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COVER STORY: AWG Farms uses farm technology to cut costs and pass on knowledge

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- By the time the Wagner brothers are done modifying their planting rig, it will be pushing 100 feet in length. Their tractor will be pulling an air-seeder, a three-tank trailer and an anhydrous tank on a second trailer. The con...

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- By the time the Wagner brothers are done modifying their planting rig, it will be pushing 100 feet in length. Their tractor will be pulling an air-seeder, a three-tank trailer and an anhydrous tank on a second trailer. The contents of any or all of these tanks will be delivered to the soil right along with the seed in a single pass. But the nifty thing is that the seeding and fertilizer rates all will be computer-driven, according to years of accumulated yield maps, saving on all four ingredients. If one area needs some anhydrous and a splash of potassium, that's what it gets. A few feet farther along, the mixtures can change if the field's history points up the need.

It's a full-on blend of ag technology, and the Wagner boys are no rookies when it comes to getting more bang for of their high-tech buck.

No transfer

Wayne and Gary Wagner were given the reins to the family farm when, in 1976, their father died suddenly. Wayne was 26 years old and Gary 22. Daryl, the youngest of the three, soon would join them.

Their father's death had left the sons without two important avenues of guidance: his knowledge of the land and the traditional farming techniques he had employed.

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The sons struck out on their own with a gap in their family's inherited knowledge. They would spend the next 15 years learning their land. But they also began to discover an advantage to their being on their own.

"It has probably allowed us to get into this technology agriculture a little faster than a lot of our peers at our age," Gary says. "Because the father wasn't there saying that you can't spend money on computers, you can't spend money on this kind of stuff."

This "stuff" was far from having been proved advantageous to farming in those days. Few businesses and almost no homes had computers in them. Most farm owners, family men with growing kids, were unwilling to risk serious capital on what a lot of people still thought were glorified file cabinets.

But in making decisions on their own, the sons were naturally less hesitant to roll the dice on the coming computer age.

"We were young enough that we were willing to adapt to things a little bit faster than a guy that was a little bit older," Gary says.

Going digital

By the mid-1980s, the Wagners had their first farm computer, made by Wang Laboratories. It was the size of a washing machine.

"We paid $5,000 for something that your phone can probably do more than now," he says.

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Off-the-shelf software was almost unheard of then, and farm software was scarcer. Computer owners were paying programmers a lot of money to make their computers do more than just keep files. Gary took an extra step, saving the farm money and preparing for the future.

"I was a self-taught programmer back then," he says. "I wrote a fuel history program, and we did all of our data record keeping."

As the years passed, Wayne took responsibility for the markets, Daryl took care of the farm machinery and Gary managed the books while squeezing more and more useful information out of their computers. AWG Farms was collecting yield data, tracking fuel usage and managing money with the computers. Each new computer was quicker and more capable, but they still required manual entry of data, so a lot of time was spent typing in yield amounts or fuel costs before any helpful information could be gleaned.

Then in 1993, a new technology emerged that changed everything.

Fielding computers

AgLeader Technology of Ames, Iowa, had come out with the first commercially viable yield monitor, and an enterprising computer programmer named Ted Macy "taught" that yield monitor how to work effectively with Global Positioning Systems. This was heady stuff, using what until recently had been military-only technology to track yield data at multiple points within a single farm field.

"In 1993, they were trying to get it perfected before the corn and soybean harvests, so they contacted the university" in Crookston, Gary says. "They wanted someone in the Upper Midwest that was doing the spring wheat harvest."

The experimental yield monitor was built to run on a John Deere, but the University of Minnesota-Crookston had Massey Ferguson combines. The Wagners were using John Deere equipment and also were working computers into their operations.

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"So they introduced us, and that's how we got hooked up," he says. "That's when we started getting our first yield maps, back in 1993."

This new way of collecting yield data fit quite well into their computerized system because the Wagners now could spend more time analyzing the information and less time keying in the data. And it was paying off.

"We started seeing the true variability out in the fields that we never realized," Gary says.

Grids and zones

The technology was getting attention, and at ag conferences around the country, farmers began to see examples of easy-to-read, multicolored maps depicting varied yields within a field. But the question remained: What could they do about it? In many cases, the changing yield areas were narrow bands that would be nearly impossible to zero in on, using dead reckoning, to manage with varied application of fertilizers.

The problem was that, at the time, GPS, in the form in which it was available for civilian use, still was unproven. Positioning data tests in crop fields often varied by as much as 300 or 400 feet. The viability of site-specific fertilization was still in question.

