The corn's in the bin, but the job is not complete until the thinking is done. Sitting at a computer, Jonathan Peppers enters yield data collected this season. The GPS computer program lines up the yields with the soil-testing data that was completed after harvest. The information, displayed in numbers dotting the screen, will provide a variable-rate fertilizer prescription for next year's crop.
It's all part of an integrated approach designed to maximize yields at the 45,000-acre Open Grounds Farm, of which 36,000 acres are in crops — the remainder of the farm is in forest — on the coast of North Carolina near Beaufort. “Everything counts,” says Gabriele Onorato, general manager.
In the command center of the farm that stretches 12 miles to the Atlantic Ocean, Onorato and the 23 employees at Open Grounds are already preparing for next year. Wheat is being planted. Soybean harvest on the 18,500 acres is nearing completion. And agronomists are analyzing data on the 17,000 acres of corn harvested in 2004. “Each individual here brings a strength to the operation. Everybody here is a thinker.”
Owned by an Italian corporation, Open Grounds, in many ways, is a model farm where technology and agronomy meet the free market. “Being foreign owned, we don't qualify for farm programs, so what we make is what we make,” Onorato says.
An early adopter of precision farming techniques, Open Grounds uses GPS to map soils, collect yield data and write the nutrient prescriptions that lead to consistent yields. The farm also mixes and applies its own nutrients.
Still, with all the high-tech machines around, it comes down to the basics of crop production. “Fertility is the No. 1 concern,” Onorato says. “We don't have secrets. We just go by what the North Carolina Department of Agriculture soil tests say we need to apply. We follow the philosophy that fertility doesn't have to be a limiting factor.”
Using the grid-sampling method, Open Grounds takes 144 soil samples for each 600-acre block of land. After the results come back from the NCDA lab in Raleigh, they are joined with geo-referenced points on a program that shows where and how much nutrients are needed. These maps are used for variable-rate application.
Open Grounds has used precision agriculture to map their fields since 1997. “We've grid sampled the farm four times now,” Onorato says. “We have noticed with the variable-rate technique that we have more uniformity in our yields and a build up of our fertility levels.”
While Open Grounds does fertility on a large scale, Onorato says smaller farmers can benefit as much as a large operation by adapting precision-farming techniques. “Farmers who aren't our size should consider using a local crop consultant. We're big enough where we can justify buying the equipment, so we can do it in-house. But consultants offer these same services.”
Corn production on the farm is 100 percent no-till behind soybeans the following season. Following one burndown application in the winter and one pre-emergence, the farm scouts for weeds and applies herbicides as needed post-emergence.
Onorato points to early planting as the key factor to attaining the goal of 200 bushels per acre.
“Depending on the weather, we start planting March 24 or March 25 and work to be planting no more than two weeks,” Onorato says. “Our goal is to finish planting by April 10th.” The farm runs six to eight planters.
They plant hybrids ranging in maturity from 103 to 120 days. “We plant all the varieties to stagger the harvest,” Onorato says.
In on-farm tests over the past two years, Onorato has had good results with early hybrids planted at populations ranging from 30,000 per acre to 40,000 per acre. “We've seen a difference with a variety like DK 546.
To insure accuracy, Onorato has slowed down the planters to 4.8 mph. At planting, 58 pounds of nitrogen and 20 pounds of phosphorous are applied as a starter with a two by two band.
“We take lots of stand counts and spacing counts to evaluate accuracy,” Onorato says. “Research has shown that there's a four bushel per acre loss for every inch of standard deviation.”
Onorato relies heavily on the work of North Carolina State University's Extension. “We have a great relationship with Ray Harris (Cateret County Extension director) and the specialists at the Vernon James Research Center in Plymouth. I consider them family.”
Development of Open Grounds Farm began in the mid-1970s and was completed in the early 1980s. The farm is carved from forests, farmland and swamps near the southern tip of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Onorato came to the farm in the 1980s, after completing a degree in agronomy from a university in Italy. He comes from a family with roots as merchants on the Mediterranean Sea. On his office wall is a rendering of his great grandfather grandfather's merchant vessel.
In the time Onorato has been at Open Grounds, the crop mix has changed to reflect the market.
When cotton prices were near $1 per pound in the 1990s, Open Grounds was growing two bales to the acre cotton. When cotton prices started to slide, the farm stopped growing cotton. The year 2001 was the last time cotton was grown at Open Grounds.
Until 1995, the farm was heavily involved in livestock production, capitalizing on an up market in beef production. Today, the fences are gone.
Heading out in a red pickup, Anotonio Cintiluciani, the farms' crops manager, points out it is 12 miles from the beginning of the farm to its end at the Atlantic Ocean. “For 12 miles from here, it's more of the same,” he jokes.
He came to Open Grounds in 2003, arriving from Argentina where he managed a 50,000 head livestock operation. His training is in animal science, but he says he learned valuable lessons by managing such a large operation.
“A week is like a month and a month is like a year” when managing on a large scale, Cintiluciani says. “I learned how to manage on a large scale. It's not so much teaching here, but learning everyday.”