U.S. farmers are getting help from a new kind of farmhand: iPads and other gadgets that help them plant seeds in ways that maximize harvests.
Big seed companies including Monsanto Co. MON +1.04% and Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont Co., DD +0.35% are gathering mountains of data to figure out which crops work best in certain soil and conditions so they can deliver farmers customized planting plans.
The information is funneled into thousands of dollars worth of gadgets that help drive the vehicle and control seed and fertilizer dispersal.
These modern tractor cabs have come to resemble airplane cockpits more than the seats of old-fashioned tractors.
Farmers can plant or fertilize a whole field without touching the steering wheels, and yield data from sensors in combines—the vehicles that harvest crops—help refine the plans for the next season's planting.
"We've come to the stage where the planter is actually thinking for itself," said Gregg Sauder, an Illinois farmer who runs Precision Planting.
The company sells equipment and systems for tractor cabs to help farmers to improve planting, including its 20/20 Air Force, a system costing more than $5,000 that automatically adjusts the pressure used to plant the seed in the ground, assuring a uniform seed depth across a field.
In January, it launched a free companion app for Apple Inc.'s AAPL +0.05% iPad that shows a map of the crop field overlaid with data such as soil type.
Monsanto agreed last month to pay as much as $250 million to buy Precision Planting, the first foray into equipment by the world's largest seed company.
Monsanto and other seed companies already provide planting advice to farmers as part of their competition to sell seeds, a huge business that accounted for $3.9 billion of Monsanto's $4.7 billion in revenue in the quarter ended Feb. 29..
Now they are looking to charge for new services and equipment as part of a bigger package to entice farmers.
Monsanto has invested heavily in developing genetically modified seeds, with a goal of roughly doubling average yields to around 300 bushels an acre by 2030.
But the St. Louis company has said that many of the big yield advances for biotech seeds are still several years away.
Improving how the seeds are planted and the soil fertilized can increase corn yields by "several tens of bushels of acres," said John Raines, head of Monsanto's Integrated Farming Systems division, unveiled in January, to focus on such efforts.
At current prices of near $6 a bushel, every 10-bushel-per-acre increase in the yield on a farm of 2,000 acres would translate to $120,000 in additional revenue.
Farmers have been tinkering with techniques to improve yields almost since the dawn of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago.
In the 1990s, they started enlisting computers and Global Positioning System devices in an effort known as "precision agriculture."
Now huge increases in the volume of data about seeds, soil, and yields, and the ability to easily pipe this information to and from computers in the tractor cabs, are taking precision agriculture to a new level.
Certain seeds grow better in specific conditions. So factors such as the length between planted seeds, the depth in the soil, and the volume of fertilizer can make a big difference in the number of sellable ears of corn or other crops produced.
"To have a record of everything you do with planting, as you do it, is new," said Jeff Hodel, who farms 6,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Roanoke, Ill.
The 38-year-old this year has added an iPad to his farm-gadget arsenal, loaded with the Precision Planting app, which tells him as he scouts his field what seed variety was planted in which places, along with other data on soil and fertilizer applications.
Mr. Hodel says the planting data help him see what is working and what isn't. But the amount of information can be overwhelming. "Every day you have to ask yourself what matters and what doesn't."
Monsanto rival Pioneer is also developing new data-based products to refine planting, synthesizing yield data from its customers and into maps the farmers can use the following year.
Pioneer this year started offering farmers what it calls variable-rate seeding prescriptions, specific plans on how many seeds to plant in different areas of a field based on multiyear analysis of past yields.
In the past five years, Pioneer has doubled to 4,000 the number of employees dealing directly with U.S. farmers, said Judd O'Connor, Pioneer vice president, and now trains its existing salesmen how to use new precision-agriculture technologies.
Monsanto's Integrated Farming Systems division plans to start selling its first product, providing farmers with corn-seed recommendations using an algorithm to account for certain conditions, in 2014.
And analysts expect Monsanto to announce further investments and acquisitions in precision agriculture.
Laurence Alexander, an analyst with the securities firm Jefferies, says Monsanto's purchase of Precision Planting will allow it to better apply the years of data it has collected on its hybrid seeds performance under various conditions, and to collect more of that data.
Ultimately, he says, the embrace of high-tech techniques could be as big a shift for the industry as that from regular seeds to the genetically modified ones that now dominate the U.S. market.
Monsanto's purchase of Precision Planting could create discomfort for competitors.
The companies say Precision Planting's equipment will continue to be offered to farmers regardless of whether they use Monsanto seeds.
If farmers planting seeds from rival makers monitor their planting with Precision Planting technology, it could give Monsanto a greater glimpse into how competitors' products are performing.
Mr. O'Connor of Pioneer said "we'll see how that plays out over time." Monsanto's Mr. Raines said it remains committed to Precision Planting's existing seed distribution network, and to farmer choice.
Other companies are seeking to leverage the enhanced ability to collect real-time data on yields from sensors and computers in combines to help companies that do crop insurance and commodity trading.
MachineryLink Inc., a Kansas City, Mo., company that leases farm equipment, is equipping its combines with yield monitors that will collect and synthesize harvest data in real time.
The company's FarmLink division will distribute the resulting data on roughly two million acres of corn, soybeans and wheat to farmers looking for an edge in hedging their crops, as well as crop insurers and farmland investors such as pension funds.
That data also could be valuable to commodity traders looking for an early glimpse at the overall grain supply before U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys, although MachineryLink said it currently has no plans to market the data to commodity investors...
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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