Knowing when to dig peanuts is always a management challenge for growers. In years when vine growth is excessive, knowing where the rows are can make for a bigger challenge.

Speaking at the recent South Carolina Peanut Growers Annual Meeting in Orangeburg, a panel of growers shared their experiences with different auto guidance systems used in peanut production.

Back in what some call the golden era of peanut production, a plant growth inhibitor, Kylar, was widely used to more distinctly form the crown, or top, of peanut rows. A field of Kylar-treated peanuts looked like an ocean with waves. Now that plant growth regulators are not used, a lush field of peanuts often looks more like a flat ocean of green with no waves.

Monty Rast, who farms about 500 acres of peanuts near Cameron, S.C., bought a John Deere auto steer guidance system in 2004. “It will do everything it was advertised to do, but its main advantage is to allow me to know more every day about every tank load of material and monitor my planter much better,” Rast says.

“I'm not very computer savvy, but I found the software we used easy to understand, and easy to teach my labor force,” Rast notes. “You know going in that these systems can be expensive, but you may not know how much time it takes to learn how to use them properly, he adds.

Pinckney Thompson, who farms about a thousand acres of peanuts, has been using a Trimble RTK system for three years. “We bought the system when we started growing peanuts. We were set up to grow on 30-inch rows, and we were told we would need some way to find the rows,” he says.

A big advantage he says is to avoid driver fatigue. “We now grow wider rows, so that's not so much an issue, but I dig my own peanuts, and when you stay on a tractor 12-14 hours a day, the guidance system makes life much easier,” Thompson says.

“We use two six-row planters, and pull the guidance system to the field. It takes 5-10 minutes to set it up. It was easy for my tractor driver to understand, and he had hardly seen a computer before. We both plant peanuts in the same field, using the one base station,” Thompson explains.

“They told us we need to put the base station in the exact same place when you come back to dig peanuts. That's probably correct, but when we get in a place where we lose the signal, I move the base station. By re-calibrating the base station, we are able to be somewhat mobile,” the South Carolina grower notes.

For growers planning to use an auto-guidance system, Thompson stresses to not throw away your row markers. “We sometimes put out the row markers even when the signal is good and auto-steer is working, because we know we will lose the signal somewhere in that field. With row markers you can lose the signal for 15-20 foot spot, you won't be driving blind.

Landy Weathers, who grows 400 acres of peanuts near Bowman, S.C., says the auto-guide system he uses allows them to get a second cutting on ryegrass that is used for their dairy operation, and still have time to plant peanuts in early May.

“Our row crop system is set up for 30-inch rows, and we will be in these narrow rows, regardless of whether the crop is corn, ryegrass or peanuts. We use an OnStar system on which we pay a subscription system, much like Direct TV. Our signal comes from a satellite, and when we go under a tree limb or behind a tree, you lose satellite signal. So, it is critical to have row markers in some parts of the field,” he says.

“One of the biggest benefits we've found from using the guidance system is that it allows you to spend most of your time looking back, which gives you a more consistent idea of how your planter, or sprayer or digger is working,” Weathers adds.

Kent Wannamaker, who grows 500 acres of peanuts near Orangeburg, S.C., put in an RTK system in 2006. “I'm pretty conservative, and I'm not one you would expect to make an investment in high tech equipment, but I can't say enough good things about the system we use.”

He explains that in the first three years they grew peanuts finding the row was difficult, and sometimes impossible. “We used all kinds of markers, even used motorcycles to try to mark rows. It's difficult to grow peanuts, especially if you've never dealt with the problems associated with it,” Wannamaker says.

“With this system, you plant peanuts straight and you dig peanuts straight. Before we bought the guidance system, I had lots of trouble with digging peanuts. I couldn't seem to throw the rows up straight, and we had trouble running over peanuts in the row. We don't have those problems any more,” he stresses.

Gill Rogers, who grows peanuts and cotton, says, he had a John Deere auto track and auto steer system and an RTK John Deere base station in the field, primarily because he did cooperative work with Deere on 50-inch row cotton, but he didn't use the system the first year he planted peanuts (2004).

“The first year we did not use the auto-track system on peanuts, and it was disastrous,” We now use the guidance system, and it has allowed us to continue to grow peanuts,” he says.

“My son is very adept with computers, and basically he just tells me to get out of the way,” Rogers says. Keeping a younger generation interested on staying on the farm may prove to be a valuable indirect benefit that attracts young people to get into or stay in farming.

Weathers, who farms with his brother Hugh, says the guidance system is part of the long-term plan for Weathers Farms. Between them Landy and Hugh Weathers have four sons, all of whom have expressed some interest in the farming operation. Landy's son, Landrum, is a senior at Clemson University and is interested in computerization and precision farming. Hugh's sons Gill and Edward are students at Clemson University, while younger son Julius is a junior in high school.

“Though we have a John Deere system, and it works well, I don't think one system is necessarily better than another, but I do believe if you grow peanuts in South Carolina, you will benefit from having some form of a guidance system,” Rogers concludes.

Several members of the panel mentioned having problems losing signals in some spots of a field. A recent announcement by Trimble may provide equipment to greatly reduce this problem.