Advancing Technology

Yield in the Field
by Patrick Kirchhofer
Peoria County Farm Bureau

Advances in equipment and seed technology have greatly impacted the efficiency and yield of today’s farmer.

It's the beginning of another growing season. Homeowners are seeding lawns, planting shrubs and trees, and some of you are even trying your green hand in the garden. On area farmsteads, it's also the season for planting, but on a very large scale. Farmers in the Tri-County Area (Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties), plant nearly 450,000 acres of corn and over 250,000 acres of soybeans each year.

Fine-Tuning the Planter
A farmer’s most important piece of equipment in April and May is the planter. The seed has to be placed at the precise depth to ensure germination and survival, and to optimize yields, seeds need to be evenly spaced within the row. The challenge to farmers is to find and maintain a planter that will do this with changing soil, moisture and field residue conditions.

Planters have made great strides in the past century. In 1910, most farmers were pulling a planter with all-natural "horse"-power. Precision planting in that era was done by checkrow planting. In a checkrow system, the distance between hills of seed in a row equaled that between rows. A strong wire with knots at 40-inch intervals was fastened to iron stakes at each end of the row in a field and moved after each crossing. The wire ran through the planter, and as the horses plodded across the field, each knot on the wire tripped a mechanism in the planter's seed box, dropping the seeds. Rows were then evenly spaced in all directions—lengthways, crossways and even diagonally. The checkrow system with a mechanical planter was quite the advancement over the hoe and hand.

Fast forward a century to 2010. Planters have gone from two rows to 12 and beyond, with some planters as wide as 48 rows planting last year's corn crop. Most of the corn in the Peoria area and throughout the Corn Belt is planted with 30-inch row spacing. At an average planting speed of five miles per hour, a 24-row planter would cover nearly 300 acres in an eight-hour day. In 1910, a farmer moving the check-wire and riding the two-row planter behind his "horse"-power worked up a hearty appetite if he covered five acres in a day.

Farmers painstakingly fine-tune their planters to place each seed the same distance apart within each row. Evenly spaced seeds maximize light interception for photosynthesis and water and nutrient absorption by the roots, and create a canopy over the soil surface to prohibit those pesky weeds from taking root. This creates the potential for higher yields when harvest time arrives. A planter's "vision" in seed spacing accuracy will literally need to be 20/20 if it's to remain on the farm.

The number of seeds planted in the soil has also advanced. In 1910, four seeds dropped on 40-inch centers in the checkrow system had a seed population of approximately 18,000 seeds per acre, compared to 32,000 today. Just a decade ago, the average seed population per acre was around 28,000, and it’s forecast that populations will increase to 38,000 to 40,000 seeds per acre by 2020.

Some farmers today can adjust seed population from the comforts of the tractor seat as the planter is pulled through the field. Soil samples are taken in fields the prior year, aerial maps are analyzed for changing soil types, and previous years’ yields are fed through a computerized system so that seed populations can be precisely adjusted on the go. Fields vary in soil, fertility levels and topography, all of which play a role in the yield potential. To maximize yields, farmers can purchase a planting system that will, for instance, plant 26,000 seeds per acre in a less productive area of the field and 34,000 seeds per acre in an area of the field that has a deep, rich soil profile of nutrients and moisture-holding capacity.

You only need to go to Tremont, Illinois, to find one of the most advanced systems in precision planting. That's the exact name of the company—Precision Planting. Owner Gregg Sauder founded the company in 1993 with the idea of improving planting accuracy. His first product was the Keeton Seed Firmer, a simple piece of plastic that runs behind the seed tube of the planter. Imagine forming a trench in your garden, approximately an inch deep, with a hoe. You drop a kernel of corn every six inches and run your finger down each row, gently firming the seed into the trench. That's exactly the purpose of the Keeton Seed Firmer: to firm the seed in the trench for better seed-to-soil contact and more uniform germination.

