Miles separate farmers on identical mission

If you did not know 1,650 miles separated the farms of Kenneth Hood of Gunnison, Miss., and Ted Sheely of Lemoore, Calif., their accents would be a dead giveaway.

Hood’s Mississippi Delta drawl and Sheely’s Arizona/California accent are dead giveaways that it is a long, long way from one man’s farm to the other. However, they are more alike in their approach to farming than the miles would indicate.

They are successful farmers who have literally bet their farms on developing precision farming technology not in test plots, but on virtually their entire farming operations. But, they figured they had no choice – either experiment with precision technology or quit farming because they could not continue farming with the cost-return ratio they had been seeing, especially in cotton.

Hood, speaking at the recent Central California Cotton Conference in Shell Beach, Calif., said his venture into precision ag experimentation in 1996 was an exercise in survival. Either he had to cut cost or increase yields or both in the face of what he calls a “crisis” in Mississippi farming where costs are far outpacing returns, especially for cotton that was closing at 47 cents on the December cotton the day he was speaking at the conference.

Sheely faced the same quandary almost 2,000 miles away, Separated by miles they both have achieved remarkable cost reductions or yield increases of 10, 15, 20, 25 or even 40 percent using Global Positioning System technology married to variable rate technology developed by aerial imagery.

Parlays success Hood parlayed his success into one of the fastest growing precision agricultural businesses in the U.S., InTime. He said it is the only one offer a full package of precision ag services.

Started with just 100,000 acres two years ago, InTime booked 300,000 acres in 2004, and Hood said his goal for 2005 is 1 million acres using InTime’s aerial imagery/variable rate prescription services. InTime operates in 10 states, including non-Cotton Belt states Indiana and Illinois.

His fastest growing market, he said, is California. About a third of InTime 2004 acreage was in California. “California has the perfect infrastructure for what we are offering.” Hood said California’s extensive network of licensed pest control advisers and consultants and the widespread use by producers of custom applicators fits precision ag technology like a glove.

“The diversity of California and its high value crops also makes an ideal environment for precision agriculture,” said Hood. Also driving demand is the higher cost of California farming compared to other states.

Hood told about 100 attending the conference that two years ago he was having dinner in Brazil with Brazilian farmers when one of them told him he could produce cotton for 36 cents per pound. “I will never forget that,” he said. “We used to compete across turnrows. Now we compete across oceans.” It is almost impossible for an American cotton farmer to compete with that 36-cent-per-pound South American cotton grower using one size fits all farming that has been used for decades. The only way Hood could see farming more competitively was to significantly reduce costs without sacrificing yields.

Hood figures his cash costs are almost $453 per acre, but he controls only about $200 or 43 percent of that. The rest are fixed costs. The $453 does not include land costs or his labor costs.

Picker monitors He started his precision ag grand experiment with cotton picker yield monitors, which told him where within a field he was making money and where he was losing it. “You have to find out where the cotton is coming from with yield monitors,” said Hood.

Using aerial photography, data from yield monitors zone mapping fields and variable rate technology for applying pesticides, plant growth regulators, fertilizer, defoliants and adjusting seed seeding rates, he has discovered he can save 35 percent or $70 per acre of those cost over which he has control versus what it cost to use precision agriculture technology. “Even if I save 20 percent that is $40 per acre in savings,” said Hood.

One example he used at the conference was for the use of the plant growth regulator. “Our soils change probably five times going across a field,” said Hood.

Using a one-rate-fits-all scenario on plants growing under variable soil conditions, it was costing him 223 pounds and 400 pounds of lint per acre in two separate zones of the field by either applying too much or not enough Pix. Using variable rate technology, he reduced his costs and increased his yields.

Much of what Hood has done in Mississippi has been duplicated on Sheely’s Kings County, Calif., farm. They literally bet their farms on precision agriculture and have not only won on their farms, but are fast gaining converts who are using variable rate technology.

When an entomologist 155 miles away reading aerial imagery could tell scouts where to go in Hood’s cotton fields to find plant bugs, it made a believer of the Mississippi cotton farmer.

“My neighbors saw what I was doing and asked me to help them. That is fine if it is one or two people, but then it quickly became too many. That gave birth to InTime,” said Hood.

Must change “Times are changing in the cotton business and technology is changing as well,” said Hood. It has to if American farmers are to survive.

He calls his company’s 24-hour aerial imagery turnaround imperative. “I cannot wait three, five or six days for an aerial imagery, especially dealing with insect pests.”

When a farmer sees a cotton plant under water stress, it is already two weeks too late. “You can only see so much from the windshield of a pickup. The big eye in the sky can see water stress two weeks before you can,” he told the consultants and farmers.

One of the big debates in farming is whether to spend money to improve bad ground or spend it to get more out of the good ground. Hood said he is convinced through his precision ag experience that it is better to maximize yields from better ground than pour good money after bad in trying to coax high yields out of lousy ground.

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