipment runs off hydraulics.

"It has a rate controller and it will talk to the satellite, which will tell it where it's at in the field," Bainbridge said of the farm equipment. "The bottom apron chain will turn faster or slower depending how much you want to spread on the field."

Bainbridge said the variable rate fertilizer equipment is mainly used for corn crops, but he also uses it for some soybean and wheat crop fields as well.

Although he typically is wrapping up fertilizing and planting by now, the heavy moisture that's that's plaguing the southeast portion of the state this spring has yet to allow Bainbridge to begin either.

Bainbridge said he fertilizes most of his crops roughly a week before he plants. While he isn't panicking, he's hoping for some drier days ahead.

"The window is getting tighter and tighter with the planting delay, so starting three weeks behind is going to be a mad dash," Bainbridge said.

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