Barry McNamara  |   Published November 16, 2017

Digging into data

Wiswell-Robeson lecturer says precision agriculture helps limit surprises

MONMOUTH, Ill. – A fifth-generation farmer visited the Monmouth College campus Wednesday to detail how precision agriculture helps keep surprises to a minimum.

“Farmers are not fans of surprises,” said Stacey Pellett of Whispering Mills Farms in Atlantic, Iowa, who presented the second annual Wiswell-Robeson Lecture at the College. “This is one of the reasons why precision agriculture is so important. It gives us data to make management decisions completely at a scientific level. There’s no guessing here. We know precisely what decisions to make because we have the data to show us.”

Also called satellite farming or site-specific crop management, precision agriculture is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter- and intra-field variability in crops.

Pellett and her husband, Mike, are actively involved in the operation of their fifth-generation family farm in Atlantic, where they produce corn and soybeans. The Pellett family mapped fields as far back as 1993, but they became serious about it in 2000. In her lecture, Pellett explained the thinking behind that shift.

While marveling how flat the land is in western Illinois – “You could watch your dog run away for three days,” she said – that type of terrain is not present in southwest Iowa.

“It’s not nearly as flat as it is here,” Pellett told the audience in the College’s Dahl Chapel. “We have to deal with lots of inconsistencies in the terrain – waterways, terraces and as many as six or seven different types of soil in a small amount of space. Those topographic challenges create challenges in efficiency and production. We had to find a way to get around that variability.”

The Pelletts began working with Premier Crop Systems of West Des Moines, Iowa, in 2000, shortly after the company was founded. The company helps the Pelletts track their acreage in 60-by-60-foot cells, measuring about 300 attributes.

A picture of green, yellow and red areas to signify, respectively, high-, medium- and poor-yield areas of their farm shows the Pelletts essential information. But Pellett said there is much more to it than that.

“Some farmers might think, ‘Oh, I can turn that red area into a green one,’” she said. “But instead of trying to fix it – and it can take years to fix, if it’s even possible at all – we started managing for our variability in those areas. It was a way of looking at challenges differently.”

For example, she said, it’s standard to plant around 35,000 seeds in one of their “A” zones (green). But in the “C” zone, they planted just 28,000 seeds.

“We managed our risk,” said Pellett. “If we had managed our ‘C’ zone like our ‘A’ zone, our costs would look vastly different,” she said. “Our profitability tanks, and it tanks fast. … In an industry in which margins are razor thin, we have to do something that enables us to find a way to be sustainably profitable. This is exactly why we do what we do.”

She continued: “We want to make sure that we are digging down into the dirt, make sure that we are digging into the data. Make sure that we are making good sound decisions based on science. Make sure that we have our farm ready to hand to our kids when the sixth generation is ready to farm.”

Monmouth College’s Wiswell-Robeson Lecture was founded last year, thanks to a gift from 1960 Monmouth graduate Jeanne Gittings Robeson of Monmouth. The lecture’s purpose is to annually feature a speaker from the agriculture community who explores issues, challenges and innovations in the industry. Robeson and her late husband, Don Robeson, who was a 1954 Monmouth graduate, operated their farm in Warren County.

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