Steven Brosch, 24, a third generation cotton farmer who farms with his father, Glen, and his uncle, Richard, realized several years ago that they had to do something to improve profit potential.

“That’s why we started incorporating precision agriculture into our farm in 2003,” Steven Brosch said. “We were looking for ways to save money and increase efficiency. A major goal was to increase accuracy on placement of inputs.”

The farm includes 6,000 acres of cotton, 75 percent of it dryland, all FiberMax (Bayer CropScience) seed — mostly 958 and some 9058 Roundup Ready Flex. Dryland yields average 200 to 750 pounds per acre. The remaining 25 percent is row, drip, and pivot irrigated.

Steven Brosch lives and breathes high-tech farming on the farm, and is working towards a master’s degree in precision agriculture at Texas Tech in Lubbock. His bachelor’s degree is in agronomy.

Brosch Farms, a partnership located 15 miles southeast of Lubbock, Texas, was one of the first in the High Plains to test-drive precision ag.

“We were the first in our area to have the lightbar, one of the first to adopt the autopilot systems, and possibly the first to have Tru Count air clutches. Around here we have been pretty much on the leading edge.”

Brosch’s path into sci-fi agriculture began in 2003.

Lightbar (2003) The Brosch family’s baby step into precision ag was a lightbar purchase, the Raven RGL500, to provide a visual indicator to assist steering in a straight line. Raven’s 210 GPS system was also part of the package.

When applying pre-plant incorporated yellow herbicides, keeping the swath even was difficult when plowing across rows in some fields, and too often that led to overlapping or missed spots, Brosch said.

“With the lightbar, we set up the first line that guided us across the field to keep the swaths fairly even. The lightbar increased efficiency by lowering chemical usage by 2 percent to 5 percent and reducing tractor driver fatigue.”

Since the Broschs’ initial purchase, technology has replaced the lightbar with auto-steering.

Variable rate herbicide (2003)

In weedy spots, GPS allowed the Broschs to draw lines around weedy field areas. From that, software on a desktop computer created a prescription map loaded onto the tractor’s computer. The map varied herbicide application depending on weed location.

While more chemicals were required initially, they noted better weed control later.

Autopilot (2005)

Contour rows are prevalent in the Slaton area, so the Brosch family purchased Trimble’s autopilot system to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

Reduced driver fatigue was the first benefit. “We could concentrate on the plow more because we didn’t have to focus on driving the tractor and moving the steering wheel. We could increase hours per day from 10-12 to 14-15 and not be tired,” Brosch said.”

The second benefit was reducing wide and narrow rows from pass to pass.

“Before autopilot, when we planted with the wind, the dust carried with us. Steering around our contour rows sometimes meant we’d jump them because we couldn’t see, causing us to stop, back up, and start over again.”

With autopilot, dust is a forgotten problem and the tractor can run even at night. Other benefits included more acres per hour — rows were listed at 5.5 miles per hour (pre-autopilot) and increased to 7 miles per hour autopilot. The bottom line — increased productivity.

Before autopilot, the stalks were cut and chopped at the same time, herbicide was incorporated, rows were listed, and then beds were knocked down before planting.

“With autopilot, we don’t worry about making rows. We apply herbicides, cut our stalks, and make the rows in one pass,” Brosch said. “We make rows small enough that we can plant on top. Instead of five passes to plant, it’s two passes with autopilot.”

Autopilot reduced diesel fuel needs by about 7,000 gallons prior to planting time in 2006.

The Broschs paid less than $30,000 for the autopilot system.

Automatic boom control (2006)

The problem: When applying herbicides or insecticides with a 90-foot spray on contour rows, many rows are angled at the turn row. Since each of the six-boom sections requires manually turning each one off, turns reduce application efficiencies — either too little or too much chemical.

The solution: Automatic boom control allows spraying the end rows first and then the computer takes over with the boom switches left in the ‘on’ position. When the tractor comes to a spot where the chemical has already been applied, the system automatically turns the sections off. After turning the rig around, application begins automatically.