About the only option available at the time was provided by Ag-Chem, a manufacturer of fertilizer rigs. They proposed taking multiple soil samples within a field, as often as every 2 to 5 acres. Each sample location was logged and a simple grid was built, based on the sample test results. Using this grid map, farmers would spray their fields based on dead reckoning. But instead of paying for one soil test for a field, farmers were paying for 10, 20 or more.

A merger of technologies came in the form of zone mapping, which provided some relief.

"Based off of some criteria, either topography or productivity, you break your fields into zones, and then sample areas of fields that have like production practices," Gary says. "So then you're maybe down to three or five or seven zones within the fields, instead of 20 different areas, so your sampling costs go down."

But while the process did result in an increase in efficiency with respect to fertilizer application and cost of sampling, it was far from what could be achieved if there were some way to follow the now very accurate maps based on yield, not soil testing.

GPS unleashed

At AWG Farms, the Wagners were achieving the sort of GPS accuracy that was needed to get usable yield maps.

"We started yield monitoring in 1993 and 1994, and we had to have our own fixed base station at that time," Gary says. "About 1998 or 1999, (former President) Clinton took off what was called 'selective availability.'"

This was the military's keeping availability of highly accurate GPS technology to itself, in defense against GPS-based missile attacks. Without it, civilian GPS accuracy still was woefully inadequate, unless farmers had their own GPS receivers in a fixed location on their land. These read the "sloppy" satellite signals, corrected them and sent them to the farm.

But the relaxing of selective availability changed that and just a few years later, auto-steer tractors took to farm fields across the country, enticing thousands of farmers to make use of GPS technology for the first time.

"There are farmers who don't even own a computer in their office, and they've bought into auto-steer," he says. "Ever since auto-steer has come out, farmers have found out, 'Now it's doing something for me.'"

Farmers were going for a ride in their tractors and combines, saving fuel crossing their fields more precisely than they could have themselves.

Auto-steer

They began to see how a yield monitor could work and how variable-rating their fertilizer applications could be feasible. The same computer that drove the tractor now was able to control spray gear. Auto-steer was the platform from which variable rate fertilizing grew.

"If auto-steer was introduced 15 years ago, when yield monitors were introduced, this whole technology would be a lot further along," Gary says.

Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar Co. funded a three-year study that told the tale for its growers: with variable seeding, a $50 to $70 savings per acre was not uncommon.

"Sugar beets have really been the driving thing in the Red River Valley because we get paid on quality, and too much N (nitrogen) affects the quality of sugar beets," he says. "If we can control our N variability across the field, we would get a better quality crop and in turn, a better bottom line."

Since then, GPS technology has evolved into its latest form, Real Time Kinematic, or RTK technology.

"With RTK, which is very precise steering, we can get down to 1-inch accuracy," he says. "Those work off of local base stations, so we have to be within six to 10 miles of each one of those so we can go back to the exact same spot each time."

These base stations are located up and down the Red River Valley, Gary says.

"All the John Deere dealers have their own system. It costs us about $2,500 a year for that accuracy. We're spread out over 30 miles from one part of our farm to the other, but no matter where we're at, we have access to a base station," he says.

Taking advantage

Today, farmers across the country are making good use of GPS technology, and it is a virtual certainty that it will remain a force in agriculture.

"Before, farmers didn't want to get into it for the sake of getting into it," Gary says.

Now that they've got auto-steer with the GPS monitor, they've made that first step into precision farming. It's just a matter of time before someone on the farm makes more use of GPS technology.

"The kids coming out of college, right now, they've grown up with computers. When we started with yield monitors in 1993, they were 5 years old," he says. "To them, that's the way it's always been. Those kids are latching onto it and running with it."

Gary teaches farm and GPS technology courses at UMC and says he has had some of his students' fathers come to him and say, "My kid taking your class is costing me a lot of money," he says.

"We kind of laugh, but his son wants to buy a computer, he wants to buy variable rate equipment, he wants to buy a yield monitor," Gary says.

Knowing the land

He thinks that one of the best things for a father and son to do is buy a yield monitor when his son is a freshman in college.

"That means they can sit down for four years going over the yield data. He can transfer a lot of knowledge to that kid, where the kid would never realize it before, without having to farm it for 15 or 20 years."

This represents a giant leap for farmers who want to hand down their knowledge of the land to the next generation.

"My father knew our farm really,

really well," Gary says. "He'd farmed it for 40 years before he passed away. All that knowledge went with him, so it probably took my brother and me 15 years to learn everything he had to, to pick up where he left off."

Now Gary and his brothers have the last 15 years of yield data safely in their system and they are transferring that knowledge to Gary's son-in-law. He won't have to worry about a gap in the family's inherited knowledge.

"You're transferring that information on to the next generation, which you couldn't do before," he says. "How do you put a value on that?"

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