Prioritizing Better Over Bigger

Gentle breezes cascade across 5,000 acres of soybeans, corn, forage crops and pasture on Jeff Lakner’s family farm in east-central South Dakota, rustling the same land where his family began their agriculture journey.

“We decided we wanted to get better before we got bigger,” said Lakner, a fourth-generation farmer. “For us to get better, we needed to employ better technology and more precision technology.”

Changing with the Times

Lakner’s farm has long since moved past the days of plow horses and limited seed varieties familiar to his grandparents, to precision planting and dual hybrid technology. His first step in implementing new technology was adopting zone soil mapping on all their owned and rented land.

“Because of the extreme variability we have in our soils and terrain, it was a natural fit,” Lakner said.

Up next was dual hybrid technology, which Lakner called a game-changer in more ways than one. Lakner’s son, Drew, actually used precision technology to propose to his now wife. Using dual hybrid technology, Drew was able to plant two different varieties in one field, and when the beans matured, there was a color difference to show the words “Marry me” from drone imagery.

“All fun and games aside, we’ve pretty much employed the full package of technology that’s available to us at the farm level,” he said.

With newer technology came more advanced sustainability practices.

“Looking at sustainability practices, a lot of what we do in the northern Plains is based on necessity,” Lakner said. “We have to rotate crops. We have to use cover crops and forages because it’s a fragile ecosystem here.”

Although many sustainability practices are a fact of life in the region, technology improvements keep coming. One of the biggest changes in sustainability that Lakner has seen in his 40 years of farming is nutrient management.

In the plains of South Dakota, cattle and crops coincide with each other, and nutrient management is key. Cattle eat the crops, then their manure is used to fertilize another season of crops. About 15.8 million acres, or about 5% of U.S. cropland, are fertilized with livestock manure, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Soil testing was something my father was not a believer in. He just believed in rotating manure to the problem field versus feeding all of your fields,” Lakner said. The change has helped him address each field’s needs specifically, enhancing the production and increasing overall yield.

While nutrient management has been the main change, Lakner didn’t stop there. The family farm employed management zone-building technology to map fields into detailed zones. Once they had maps of each specific area, seed and input decisions became easier.

“We developed our management practices based on putting the appropriate amount of seed and fertilizer in those best areas,” Lakner said. “In the more marginal areas, we either cut the fertilizer and seed back, or we planted that zone to a different crop.”

For Lakner, adding technology as a business decision is more than keeping the farm moving forward.

“Not only do we need to do the right thing to improve the land that we’re stewards of right now,” he added, “but also for the next generation and for everyone involved.”

Data You Can Use

As far as the future of ag technology on Lakner’s farm goes, he said he looks forward to seeing more actionable data.

“A lot of the technology we have seen generates a lot of data. And it’s fun to work with, but big data and fast data doesn’t always mean usable data,” he said.

Lakner said to fully utilize technologies on the farm, they need to be synchronized with other systems and easy to use for farmers. If the data just sits in the cloud, it doesn’t help improve the farm.

With the immense amount of technology available to farmers, the checkoff saw the need for information and resources to help farmers implement new technology on their farm. Tech Toolshed is a soy checkoff resource that helps farmers manage vast quantities of data, maximize the technology farmers currently have and adopt new technology.

According to a study funded by the USDA, adoption rates vary significantly across precision agriculture technologies. Yield monitors that produce the data for GPS-based mapping are the most widely adopted, used on about half of all corn and soybean farms. Guidance or autosteer systems are used on about a third of those farms and GPS-based yield mapping on a quarter. Soil mapping using GPS coordinates and variable rate technology is used on 16% to 26% of these farms.

Farms over 2,900 acres have doubled the precision agriculture adoption rates of all farms. About 70% to 80% of large farms use mapping, about 80% use guidance systems and 30% to 40% use variable rate technology.

“Usable data is important because we can be more focused and be more efficient with the resources that we have,” said Lakner. “For us, the end result should be to decrease the number of inputs and increase our output or to be more economical and to generate more sustainable returns with that mix.

“It may not be fewer inputs, but it can be more targeted inputs so we’re getting more bang for our buck,” Lakner added. “The time to examine the data to make management decisions isn’t after harvest anymore. Post-season has been the typical time many farmers pause and look at what they would like to change for next season.

“Twenty years ago, I would have agreed that post-harvest is a good time to pull in the data and take more of a 40,000-foot view of your operation,” he said. “Today, interactions with seed vendors — who would like to book next year’s seed orders around July, before we’re even thinking about harvest — have encouraged a lot of farmers to start assessing the crop in season.”

Lakner and his son implemented technology to monitor crop performance data throughout the year.

“To make those decisions sooner and sooner, in-field sensors become more and more prevalent, especially in the row crop sector,” he said. “We’ll make better and better decisions by continuing to refine the technology system. It all comes back to having actionable data.”

The Journey Onward

After over 40 years of farming, Lakner still sees changes on the horizon.

“In the next three to five years, I think we’re going to see a shift. I believe we’ll see more interseeding of cover crops, increasing awareness of nutrient runoff and ensuring we have a healthy microbiome,” he said. “I think we’ll see more adoption of sustainability practices. Although with what we have today in corn and soybeans, I think that will stay virtually the same with enhancements.”

Aside from new approaches and technological advances, Lakner added he remains encouraged by the untapped potential for U.S. soybeans.

“We will be a farm of the future, and I’ll stay engaged in food and agriculture because of the technology that’s available and in the pipeline,” said Lakner. “It is very exciting to me.”

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