By Connor Lynch
TILLSONBURG — Farming 10,000 acres on mostly marginal land spread across 350 parcels of land sounds like a recipe for a lot of sleepless nights and pulled-out hair.
But the VanQuaethem family have managed it, thanks to an aggressive push towards precision ag and all the technology that entails to make the best of slim profit margins.
Curtis VanQuaethem, and his brother Joe, started improvements to the farm, based near Tillsonburg but with fields in Oxford County, Norfolk County and Elgin, about seven years ago. With up to 70 km between some parcels, just keeping track of all their land without precision agriculture was an unnecessary headache.
The first thing they looked at was strip tillage. That meant using tripods in the field connected to a Global Positioning System (GPS), a system of satellites that lets you create a computer map of your field. But the tripods were cumbersome and inefficient, and the technical support wasn’t there, VanQuaethem said.
Technology has since advanced. Before long, the farm bought planters with automatic shutoffs. With a computer stopping the flow of seed as the tractor came around for another pass, it cut down on waste. “That got us back onto the precision ag train,” VanQuaethem said.
Advances came in stages. From automatic shutoff, they moved to rate monitoring. Soon they had monitors in most of their eight tractors and four combines. Those monitors display real-time yields to planting progress to how much nitrogen is being applied as the combine or planter rumbles along.
Human error is by far the farm’s biggest concern. Everyone needs to be inputting the correct data. So, each day before planting, each worker gets a USB memory stick. He plugs that into the machine he is using for the day. That USB stick has all the information needed; the application or planting rates and what fields to go to. They can check in real-time what jobs have been done by whom and what’s left to do and where.
Their data collection and organization is so good that, even in a wet year, planting is done inside of a month, he said. With three employees, the farm has six people to get it all done. They occasionally miss fertilizing or spraying a parcel here or there but the new technology catches what they miss. “Now we’re not driving by the field two days later going, ‘Whoops.’”
Growing on marginal land requires knowing what your land is yielding. It can be the difference between staying in business or not. The farmers mapped their fields using GPS technology to create a bird’s-eye view of their fields that lets them view field data back in the office. Once that was done, it opened up opportunities to collect and test and compare all kinds of data, including application rates, rainfall amounts, variable rate seeding, fertilizer application, and pesticide trials. Every few days, VanQuaethem brings the memory sticks into the office, saves all their data, clears them, and out they go again.
The brothers’ enthusiasm is tempered by their father, Brian, who makes sure that every new piece of tech justifies its cost. Each time they experimented, such as doing nitrogen trials, they started on their own land. They experimented with more or less nitrogen in a strip and watched how it played out by the end of the season. If they nailed one of those trials and it paid off, they’d introduce the nitrogen rate the next year in similar fields.
VanQuaethem wouldn’t say how much of the farm’s land is owned or rented. “There’s too much competition,” he said. The farm continues to grow as they buy up marginal land selling for $10,000 to $15,000 in his area. Buying up quality land would simply be too expensive, so the farmers had to figure out how to make marginal land work. Most land for sale in the area is marginal.
Going to full precision wasn’t cheap and that’s something farmers need to consider, said VanQuaethem. A farmer working better soil might not need to be as precise, he said.
A fully-loaded monitor inside a tractor, packed with software programs for everything from autosteer and auto-shutoff to planting and fertilizer maps, along with the modem to let the monitor communicate with the other machines, can run as high as $40,000.
One of VanQuaethem’s favourite tools is John Deere’s Operations Centre software. He can use it to pull up virtually all the data collected on the farm with his other precision ag tools and easily compare field information. For example, he can check year-over-year yield on a given acre and compare how much nitrogen has been applied. Operations Centre is so useful that he can’t get around using it every single day, and using it more every day.
VanQuaethem is convinced the technology justifies its cost. “It’s easier to save money you already have than to spend it and hope you get something from it.” The technology, he said, saves them countless small mistakes. Whether it’s the wrong variety being planted in a field, the wrong amount of fertilizer being applied, or the right amount in the wrong place, those mistakes add up. The farm’s system virtually eliminates all that. “No questions, no screwups.”