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High-tech, low-cost system for
manure application
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[OCT. 29, 2004]  URBANA -- University of Illinois Extension specialists are working to develop a manure application system that will enable producers to calculate and record how much manure they spread and where they spread it -- at a reasonable price.

"We're building a low-cost yet effective system that will incorporate a hand-held, consumer-available GPS unit, a portable computer and mapping software such as FarmWorks or ArcPad," said Jay Solomon, an Extension educator from East Peoria.

The test system records the application path and when the applicator is on or off. A background map of the field with buffer (non-application) zones marked can be pre-loaded into the computer. This provides the operator with a visual representation of the field and his location in the field on the computer screen. By watching the screen, the operator can manually turn off the applicator as a buffer is approached. Once the applicator is outside of the buffer area, the operator can then turn the system back on.

Ultimately, the goal is for the system to use the data from the Global Positioning System unit to sense when to turn the applicator off and on automatically when approaching non-application zones, such as near a stream or well.

Researchers also want to put a flow meter in the system to collect flow data for liquid manure.

"We're working with a producer who has a flow meter and a GPS unit on a tractor, and we're trying to build the components to go between them," said Solomon.

The "where" and "how much" data that's collected from this system will generate as-applied maps for producers, animal waste haulers, individuals who do custom application or bigger producers who use their own equipment.

While there are other systems on the market that are capable of this type of data collection, Solomon said they are extremely cost-prohibitive. Some of the high-precision units can cost upwards of $20,000. Although Solomon does not yet have a final price on the data collection system being tested, he believes that producers can achieve results similar to the high-precision equipment for around $2,500, a much smaller investment.

Because many of the newer tractors come with a GPS unit already on board, Solomon said another option is to find a way to tap into that system.

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"But we're mainly looking at a system for the producer who wants to use an older tractor," said Solomon. "Most of the time, farmers aren't going to use their brand-new equipment to apply manure. So we're looking at a way to put consumer-available technology on an older tractor to collect the data."

Solomon said this type of data will give producers an accurate record of manure application from year to year that can then become a piece of their geographic information system documentation.

"The more information farmers can get into a GIS format, the better able they are to analyze a yield problem or variation across the field," said Solomon. "Was it caused by drainage patterns? Was it a weed or an insect problem? Or was it fertilizer?"

Solomon said that although the system's primary function is to provide the producer with useful information, it is also helpful from a regulatory standpoint, because stricter government regulations are holding producers increasingly accountable for their manure management practices.

"What if a neighbor files a complaint against a farmer with the EPA because manure was applied in a waterway or close to a well?" asked Solomon. "Instead of pulling out a hand-drawn map that's got some numbers scribbled on the side, the producer can go to the computer, pull up records and say 'Here's how much I applied and here's where I put it.'"

Solomon said that much of what has been learned about mapping manure applications can be applied to other, similar systems, such as chemical spraying.

"We may be starting with manure," Solomon said, "but once we get the system worked out, there will be any number of ways we can use it."

[University of Illinois news release]

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