Since the 1990s Dietrich Kastens has been replacing iron with technology on the Northwest Kansas farm he operates with his father and uncle near Herndon.
“The most important piece of technology we use is a spread sheet,” Kastens said during an Ag Technology Field Day last summer in Fairview, Oklahoma. “Every decision we make goes through the spread sheet,” he said. “Buying land, evaluating fertilization, crop insurance, etc., all go onto a spread sheet before we make a decision.”
That evaluation process has convinced the Hasten operation managers, including Dietrich’s dad who is a Kansas State University ag economics graduate, that technology pays for itself.
“We started yield mapping in 1998,” Kastens said. “In 2000 we started using a GPS with hand held computers. We added a Starlink lightbar and a Veris rig in 2003 and ran our first variable rate application (VRA) in 2005. They’re adding more capability with VRA technology with row and nozzle control. “We worked it out on the spread sheet,” Kastens said. “We can invest $80,000 in a sprayer and $50,000 in a planter with a three-year payback.
“Our biggest limitation is software. We’re limited on the number of sections we can cut off; 16 is the maximum and we need ability to manage 24.”
He said VRA on planters saves money. “We’ve reduced over-seeding from 5 percent to 1 percent with section control,” he said. “That helped reduce yield loss. We don’t have double plantings, which were killing us.”
He said reducing double plantings saves money on wasted seed and also limits yield reduction from too many plants.
Kastens said farmers interested in adding technology to their operations should evaluate “what works and what they can pay for.” He said the most obvious first choices are transgenic varieties. “This technology is easy to access and may be essential for survival.”
He said GPS technology, auto steer, auto boom control and auto shutoff are also obvious options for early adoption. Less obvious options include VRA and no-till systems, which may require improvements in management.
“But managers who adopt technology will have an advantage for years while others try to catch up. Non-adopters may not break even and may fade away, unable to expand.”
He said late adopters may be somewhat behind the curve but could learn from other’s experiences and skip some steps. “Early adopters face more risk but more profits.”
He said government programs may eventually be tied to technology as regulations focus on site-specific nutrient and chemical management.
Kastens said the combination of no-till production and technology has allowed the operation to expand without adding to the labor force. “The field farthest from the farm is now 40 miles away,” he said. “Just 20 years ago, that range was 10 miles.”
Spreading out may bring some logistical challenges, he said, but it also offers advantages.
“We minimize geographical risks such as hail storms.”
He said some reasons farmers may defer adopting technology include potential for “mental overload” while getting up to speed. Lack of education or training could be a downside, he said. “You may not be able to find people to do it for you.”
“Technology requires more computer skills.” He said frustration with software poses challenges to some farmers. “The high cost of technology and a steep learning curve may limit adoption. And technology will not provide everything you want.”
He said the electronics of new technology brings more challenges. Many units require “a bundle of cables. Wiring is confusing and may be a nightmare,” he said.
“In some cases, managers may opt to let custom operators or industry reps use technology for them. “Some seed companies, for instance, provide planting service for a fee. But regardless of who does the work, managers must understand what’s going on in their fields. They have to evaluate decisions.”
He said adoption of less obvious technologies “will not happen quickly. Every farm is different with different goals, different management, different efficiency, different skills and different equipment.”
He urged farm managers not to ignore new technology because of the cost or the training requirements. “Don’t dismiss it because you think it’s a luxury. A lot of it will pay its way. Evaluate technology and see what it will do for you. Don’t get behind on adoption. New technology offers tremendous opportunities.”
He said farming is “about having fun, making a profit and building an operation that stands the test of time.”
He said managers may be better able to accomplish those goals with technology.