Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

Computers & GPS Improve Farming Returns for this Direct Seeder - Curt McNaughton, Rumsey, AB
Author: Helen McMenamin
Date Created: January 16, 2003
Last Reviewed: January 16, 2003

For many people, precision farming has been a big yawn. So far, it hasn’t delivered on its early promise of better returns by controlling inputs for every part of the field. To the McNaughton family of Rumsey, GPS and field mapping are powerful management tools they use in managing their farm at Rumsey, north of Drumheller.

“Knowing the range of yields and average yield for a field is a start,” says Curt McNaughton. “But when you look at a yield map and overlay it with seeding and spraying information, you start to see what made so much difference. Looking at maps seems to make things real.
“After we look at the maps and try and work out what caused a problem, we seem to watch more carefully for things that could be cutting into yields. We can connect the low yield areas on the map to a problem like weeds or flooding or a soil problem we see as we work the field.

The McNaughton Family

”Most of the time, by the time we see where we’ve made the wrong decision, it’s too late to do anything about it. But, we can see exactly how much it’s cost us. If it’s going to be an ongoing problem, we can do something about it. Or, we know how much it’s worth to avoid that problem another time.
“We can’t do much about something like flooding, but we’ve used maps to figure the advantage to doubling up on herbicide. We had some wild oats that got away on us a few years ago. We knew we were losing yield there, but the maps showed us just how much. The numbers showed it would be worth getting aggressive against the weeds in that area. We used a map of the patch to put Avadex on that area as well as using an in-crop wild oat chemical.”
McNaughton confesses to being a bit of a computer nut. He’s enjoyed playing around with computers since high school. At first the rest of the family, his wife Michele, brother Mark and his wife, Sandy, and parents, Mel and Dariel, turned on the GPS units to humour Curt. Now, they’re so convinced of the value of the mapping and recording software, that if the computer doesn’t show the right information, they stop seeding and call him to fix things.
Before spring work starts, McNaughton spends about half a day putting cropping decisions for each field into the Farmworks computer program and setting up the handheld computers that run the GPS units. He pre-programs everything so all the operator has to do is press a few keys as he drives into the field. A field map, planned crop, variety, fertilizer and chemicals on the screen help prevent errors. The computer automatically records time and date, rates, wind speed etc. on a map of the field.
McNaughtons have been direct seeding for about eight or nine years, putting all their fertilizer on with the seed, so monitoring seeding, spraying and harvest gives them an opportunity to check that everything went according to plan.
After seeding, it takes him about a day to download all the field data. It’s about the same after spraying and a little more after harvest.
“As I download, I check that everything went as we planned and that the information tallies with what we know is out there,” says McNaughton. “The yield mapping program tells us how much of each grain we harvested from each field. If the totals don’t match what’s really in the bin, we have an error somewhere. Once I’ve made the maps, we all look at them. The different colours for different yields and margins help us all figure why we made so much more or less in a particular area and remember what we saw there during the season.”
Seeding, spraying and harvest are all monitored from a GPS receiver run by a handheld computer in each tractor or combine. McNaughton can move a GPS unit from one machine to another in little more than an hour. The tractor driver hits one button to note the field, crop and date. If there is anything they want to mark, they key in a marker. This feature is especially useful for picking rocks.

Seeding winter wheat into standing stubble

“It’s really hard to find the rocks you need to pick with zero-till,” says McNaughton. “We pick 300 or more rocks a year, just those over about 20 lbs, using a $200 hand-held GPS unit. The person running the drill hits a couple of keys each time he sees a good-size rock. The GPS unit records the location and numbers each point. Next day, we take the four-wheeler with a wagon out and follow the arrows to each rock. It only guides you to within 50 feet of where the tractor was, but you can see a good-sized rock from that distance so the job goes quickly. For people who are new to GPS, it’s a good way to learn to use the equipment.”
McNaughton carries a handheld GPS when he scouts crops. The yield map can confirm or refute opinions on the impact of a patch of disease or any other problem. And, he can return to the same spot next year to check whether the problem is persistent.
The main GPS receivers are high-end models with differential correction for maximum accuracy, connected to hand held computers running Farmworks software. McNaughton is working on moving all his John Deere yield maps and 10 years of paper journals into Farmworks.
“I think a week moving the information into one program will be time well spend,” he says. “We’ll have complete information on every field for the last 10 years, all in one place. I’ll be able to see right away what crops we’ve grown, what herbicides we’ve used, yields, areas that might need special attention, just by punching in a field number. It will be a really powerful information package. We’ll have to protect it by putting a backup CD in a safety deposit box and another somewhere else.”
Using a guidance system for spraying and seeding makes the tractor driver’s job easier and less tiring and McNaughton has found it has an immediate payback.
“When you’re eyeballing your track, you always error on the side of caution,” he says. “When you’re seeding in a single pass system with 70 or 80 lbs of N, a three foot overlap can really cost you. You have double the fertilizer and half the crop, a green strip that lodges and makes a mess of the field.”
“We’ve used a guidance system on our sprayer for years. We just bought a new air

drill and when we heard the price on a hydraulic marker, we decided to get another guidance system.
“It takes a little while to get on to the guidance system, and I wouldn’t recommend using only the screen. It’s so easy to oversteer, you could drive yourself crazy. But once you relax, take maybe 50 feet to get back on track, it keeps you much straighter, especially in our hills where it can be about impossible to see where you’ve been. The system did give us a little grief on sidehills. The tilt of the tractor puts the GPS unit’s location a little down hill, so we had to learn to correct for that.” 

Seeding in the rolling hills near Rumsey, AB

 As McNaughtons work with yield maps and guidance systems more, they find more and more uses for GPS systems. Guidance systems can help keep a straight cut header full. Variety comparisons and fertilizer trials are much easier when you don’t need to stake your plot or weight yields from a small area. The impact of chemicals shows up more easily when you can overlay maps over one another.
“We try to work with fields as big as we can make them,” says McNaughton. “But we still want to manage for the conditions in each part of the field. The effects of the old fields show quite plainly on our maps. You can pick out the old rotations, slough bottoms, manure applications, all sorts of history. With on-the-go variable rates, we could apply different fertilizer rates to some of those areas. We may try that next year.”

McNaughtons are convinced mapping and monitoring systems show them opportunities to improve their returns.
“When you overlay maps, you can really see the response to whatever you’ve done,” says McNaughton. “You can put real numbers to those responses and manage for more positive responses. Having all the information and the maps in one place helps us get more things right.”