Founder of Horsch Mashinen GmbH Visits Butler Locations.
Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” So imagine a farm equipment company that has not only been in business for 30 years, but continues to operate a large farming operation near Schwandorf, Bavaria, which serves as the “Guinea Pig” for new products and ideas. It was on his own farm in 1981 that Michael Horsch began developing no-till drills and started the company that is known worldwide today for a full line of tillage, seeding and crop protection products.
By 1982, Michael Horsch had not only received his first patent, but had developed a second Horsch no-till machine. The research and development of unique seeding equipment ultimately led to the formation of Horsch Mashinen GmbH in Schwandorf in 1984. Since that time, the company has spent more time as an innovator than a follower, introducing such innovative products as the FG18, which was the largest field cultivator of its kind at the time of its introduction in 1999; the Pronto DC, which combined cultivating, consolidating, sowing and pressing in one pass, and the unique Joker, a machine that has been widely adopted for pre-plant herbicide incorporation, seedbed preparation and residue management.
However, Horsch brought more than an innovative line of products to North America, when they entered the U. S. market in 2001 with the foundation of Horsch Anderson. The company has also shared its perspective of agriculture, including trends in Europe that are quickly being adopted in North America.
Controlled traffic farming (CTF) is just one example. As farm equipment has become larger and heavier, CTF, which began in Europe and Australia, has been seen by many of its adopters in North America as a natural way to farm. By limiting the movement of heavy machinery to the same tramlines for each and every field operation, soil compaction is confined only to a small percentage of the farmed land.
During a recent visit to five different Butler Machinery Company locations in March, Michael Horsch, who now serves as managing director of Horsch Maschinen GmbH, shared a few additional trends that are currently sweeping Europe. One of the most pressing is an increasing demand for non-genetically modified organism crops with 100% traceability.
Horsch said the consumer demand for these crops is moving much faster than actual legislation. In fact, many European supermarkets have already drawn up new requirements for produce and plan to be totally converted over to only non-GMO by 2020. In response, whole chains in Brazil, from seed to shelves, are already set up as non-GMO.
To those American farmers who think what happens in Europe doesn’t affect them, Horsch explains that the European Union (EU) is the United States’ fifth largest export market. Between 10 and 15 percent of soybeans and soymeal exported from the U.S. each year is bound for the EU, accounting for $1.5 billion in soybean imports and nearly $900 million in soybean meal. At present, the primary uses are in chicken and pig feed.
However, those countries are already on track to prohibit the import of any GMO crops … even for use as livestock feed in the form of soybean meal. In fact, one large dairy cooperative in Germany has already told its members that they aren’t permitted to feed any imported grain in order to avoid the risk of GMO crops being fed to milk-producing cows.
When speaking of transitioning from GMO to non-GMO crops, Horsch stated, “The question is not how much more money will we get if we do it. It’s how much less money will we get we don’t adapt.”
Unfortunately, Horsch admits that the technology to ensure 100% traceability is still not entirely available. In order to have 100% traceability, the information, such as seed, planting and fertilizers used, needs to be sent off right away, he relates. The bottom line is consumers ultimately want to know what dairy produced the milk they drink and how it was produced and what went into the wheat that was used to make the bread they purchased.
“One hundred percent traceability doesn’t mean the file in your office or what you wrote down,” he insists. “What you put on your PC isn’t worth a dime. Tractor monitors are the digital stone age, too,” he adds. “Each monitor is different and has different buttons. Plus, The information in files and on monitors can be modified, thus it’s not reliable in the eyes of consumers.”
Horsch thinks the way to go, instead, is to use the powerful technology that is already available, like I-Pads or smartphones, and link them with transponders and beacons. At his test farm in Germany, Horsch has already been experimenting with how to make 100 percent traceability a reality.
Each worker on the farm has an I-Pad that they must take with them wherever they go, and the farm has beacons and transponders throughout. The I-Pads are then able to track data, such as how much chemical is left in the sprayer, and predict when and where it would be most cost effective to fill it up or unload. At the same time that they are collecting this data, the I-Pads are also sending it to the cloud.
“It’s all prototype work. We don’t know if next year we’re going to scrap it all and try again or continue forward,” Horsch says. “However, the fact that nearly every farmer already has a smartphone in their pocket seems to be the place to start. We might as well do more with it.”
Whatever the outcome of his trials, Horsch stresses that farmers will need to get on the technology train before they are unable to sell their crops. “Even we old men have to get adjusted to this,” Horsch insists. “Not just the young men.”
During his visit with Butler Machinery staff and customers, Horsch also addressed grain prices and how technology and Horsch products can have a positive impact.
“The good news is you can’t predict weather,” he says. “The bad news is you can’t predict weather,” he adds, noting that weather accounts for 80 percent of the impact on grain price. “In six months, we could be way up to where we were or down further.”
He explains, for example, that warm winters are allowing more growing time, which means more grain can be produced in the main grain belt, between 33 and 55 degrees latitude. An influx of grain, however, can make the market dive.
Horsch predict that tomorrow’s farmers will face more than price fluctuations, unseasonal weather and changing consumer demands. In addition to potential restrictions on certain chemicals and genetic modification, he foresees Mother Nature imposing her own limitations. Horsch says he has already seen a large increase in the amount of chemical resistance in GMO crops, both in plants and fungi.
“Europe faces weed and fungus resistances we’ve never ever seen before,” he relates. “We’re running into resistances for which the chemical companies have no solutions.”
He believes the issue stems, in part, from the decline in the variety of crops that are used in rotation and the prevalence of Round-up Ready varieties.
“What we have done altogether in the last 25 years is we took out diversity,” he says. “Mother Nature wants it back. If we don’t give it back, she’ll find a way to take it back.”
Hence, Horsch has once again been using his own farm for research and working on ways to combat chemical resistances using mechanical solutions.
As an example, Horsch recently developed a singulator system for planting wheat that places seeds into the soil exactly an inch and a half apart.
“Less than an inch, they have negative interaction,” he says. “Over an inch and a half, the plants get lazy.”
This allows the plant to grow stronger and healthier because each plant has space for its own root system that isn’t being shared with side shoots. Because plants are spaced an inch and a half apart, the plant canopy also makes it hard for weeds to grow. Lastly, because the plants are healthier, they are more resistant to fungi.
“When the heat wave comes, they’re able to stand a lot more heat and fill in the heads,” Horsch says, noting that other benefits include using less seed, a reduced need for water and higher yields due to more tillering.
Similarly, Horsch insists it is becoming increasingly important to incorporate variable-rate technology into everything from planting equipment to fertilizer applicators. In doing so, producers not only use seed, fertilizer and chemical more effectively, but are helping protect the environment. It’s been estimated that even in Europe, at least 10% of the nitrogen applied to fields each year is lost with water runoff. Hence, reducing the loss not only saves money, but helps silence the environmental activists.
Again, the Horsch family is conducting research and testing equipment on their own farm before the concept goes any farther. In this case, they’ve been experimenting with variable-rate manure application and variable-rate fertilizer application via a spreader. In place of the traditional hydraulic motor on a spinner for granular fertilizer application on the latter, Horsch has been testing a torque-sensing spinner that can react to variable-rate prescriptions for top dressing wheat. The spinners also incorporate overlap control by varying the spinner speed from side to side.
It all comes back to the application of technology in farming, he concludes. “You don’t have to get on board today … but tomorrow …” he insists. “We can’t go on like this. We’ve got to completely change.”