Yield- and soil-map based variable rate (VR) seeding and fertilizer management is gaining popularity in cereal, corn and oilseed crops. So far, it hasn’t earned as much traction in potato fields, both because many planters are not set up for VR tech adoption and because few potato growers monitor yield at harvest, a necessary step in VR input management. But, major changes are just around the corner. Today’s yield mapping and planting technologies have improved by such leaps and bounds that optimizing potato plant spacing and crop inputs makes more and more sense.
Potato yield monitoring used to suffer a bad reputation for inaccurate results and difficult to use data. That’s not the case today. Today, monitoring is impressively accurate and the associated mapping technology – now possible to integrate with John Deere, Trimble and other manufacturer’s displays – is user-friendly, effective, and easy to coordinate with soil sampling, satellite images, plant density, and other maps.
Until recently, planters used sprockets and chains to space seed and apply fertilizer. To change seed spacing or fertilizer rate, an operator would have to stop planting and make a physical change to the sprockets. Today’s newer planters control the rate of seed and fertilizer flow through a hydraulic drive that can be adjusted on the go. This massive improvement offers more than occasional convenience. Now, growers can adjust seed spacing and fertilizer placement according to a prescription map, optimizing production based on soil, moisture, and growing condition variability across a single field.
In dry, sandy soil, for example, a producer can choose wider spacing to save on seed, reduce crop input costs and limit competition between plants. In moister, more fertile zones, a producer can tighten spacing and increase input rates to take advantage of the better growing conditions. On irrigated fields, a grower can adjust spacing as the rows cross into and out of sprinklers’ circles.
Optimizing spacing and inputs depends on effective data collection. For example, overlaying a seed spacing map with a yield map and then, ideally, a storage map allows a grower to see how one’s adjustments in spacing and crop inputs translate to yield at harvest and quality through storage. Though this intensity of analysis may prove daunting to some growers, others are starting to get really excited about how technology can help them grow better product. After all, even an incremental increase in yield or a small percentage reduction in cost can translate to very big dollars, especially for large scale growers.