Cotton is down to 30-cents a pound, but it's not low enough to chuck all future investment in the crop. In fact, says John Branham, now's the perfect time to consider getting into precision agriculture. That's what the Halifax County, N.C., producer is doing this harvest season.

“When prices are down, the hardest decision is to invest money in the future of the crop, but that's probably the most important time to get active,” Branham says.

He outfitted his Case cotton picker with an Ag Leader yield monitor following a trip to Indiana last winter. He made the decision cold in order to get a better handle on the variability within his fields as quickly as possible.

Branham has tried grid sampling, but has come to see that the practice doesn't give him the best indication of variability within his fields.

Variability within the field is the key to differences in yields, Branham says. A yield map, he believes, will give him accurate information about that variability.

“I feel like the best place to start is a yield map,” Branham says.

Verifying variability

Branham is a diversified producer. The soil he farms is just as diversified. “It's mainly sandy loam,” says the young farmer, “but even within a field, there's a lot of variability.”

By taking a quick look over his fields, Branham can see the obvious markings of variability: The bald spots within the field, the sandy spots. In those places, he expects yields to be off.

It's when he's going through the field at harvest that he notices the variability in yields. That points to differences in the soil and the fertilizer levels needed to produce a uniform crop.

Last year's harvest bore out the differences within a particular field.

Branham averaged 850 pounds of lint per acre in 2000. But he also picked cotton that made more than two bales to the acre. “We know it varies a lot,” Branham says. “Just how much we need to find out.”

In the search to explain the variability, as well as to get a handle on what to do about it, Branham tried grid soil sampling.

In his fields, at least, the practice didn't give him enough specific information about variability. “For us, two-acre grids were not accurate enough,” Branham says.

“Grid sampling didn't account for the differences within our fields,” Branham says. “I believe the answer to just how much variability we have within our fields lies with the making of a yield map. That seems to be the best place for us to start.”

That's where the yield monitor comes in. Branham has read about yield monitors in grain for years and has been watching their development in cotton.

He made the decision to install a cotton yield monitor on his Case picker last winter.

The Ag Leader cotton yield monitor cost about $3,000. He added a Global Positioning System instrument to the picker for another $3,000. “The GPS receiver is flexible, in case I want to add light bars or mark boundaries,” he says. “I think it's going to be money well-spent. We'll see.”

Away from light

The Ag Leader system is installed inside the picker, away from the ambient light. A monitor inside the cab displays what's happening as the picker moves through the field.

As the cotton is harvested, optical sensors connected to the GPS ties the yield back to the place in the field where it's being harvested. This information helps give the producer an insider's view of what's taking place within the field.

The Ag Leader unit has a set of optical sensors in the chute. As he picks this season's crop, Branham is keeping an eye on cleaning these sensors. Experts point out that nothing replaces cleaning the sensors to help insure quality data.

Data is the name of the game in regard to a yield monitor.

And calibration is the key to getting good data, Branham believes.

Gary Roberson, North Carolina State University Extension engineer, recommends calibration at least once a season, more if you're harvesting varieties that have noticeable differences in boll size.

If a grower is interested in finding out where the variability is in the field, the cotton yield monitor is the way to go, Roberson says.

Evening out the variability within his fields, Branham believes, will help him cut expenses. He says it will also tell him where he needs to apply nutrients and where he needs to be concerned about weeds.

He says the yield map is just a starting point on the road to becoming more efficient and profitable. “For us, the yield map is the starting point.”

Positive move

In spite of the low cotton prices this season, Branham sees his move to precision agriculture as positive.

“You can talk anybody into anything when cotton's 80 cents a pound,” Branham says. “But when it's 40 cents, it may even be more important” to look beyond the price to the future.

“I believe precision agriculture is where we're headed,” Branham says. “It's a matter of being open minded and going with it.”


e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com