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Farmers look to high-tech - Device helps ease harvest
The Forum
Written By:  Mikkel Pates
Thursday, November 4, 1993 pg. A6

Gary Wagner - AWG Farms Inc.Crookston, Minn. - When Gary Wagner combined his wheat fields this fall, he used satellites to keep track of his exact position.

As he harvested, an experimental monitoring system instantly on the field - within one-tenth of 1 percent of a bushel.

He put the information into a laptop computer mounted in his combine and it made a map that is accurate to within 15 feet.  The map tell him exactly where to apply fertilizer and pesticides, potentially saving him thousands of dollars.

In a year when his average wheat yield was 47 bushels per acre, down from the 80 bushels he expected, this high-tech experimentation was downright therapeutic.

“It took a dismal harvest and made something interesting out of it,” says Wagner, 39, who farms with two brothers, Wayne and Daryl, about four miles west of Crookston near Eldred.  The farm produces sugar beets, sunflowers, wheat and barley.

“Finally here’s a computer working for us, while we’re doing our field operations, instead of us having to gather information and go to the computer and type it all in,” Wagner says.  “We can actually use the information immediately.”

Through a contract at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul last July, Wagner was put in touch with Ag Leader, an Iowa company that makes a yield monitor prototype that fits John Deere 9600 series combines.

At the same time, Application Mapping Inc., a Frankfort Ill., software company, was looking for someone in the northern wheat country to experiment with a mapping system.

The yield monitor records bushels-per-acre on a second-by-second basis.  The yield is automatically corrected to normally dried wheat - 13 percent for wheat and barley.

“When we’re finished combining a particular field, you can see there are definitely high- and how-yielding parts of the field,” Wagner says. “Now we’re in the process of soil testing to find out why such a difference.”

The monitor uses a “load cell plate,” a piece of metal positioned at the top of the clean grain elevator in the combine, near the tank.

Grain being augered into the tank hits this plate, and the impact is correlated into bushels. Separate sensors record the moisture, speed and distance to come up with a yield that is within 1.2 percent of a yield measured with a weigh wagon. Another sensor monitors moisture to 0.2 percent accuracy.

The global positioning system uses the same technology the military used track tanks in the Gulf War.  Twenty-four satellites are circling the earth at all times and Wagner can access up to eight at a time.

Wagner purchased the $3,000 yield monitor. He already owned the computer, which cost about $4,500 two years ago.

He doesn’t own the global positioning equipment, but the software company provided it for him to use this fall.

It includes a $1,200 satellite antenna receiver that can be placed in the combine or any other field equipment, and another $5,000 for a “differential correction tower,” an antenna and radio transmitter for triangulation.

Signal from the satellites are scrambled by the military and must be descrambled.  The tower brings the accuracy to within 15 feet, compared to 500 feet without the tower.

Wagner expects the price to decline on the positioning equipment.  It’s possible a regional tower can be built.

In nothern Illionois, a separate company has erected a correction tower and is serving about 20 farmers who own monitors. They pay a $500 per year subscription fee.

Wagner says some farmers in the Grand Forks, ND, area are talking about installing a tower. The technology is only for grain combines at this point, but could be transferred to potato or sugar beet harvesting equipment, Wagner says.

The benefits are endless.

For example, Wagner and other Red River Valley farmers have had trouble controlling wild oat weeds.

“With global positioning, you hit a computer key when you come into wild oat are and it logs the coordinates on the field,” Wagner says. “After the field is harvested and tiled, you can go back with your four-wheel drive tractor, find that are, and apply a herbicide in just the area where it’s needed.”

On one 80-acre field, Wagner was able to reduce his herbicide application to seven areas. “In the past we’ve treated the entire field for about $1,200 and now we’re spending only about $100.  Just that alone could pay for the monitor in one year,” he says.

Wagner has been using computers heavily since 1979.  Among other things, he’s developed a field history record-keeping program that is sold commercially.  He’s also written programs specifically for his farm, including grain inventory management and numerous analytical software for finance management.

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