Yield monitors are now common on grain and oilseed farms, though you’re not likely to find one on a dairy operation. But yield monitor technology for silage corn is now a reality, and it shows promise for adaptation to forages as well.
The concept of precision farming was initially adopted with great enthusiasm by some farmers, who used yield monitors and yield mapping to generate many pages of coloured maps and overlays. But that was initially followed by frustration because they were only able to use a fraction of the data the technology could provide.
That’s changed, and what’s been learned with grains and oilseeds may allow the evolution of yield monitors for corn and forage silage to come more quickly.
Kevin Putnam, a dairy specialist with DuPont-Pioneer in Lansing, New York, says developing a yield monitor for silage came with different parameters. Silage and forage quality have greater specificity than merely tracking yield.
For now, yield and moisture levels are still the two most important components in silage corn that can be measured with this configuration, says Putnam. But the technology can also provide higher-quality parameters, including acid detergent fibre (ADF), neutral detergent fibre (NDF), starch and sugar levels, as well as crude protein. John Deere is one manufacturer that has incorporated its HarvestLab and Constituents Sensor technology into its new choppers, while other manufacturers have separate systems that can be added.
In most cases, the yield monitor is a separate unit from conventional systems, which only makes sense, given the quality parameters in silage. It can even read the moisture or starch levels, and then adjust for cut length, which makes this technology an ideal piece of equipment for growers with corn silage, and also opens the door for use in forage crops.
The short-term hurdle is the precision in measuring those values.
“Right now the constituents aren’t as accurate as we might want them to be,” says Putnam, noting that it’s only a matter of time before those shortfalls are fine tuned.
“What we’d like to do in the next year is validate this system, so that we can say, ‘Here’s a plot, and Hybrid 1 was this level, and Hybrid 2 was this level for both yield and starch.’”
For the time being, laboratory analysis is still needed to confirm or accurately define those readings, but it will certainly provide an in-field thumbnail sketch of a variety of quality parameters.
“And instead of taking one or two samples to the lab from a 300- or 500-foot strip, now I have multiple time points along that whole strip that I can average,” adds Putnam.
The real value isn’t for potential plot evaluation, though; it’s for farmers having the ability to compare hybrids across the whole farm, and see which hybrids perform better under certain soil or field conditions. Also, to help find areas where different management strategies can be practised.
There are even inoculant application units that tie into the yield monitor so the correct rates of inoculants are applied. Last, but perhaps most important, it’s making sure that forages are the correct moisture for cutting, which also includes testing before harvest. Both can lead to a better quality by ensuring crop maturity and promoting good fermentation. With this system, farmers can make better decisions.
In his area of New York state, Putnam is seeing a slow but steady adoption of the technology. That trend is being fuelled, not only by the functionality of the information it provides, but also through the attrition of one piece of equipment. As farmers upgrade from one chopper, they’re more likely to move up to these new systems that come with a yield monitor.
“The yield monitors started coming out around 2008-09 when the price of milk in the U.S. was poor,” says Putnam. “In 2013, the farmers had a good year, and this year, it’s looking as though it has the potential to be even better, and if you look at a lot of the new choppers that came out this year, a lot of those have yield monitors on them.”
It’s another example of precision agriculture and the depths of information that can be gleaned from a field, and then analyzed both in short-term and long-term perspectives. A farmer can even take the Constituents Sensor system back to the office and use it to run sampling analysis year round for silage and feed quality monitoring.
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View from Canada
In Canada, the uptake has been even slower than that of the U.S., says Dave Petheram, integrated solutions manager at Premier Equipment in Elmira, Ont. The University of Guelph has purchased one of the Deere-built chopper-headers, but Petheram agrees there may be some level of “sticker shock” associated with the units.
He concedes that the head units are all the same, but the HarvestLab sensor which is bolted to the chopper, is what he calls “a pricey option.” Still, he’s optimistic about the eventual adoption of the technology.
“The challenge with it is that the guys who are buying these are usually custom operators, so it’s going to take some time to push the value through, and get nutritionists on board as to how powerful some of this data can be,” says Petheram. “There are studies out there that have shown that it does result in better feed quality, but you often have to see that work in your area or in your field before adoption starts to take place on a wider range.”
Despite the use of terms that are well known for corn, soybean and wheat producers, these yield monitors are considerably different, adds Petheram. Yes, they monitor yield, chart populations or high-yielding areas of a field. But the big difference with corn silage — and ultimately forages — is that it’s a qualitative monitoring.
“I think if we looked at the adoption rate of yield monitors 10 or 15 years ago, it was the same thing,” says Petheram. “The farmer or the operator of the combine was told that the guys who do custom work are going to pay more money to have this data, yet when they went to the field, they weren’t. They didn’t know what to do with that information.”
That’s changed, and the experience with yield monitors for grains and oilseeds should shorten the learning curve for applying the technology for corn silage and forages.