Pictured Above: REAL ROI. Strip-tilling high-value crops like sugarbeets, Mark Richards crunches the numbers on technology payback, including the switch to Precision Planting’s vSet planter meters that improved stands by about 5% in sugarbeets.

Dresden, Ontario strip-tiller, Mark Richards, considers himself a “bleeding-edge” farmer in terms of adopting new strategies and precision equipment. His adoption and adaptation of technology has made his 3,000-acre corn, soybean, sugarbeet, wheat and tomato operation significantly more efficient, productive and profitable.

When it comes to equipment upgrades, Richards finds himself in the tools versus toys debate quite often. As a result, he’s become canny at justifying equipment purchases.

“When you’re talking precision, it’s kind of like an addictive drug,” says Richards. “I was a bit naïve in the beginning because I had visions of running the whole farm on controlled traffic and having real-time data pouring in while keeping records that would help us make better decisions at every turn.”

An important part of judging an appropriate expense for him has been managing expectations. But the real test, Richards says, is to always ask yourself, ‘Do these equipment upgrades make my wallet fatter at the end of the day?’

Upgrading Precision, Changing Strategy

At a time in the late 1990s when full-width tillage was still dominant in his region, expect for the occasional ridge-tiller, Richards suspected that guidance-enabled tractors could achieve substantial savings, especially if he switched tillage methods.

 “I think a decent sprayer operator with a foam marker system and some experience can probably keep a 60-foot boom within a foot of where it’s supposed to be, so you overlap something like 1.8% or 2%,” says Richards. “Seeing a 2-foot overlap on a 32-foot cultivator, I knew we were going to make more money putting precision gear on the tillage equipment than we were in the application equipment because these were narrower widths and they tended to overlap more.”

Richards had already started moving away from full-width tillage by 1996 when he started no-tilling soybeans and wheat. By 2010, he began strip-tilling corn and sugarbeets.

His ideal crop rotation is corn, soybeans and sugarbeets, but Richards also prefers to strip-till sugarbeets after wheat and plant a clover cover crop in August to conserve moisture.

“It’s worked well because I can under-seed the clover after harvest and let it get established, then spray it down where the strips will go in October,” Richards says. “I don’t have to run row cleaners on the strip-till rig and can leave clover between the rows, then go back and freshen the strips in spring. I’m seeing better water infiltration because the soil is holding together better.”

He borrowed a friend’s 4-row Orthman 1tRIPr. Before that, sugarbeet ground was worked 3 times before planting and that was too much tillage, he says.

“Now, we strip-till wheat in the fall prior to planting the sugarbeets. It greatly improves water infiltration and reduces our fuel costs by 40%. On average, I’m only using about an eighth of a gallon per acre of fuel.”

In 2017, he started strip-tilling tomatoes for the first time as well. When he conventionally tilled, Richards would often have to make 5 passes across the field, but now he’s down to 2 with strip-tilling.

“When we used to plow in the fall, we tended to have a stale seedbed in spring, but I did see a benefit ripping the field ahead of sugarbeets,” he says. “But cultivating the entire field was too aggressive, so that’s why we make that second strip-till pass in spring. It’s less intrusive, but still leaves us with a beautiful seedbed.”

Richards plants strip-tilled corn and sugarbeets with a 12-row Kinze 2600 planter equipped with Precision Planting’s vSet vacuum meter system, vDrive single-row control system and DeltaForce hydraulic pressure control.

He pulls the 12-row 1tRIPr with a John Deere 8430 tractor, followed by a Montag fertilizer tank that feeds dry fertilizer to a double-tillage coulter in each row for corn and sugarbeets.  In spring, he switches out the mole knives on the row units with double coulters to freshen the strips ahead of planting.

His other strip-till rig, used for tomatoes, is an old 5000 Hiniker cultivator with the gauge wheels and coulters removed, leaving only narrow knives on. The 6-row bar is fit with a ProTrakker guidance hitch to maintain row accuracy.

Richards sees his “bankable returns” from strip-tilling and precision investments coming in the form of both added efficiency and modest yield gains.

“We’re only working 30% of the ground now,” Richards says. “With the system we’ve adopted, we’re never going to till between the rows, whereas we used to take the soil structure down to a powder ever year. Because we never drive where we’re going to plant, we’re starting to see a multi-year benefit in our harder clay soil. We’re going to approach the third year on some of the fields with corn where we’re yielding about 15% higher than the county’s average.”

Committing to one equipment brand, in his case Deere, has helped keep things organized and allows for more streamlined data management, Richards notes. His precision equipment is 90% Deere. His farm now makes use of 7 tractors, all fitted with GreenStar RTK systems.

About 10 years ago, Richards moved to RTK-level accuracy with Deere’s StarFire receiver, and he uses a 2630 GreenStar display in the tractor cab to guide the planter and strip-till rig.

“On average, I’m only using about an eighth of a gallon per acre of fuel…”

He note the switch to vSets improved stands by about 5% in sugarbeets, and with the addition of the DeltaForce he’s seen some of the best sugarbeet stands he’s seen in recent years

“In the past, we had issues with sidewall compaction, and the first year we put the row clutches on the planter they paid for themselves in seed savings.” Richards estimates saving about $5,000 in corn and sugarbeet seed costs with row clutches, especially on irregularly-shaped fields.”

“We farm near a river so we’ve got angled headlands with two to five sides, so those seed savings add up on odd-shaped fields,” he says. “Even on square 50-acre fields, we’re saving 1.5% to 2% on seed.”

Crop Scout Coordinates

Working with the University of Guelph and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Richards has been testing the practical applications of satellite imagery and drone mapping to provide real-time, actionable field information during the growing season.

“Going out in a field with a lot of variability in it, we fly a drone over our fields at least four times during the season and in 2017 we used satellite imagery through FarmCommand,” he says.

If, for one reason or another, a suspected problem area is identified, tissue and soil samples are collected locally.

“They’ll do tissue analysis and soil samples every two weeks from those spots,” Richards says. “The project is in year 2, and we’ve already identified some low pH areas – tomatoes and sugarbeets are very sensitive, because if you have a pH less than 6, you won’t have production. We were also able to find root lesion nematodes in the tomatoes last year that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise.”

The ultimate goal is to learn more about identifying issues in the field early with aerial imagery and finding ways to address them. In the short run, Richards has found that the work has at least helped his crop scouts be more efficient with what he calls “targeted scouting.”

“Now when my scout goes out he has a map,” Richards says. “You can send him a Google Earth file with areas of interest marked on it, he can load it on his iPad and he can walk relative to where the marks are. I know scouts use a different pattern every time they’re in the field, but that could lead them to miss a problem for weeks at a time, depending on their pattern. With this targeted scouting, if we see a problem in the imagery – either from drone or satellite – we can have him specifically investigate that area to see what we can do about it.”