Technology replaces labor, other costs on Southwest farms

Good help is hard to find. Fortunately, technology innovations have replaced man-hours on many Southwest farms, and are reducing other expenses in the process.

Terry McAlister, for instance, has replaced labor, equipment and some energy with technology on his Punkin Center, Texas, wheat, cotton and grain sorghum farm.

McAlister, who farms in Wichita and Wilbarger counties, has reinvented his operation over the last few years, switching to no-till and adding guidance systems, mapping and precision fertilizer application to increase efficiency.

On a cold, windy March afternoon, he watched nephew Brandon McAlister topdress winter wheat with anhydrous ammonia, injecting the material into the soil with a new machine that uses a tiny orifice and high pressure to keep the nitrogen in liquid form.

“We got interested in this technology because we wanted to put nitrogen on no-till wheat without damaging the crop,” he said.

A second advantage is that McAlister, who went in with his brother Larry to buy what he says is an expensive piece of equipment, can use the cheapest form of nitrogen at a time when typically he'd need more expensive nitrogen sources.

Larry says anhydrous costs about 25 cents a pound less than other nitrogen sources. “It's a lot cheaper,” he said. “And we put it in without plowing.”

“We get two advantages,” said Kenneth McAlister, Larry's son. “It's cheaper and we don't damage crop.”

“It's a very precise process,” Terry said. “The anhydrous goes through the tiny orifice. A pump maintains pressure. A knife and coulter put the nitrogen in the soil.”

“This is the second year, we've used the device,” Larry said. They made some adjustments before this season and say the machine works more efficiently.

They have GPS technology, a guidance system and mapping, for instance, that make the 60-foot wide implement easier to handle. The cab resembles an airplane cockpit.

“The auto steer makes a 14-hour day feel like 8 hours,” Brandon said.

“We can run at night and not worry about overlaps or missing spots,” Larry said. “We'd be lost at night without the guidance system, and we can pull out of a field and come right back where we stopped.”

Terry said guidance systems make his entire operation more efficient. He once used two big tractors for topdressing. With the guidance system, he's cut down to one and puts about one-third as many hours on that one tractor. He reduced labor demand as well.

He and his son Kevin talked about a 100-foot spray boom they use to spray wheat and other crops. They save money by improving labor efficiency and reducing fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide use. They were in the process of spraying wheat for greenbug and weed control.

“When we get to a spot we've already sprayed, the system automatically switches off the proper boom section,” Kevin said. “And if we hit a spot we missed, it automatically turns on the proper section. ”

“I think this system will pay for itself,” Terry said. “We have reduced potential for human error; we're not over-spraying or under-applying. With swath control we don't have overage. Swath control will pay for itself with chemical savings. And we can spray at night with no trouble.”

Kevin said he's more efficient with the guidance system. “I can cover about 1300 acres a day.”

“The field makes a difference,” Terry added. “In areas with oil wells and power lines, we're not as efficient.”

Terry has guidance systems on three tractors and he's using the system to improve efficiency and to develop controlled traffic patterns on his no-till operation. He said guidance systems allow them to cover as much as 10 percent more acres in a day. “And we use less fuel.”

Controlled traffic patterns will be important to the success of no-till. Terry said he converted to no-till about five years ago and is beginning to detect significant improvements in the soil profile. “I have a soil probe, a penetrometer that measures soil pressure. I can push it into no-till fields and it's a little hard to push through the top inch or two but at 4 to 6 inches, it goes in easily. A neighbor still plows his land and the probe goes into the top few inches of soil easily but then it gets harder.”

Terry said he could see changes from no-till after about five years.

“We're not where we want to be with controlled traffic yet. We had to harvest in wet conditions last year and developed ruts so we had to plow those out.”

He's also bought a used combine he'll equip with a John Deere guidance system and he'll try to follow the traffic pattern with the combine. He's doing something similar with a cotton stripper.

“The cotton stripper has a row guidance system, not GPS,” he said.

He uses some custom harvesters for grain and said he needs to train operators to follow traffic patterns. “Some of the special tires custom harvesters used last year left tracks and they do not harvest in the same direction we plant and spray. We always go in the same direction and harvesters want to go in circles so we have to clean that up with tillage.”

He said grain carts also cause unnecessary tracks. “Drivers need to go to a spot and stay instead of driving all over the field. That will reduce compaction.”

Terry said he's primarily a wheat farmer and plants cotton and grain sorghum as rotation. He thought about getting out of cotton and concentrating on grain and taking advantage of good market opportunities.

“But we have infrastructure in the area for cotton and then cotton prices went up.”

On this day, he said futures went over $1 a pound and farmers could get contracts around 91 cents a pound.

But production costs for all his crops are significantly higher. He's saving some money by injecting anhydrous but it's significantly higher than last year. He said he paid $425 a ton last year and $750 this March. “Price jumped from $540 in December to $750 now. Dry fertilizer is running from $700 to $800 a ton.”

He and Larry said they don't plan to use a lot of dry fertilizer this year.

In early March McAlister said he was optimistic about wheat prospects. “It looks good and markets are running at $11 to $12 a bushel. But this crop is not worth anything yet. We still have to get it in.”

A two-inch rain the last weekend in February and another half-inch the following weekend brought the crop out of a long drought. “We've sprayed for bugs and weeds and put on fertilizer. It's really beginning to grow after the rain. We are blessed to have gotten the rain.”

He's also convinced that changes he's made in his operation the past few years will make him more competitive. “We're using more technology, less labor, less horsepower and less energy and pesticide.”

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