Skips and doubles are nasty words around a farmer at planting time. If a kernel is supposed to be placed every six inches, a skip would be a 12-inch gap and a double means two kernels were planted in the same spot. Striving to eliminate skips and doubles, Precision Planting is marketing another planter attachment to farmers called the BullsEye seed tube. The seed tube on the planter is the final path that a kernel of corn makes from the planter to the soil, and it can be a jolting ride. Imagine a downhill skiing event at the recent Vancouver Olympics. Some skiers went straight down the hill, completing the journey in 30 seconds; others meandered from side to side, making it to the bottom in twice that time. Such is the journey of a kernel of corn down the seed tube. Some will take the straight path down, while others will ricochet from wall to wall inside the seed tube, taking much longer to reach the soil trench. The Bullseye aims to deliver kernels down the tube at a consistent speed and, therefore, produce consistent spacing within the row.

Developing the Kernel of Corn
Now, let's take a closer look at the kernel of corn. Seed is becoming as complicated, intricate and miraculous as the human body. In 1910, when technology was simple but labor was hard, selecting seed for planting began during the prior year's harvest. While the corn crop was being picked by hand in the fall, farmers would keep a vigilant eye for especially large ears with straight rows and filled butts and tips. These “seed ears” went into a special box on the husking wagon and were later laid out to dry. The following March, a few kernels from each ear were removed from the cob and tested for germination. Ears with germinating kernels were carefully marked. If any failed to sprout or showed evidence of discoloration or disease, the ear from which it came was placed aside for chicken or hog feed.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, hybrid seed corn became the next phase of farm technology. Farmers in the Peoria area actually played a big role in the development of new hybrids. Hybrid seed is created by cross-pollinating, when the pollen from one plant falls on the silk of another. Millions of tiny pollen grains are blown by the wind and eventually fall to the ground, and the odds are that some will fall on the end of the silk emerging from the middle of the corn plant. The pollen then travels down the silk tube and attaches itself to the developing cob; hence, a kernel of corn on the cob. LG Seeds near Elmwood, Syngenta east of Pekin, and Pioneer in Woodhull are local companies that contract with farmers to grow seed corn.

In the mid-1990s, a major breakthrough in seed technology occurred when Roundup was developed by Monsanto Company. Roundup is a non-selective herbicide, which means it will basically control any weed to which it is applied. What made Roundup so attractive to the farm community was that it was photo-degradable, meaning it will not be carried into the soil profile and contaminate ground water. Once it makes contact with plant leaves, it is absorbed and disrupts the plant’s “nervous system,” and then the sun photo-degrades it.

A researcher at Monsanto discovered how to insert a Roundup-tolerant gene into a soybean and corn seed and make those plants resistant to the herbicide. So a farmer could broadcast the herbicide on a field of soybeans or corn thick with weeds, and in two to three weeks, all of the weeds would be dead or dying, but the soybean or corn plant would still be green and thriving. Roundup Ready soybeans were first available to farmers in 1996, followed by corn in 2002. Farmers quickly adapted this technology, and today over 90 percent of soybeans and 70 percent of corn are Roundup Ready.

Seed technology didn't stop with Roundup Ready tolerance. Actually, the first biotech trait in hybrid seed corn was BT in 1996. This trait helped keep the European corn borer in check, as the pest was sapping millions of dollars from potential corn yields. With both Roundup Ready and insect-resistant traits in seed corn, "stacked" traits came into being. For the 2010 growing season, farmers will be planting Smartstax corn, with eight biotech traits in each kernel of seed. On the horizon is a gene trait for drought tolerance and a nitrogen use gene which will enable the plant to use nitrogen fertilizer more efficiently.

Companies have spent millions of dollars researching and developing this biotech seed. On the positive side, it has made controlling weeds and insects simpler, more effective and better for the environment. On the other hand, biotech seed is putting a bigger dent in the farmer’s bank account, with the cost of seed corn having gone from $50 a bag to well over $200. As traits are added, farmers are expecting higher yields to pay for these higher costs.

Farming is and always has been a major component of the Peoria-area economy. Farmers are not only growing our food, they are also growing crops that will be used in hundreds of non-food items, such as printing inks, paints, cleaners, building products, fuels and much more. The farm economy employs people in the fields of research, energy, transportation, packaging, processing, advertising, manufacturing and the list goes on. At the center of moving our local economy is that highly-researched corn or soybean seed that is being precisely and carefully placed in the soil. Let's hope it grows and continues turning our economic engine. iBi

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