Automatic boom control has reduced fatigue, and lowered chemical use an average of 5 percent, with 8 percent to 10 percent savings in many point rows, Brosch said.

The Brosch’s paid about $5,200 for the Raven Viper system.

Yield Monitor (2006)

Steven said the yield monitor and soil electrical conductivity mapping (mentioned below) are the most valuable precision ag products the Brosch family has purchased. They mount a yield monitor on each cotton stripper. The monitor generates six beams of light and computes yield into pounds by the amount of light blocked by the cotton moving into the basket. Since wet and dry seasons affect results, the yield monitor is used annually to build a yield history across the fields.

“The yield map tells everything; red spots indicate the lowest yield in low and high rainfall years,” Brosch said. “A low yield spot will only make so much cotton regardless of how many inputs are added. We save money by reducing the fertilizer and seeding population on that ground.”

To implement any type of precision agriculture including variable rate, a yield map is a must, Brosch said. It provides more savings than the system costs in the long term.

Soil electrical conductivity mapping (2006)

The Broschs rented the Veris 3100 soil electrical conductivity (EC) plow. They identify soil types as they drag the plow across the field. The nutrient holding capacity is higher with more clay in the soil.

The plow shoots an electrical current through the ground. Coulters located on the plow’s outside areas measure the amount of electricity and converts the information into an EC value. Readings are taken at two depths — zero to one foot and zero to three feet.

Comparing the EC map to the yield monitor data determine field spots with higher yield potential so additional fertilizer can be applied for higher yields. In sandier spots, yields are lower so fewer inputs are required.

EC mapping is needed just once since soils don’t change.

Variable rate seeding (2006)

Variable rate seeding is actually part of a two-year experiment toward Brosch’s master’s degree, and is the first time the technology has been tried in cotton anywhere.

“We’re trying, with the yield map and soil EC map, to determine if the seeding population can be varied,” Brosch said. “The goal is reduced seeding population in less productive soil and increased vegetative growth with more seed in higher quality soils.”

While the results are not yet conclusive, the 2006 dry year showed reducing the seeding rate by one-quarter generated the same yield.

“I found we were putting out too much seed for the dry year. With the cost of cottonseed, that’s a pretty big savings,” Brosch said.

Planter swath control (2007)

The Brosch family spent about $2,600 for Tru Count air clutches for each planter.

Before the clutches, contour rows coming out at an angle resulted in wasted seed that never germinated in double-planted turn rows.

“The air clutches work about the same as the sprayer swath control except that it controls each row unit on the eight-row planters,” Brosch said. “At the row end, the clutches shut off each row unit eliminating wasted seed.”

In 2007, the air clutches reduced seed requirements by 2 percent to 5 percent.

Pros, cons of precision ag

The Broschs may have jumped into precision agriculture, but they did their homework first.

“We don’t jump out and buy something when a salesman comes by. We do our homework, study the information, and talk with farmers using it in other areas,” Brosch said. “We think on our own. We like to do our homework first before we adopt it. If we think it will save time or money, we’ll jump on it fast.”

The bottom line is that precision ag is saving Brosch Farms time and money.

“If you’re considering the move into precision agriculture, get a yield monitor first to get a yield history on your farm,” Brosch said. “If you decide three or four years down the road to try variable rate, you’ll have a yield history and you’ll be further ahead than if you’d waited.”

Saving time and money may be the bottom line benefit of the technology, but other benefits include a healthier environment through reduced diesel fuel use and lower chemical use.

Cons of the technology?

“It’s the upfront costs of buying the equipment. It’s all expensive,” Brosch said. “You have to figure out how soon it will pay for itself. For our farm, the pros have definitely outweighed the cons.”

Brosch was a speaker at the Precision Ag Expo held recently at the Ollie Liner Center, Plainview.

email: cblake@farmpress.com