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Farm Advice

Innovative farmers now have a wealth of sources for advice. Chatting with friends down at the local caf茅 no longer cuts it.

Back in the day, deciding what and how to farm was pretty straightforward. You learned what the consultants now call 鈥渂est practices鈥 at your father鈥檚 knee. As you got older, you鈥檇 supplement that advice by listening to other farmers down at the local caf茅, and perhaps to seed and crop-protection distributors you鈥檇 been working with for years.

That鈥檚 all changed鈥攁t least for farmers in developed countries. Now there鈥檚 a wealth of information available to farmers from a host of new sources鈥攕o much that the trick is to figure out how to sort through it all.

Case in point: Curtis Sayles farms 6,000 acres in Seibert, Colorado, where he grows winter wheat, corn, sunflowers, and millet. His embrace of the latest in agronomic advice, from every source he can get his hands on, shows just how much innovative guidance on how to farm is out there鈥攁nd why it isn鈥檛 always so easy to follow.

Too much information?

A fourth-generation farmer, Sayles learned much of what he knows about farming from his father. Now Sayles supplements his dad鈥檚 approach by consulting GPS soil maps, satellite moisture analysis and pest tracking, and combine-based field surveillance systems, all of which feed data into his variable-rate applicators for irrigation, fertilizers, and crop protection.

That鈥檚 a lot of data to digest. Sayles absorbs it all in the solitude of his self-steering combine, synthesizing the massive amounts of agronomic data flashing across his multiple computer screens. 鈥淲hen you travel a mile or a mile and a half per row, at about five miles an hour,鈥 Sayles says, 鈥渢here鈥檚 plenty of time to think.鈥

Farm Advice
Farm Advice
鈥淲hen you travel a mile or a mile and a half per row, at about five miles an hour, there鈥檚 plenty of time to think.鈥 鈥擟urtis Sayles, Colorado farmer

Extending a hand

Ron Meyer, an agent for the Colorado State University extension service, based in Burlington, Colorado, is awash in that rising tide of information as well. He sees farmers sorting through it every day in high-tech ways, and also in very human ways. 鈥淚 watch guys slowing their pickups as they drive by their neighbors鈥 fields,鈥 he says, 鈥渙r talking to each other at church. They鈥檙e asking, 鈥榃hat鈥檚 working?鈥 and 鈥榃hat are you going to try next year?鈥欌 It should come as no surprise that they鈥檙e also doing it in the Reddit agricultural science community and via Twitter.

Meyer has been gathering and disseminating this kind of information among the dryland farmers in his region for three decades. But he no longer has a monopoly on that process. The big agricultural firms once collaborated primarily with agricultural research institutions like Colorado State to develop new farming practices, then relied on Meyer and others to spread the word. Now many companies do it on their own: 鈥淭he local sales reps have taken over a lot of that,鈥 Meyer says. 鈥淎 good one will tell a farmer, 鈥業 tested that on a field ten miles from here, and here鈥檚 the data.鈥欌 There鈥檚 never a shortage of advice on any question a farmer might have.

Fresh fields

Sayles is an active proponent of no-till farming and the use of cover crops to protect the vulnerable soil of eastern Colorado, which averages just 18 inches of rainfall a year. 鈥淚鈥檝e been doing continuous - crop no-till since 1997,鈥 says Sayles. 鈥淚 sold my tillage equipment back then so I wouldn鈥檛 be tempted to go back to it.鈥

That鈥檚 been a tough row to hoe in an area where most farmers prefer to stick to the old ways. When he made the switch, he notes, 鈥淚鈥檓 sure the coffee shop in town was abuzz.鈥 If you鈥檙e picturing a bunch of old guys straddling their stools and clucking over the newfangled methods, you鈥檙e on the money. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 even go in there anymore,鈥 says Sayles. 鈥淚t鈥檚 like high school: peer pressure not to change. But adult peer pressure is even more powerful.鈥

At age 63, Sayles is no kid, yet he continues to seek out new ideas. He has a history of doing so. He quit the farm after high school to earn a degree in ocean engineering, of all things, and worked in the oil industry. Then his dad asked him for help on the farm. 鈥淚 left agriculture and came back,鈥 he says. 鈥淚t expanded my mind. I wasn鈥檛 falling in line with everybody else.鈥 He admits, however, that it鈥檚 鈥渒inda lonely. I can鈥檛 talk across the fence with my neighbor about what I鈥檓 doing.鈥

Ultimately, it comes down to Sayles鈥檚 gut instincts about what will work in his corner of the universe. And while he appreciates what the extension service and the agricultural-input companies offer, he has an appetite for multiple sources of innovation in agriculture. 鈥淓very morning I鈥檓 on my iPad sorting through daily research blurbs, weekly newsletters, and emails about cover-crop strategies, and the ten guys comparing notes on some farmer鈥檚 blog,鈥 he says. 鈥淭hen I鈥檓 on my combine, sorting it out. Why is my yield down here? What are the advantages of flax versus buckwheat as a cover crop? What did I do wrong? What went right, and why?鈥

The many new inputs and sources of advice Sayles now gathers together have been hugely helpful in running his farm鈥攁nd keeping it profitable. But in the end, it鈥檚 up to him to sort through it all, and put it to good use. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 pay an agronomist,鈥 says Sayles. 鈥淚鈥檓 my own agronomist.鈥

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