Putting A Price On Full-Farm Technology
Time savings equates to major monetary value for Illinois farmer.
To say Bill Voyles is attentive to time on his Sullivan, Illinois, farm is an understatement.
Voyles has an “every minute counts” motto on his farm southeast of Decatur, Illinois, where for 25 years he’s always taken a forward-looking approach to technology in raising corn and soybeans. The thought process he goes through in applying technology to his 11,000-acre farm sets Voyles apart from others who also use tools like yield monitors and autosteer for crop production.
“There’s always something to be done that can be productive. I definitely think year-round with how I farm because I want to make the best use of the time and technology I have. I may not be in the tractor cab during the winter, but it doesn’t mean I’m not farming,” Voyles said. “Especially during the really busy times, every minute is valuable. If I’m planting a crop and can spend five minutes catching up on paperwork, paying bills or making a market move, that five minutes can have a major impact on my productivity and efficiency.”
Building his tech toolset
With this mindset, Voyles began integrating Ag Leader technology into his farm operation in 2005, starting with an autosteer system and later adding swath control for his sprayers to eliminate chemical overlap and help keep him in compliance with herbicide and water quality regulations.
As he continued to grow his farm, Voyles saw the potential to improve productivity and efficiency by tying together his full complement of Ag Leader technology with AgFiniti® connectivity platform, which enables him to connect all operations and communicate critical information like planting and chemical application progress between machines that helps prevent downtime and keep planters and sprayers running, even when issues come up that would ordinarily sideline one of their field operations. The increase in efficiency is especially noticeable at key times of the year — namely planting — with products like AgFiniti’s DisplayCast® wireless display connection, which enables him and other operators to coordinate planting among his two 24-row and two 36-row planters when they’re running at the same time.
“My iPad becomes another monitor in my cab, and I use it as my hotspot for DisplayCast. If one of my operators calls me, I can use AgFiniti to mirror the other monitor in real time,” Voyles said. “Now I can check on any machine anytime from my phone or tablet. The time savings of DisplayCast and AgFiniti in enabling me to see things in real time is astronomical.”
Voyles attributes much of the success and forward evolution of his farm to attention to the value of time. He also operates an automotive repair business in addition to his farm, and time is an important measure of productivity and efficiency in that business. He has applied a similar strategy of applying and managing time to both auto repair and crop production.
“In my automotive shop, I charge $65 to $100 per hour for labor. The farm is scattered across 45 miles, so if I drive from one end to the other, it takes at least an hour. If I can fix an issue using DisplayCast and AgFiniti in two minutes instead of taking an hour to drive there, I’m saving $100,” Voyles said. “Then, think about the other ways I can use that time. If I can spend that hour making a grain sale and capitalizing on a market rally, I can turn that $100 to $50,000. Being attentive to time like this doesn’t just save me money. It makes me money.”
Time as a key crop input
Managing his farm in the context of time as a valuable input also helps Voyles better maintain his machinery and equipment. Treating his time as more of a line-item on his farm’s balance sheet, he’s able to be more proactive with maintenance by conducting more preventative maintenance. Doing so helps him prevent costly, time-consuming breakdowns and helps maintain peak year-round efficiency on his farm. In other words, he approaches maintenance with a “spend a few minutes now to save a few hours later” mindset, the kind of proactive way he integrates technology into this operation.
“If you take the average 2,000-acre farmer who says he doesn’t need to be proactive with maintenance and technology, he’s wrong. If he can spend 15 minutes looking over his planter before entering the field, he may find the one loose bolt that could have cost him tons of downtime if it came loose while running in the field later,” Voyles said. “A lot of times, people don’t want to deal with problems, but I think the average farmer doesn’t conduct nearly enough preventative maintenance on equipment and technology.”
With so few qualified farm workers on whom Voyles can rely to help carry out and manage many of his field operations, he’s focusing on efficiency and turning to technology to get those same jobs done.
Voyles’ emphasis on time on his farm also helps him overcome a challenge that’s growing in incidence and severity around rural America. The labor pool is shrinking even more rapidly after falling 73% in the latter half of the 20th century, according to USDA Economic Research service data. With so few qualified farm workers on whom Voyles can rely to help carry out and manage many of his field operations, he’s focusing on efficiency and turning to technology to get those same jobs done.
“Labor is 100% our biggest challenge. In the last five years, it’s become almost impossible to find labor. Farm sizes have gotten so much bigger, so there are fewer farm kids with experience, and kids aren’t learning any other way,” Voyles said. “I know that technology is the best way I can become a better farm manager, and the labor situation is not going to get better. If I can get faster and more efficient using technology, it’s going to continue to help. Whether it’s autonomy or faster speeds in the field, technology is going to help offset our labor shortage.”
One example of Voyles’ full-farm, year-round approach to his technology happens during the winter – a time typically considered the off-season for row crop farmers. By planning ahead and prioritizing specific tasks at different points year-round, then he’s already a step ahead when the seasonal rush hits because of how he planned and worked throughout the year.
“You can make your farm more productive and efficient with technology…” Voyles shared steps to his success, “Start with what will help you reach your yield goals and make better use of your time first.”
“Just because I’m not in the field planting a crop doesn’t mean I’m not farming. I may be getting the next piece of equipment ready,” Voyles said. “I have GPS in my Jeep, and I take that out to survey my boundary lines and make A-B lines during the winter when the ground is frozen and I can easily make it across the field.”
Moving forward, the full suite of technology he utilizes today will likely be the building blocks of an even broader collection of tools in the future. Voyles said his ultimate goal for the foreseeable future will be to increase bushel targets for his corn and soybean crops. He’ll continue to seek out new technology to help him attain those yields more efficiently, though, but yield will remain his primary focus.
“You can make your farm more productive and efficient with technology. Do you have to have everything I’m using today? No. Start with what will help you reach your yield goals and make better use of your time first,” he said. “We will stay focused on bushels per acre, but we’re going to use technology to make us better with things like planting and applying fertilizer. We’re going to always keep an eye on how much we can grow our yields with each piece of technology we integrate into this farm.”