Kickin’ Up The Dirt with Kyle Dill
An intimate conversation with farmers from across the country
Talk about agriculture has reached a deafening roar — whether it’s ag tech and precision farming, the consolidation of the industry, or the impact of climate change on our fields — farming has struck a chord with the mainstream.
Yet farmers themselves are often missing from those conversations. Ag tech startups abound, but few of their employees have actual experience farming. Policy makers argue for agriculture and food legislation without having set foot on a farm.
We’re ready to hear what farmers have to say. That’s why we’re running Kicking Up The Dirt, a Q&A series that gives farmers a platform to speak about the changing world of agriculture.
We sat down with Kyle Dill, a third-generation farmer from Shreveport, Louisiana. He farms 2,000 acres of soybeans and corn. You can follow Kyle on Twitter.
Kyle spent most of his childhood on a family farm in the Red River Valley, where they’ve raised cattle, corn, soybeans, wheat, milo, cotton, and rice for over 70 years. Kyle started as a child in working in the cattle pens, and by the time he turned twelve he was running a combine. Over time, he grew certain that he would continue farming as a career.
Kyle attended college at LSU, and that’s where he met his wife Martha, who also grew up on a farm. Together the two of them started the Crooked Bayou Planted Company. Kyle and Martha have been married for ten years and have four beautiful children that they raise on their farm near Shreveport.
Why do you farm? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I am so blessed to be able to send my children to school in a large city and expose them to urban life, and expose them to the rural farming way of life as well. My family sent me to a great private school and allowed me to get the best education possible. I am so happy that my children are experiencing this as well. They love being close to the modern conveniences of urban life, but they enjoy every second that they are on our farm. They are exposed to so many different experiences in the real world that allow them to apply what they learn in the classroom. I tell them that I learn something new everyday on the farm, and that they should be learning both in the classroom and out of it on a daily basis. This privilege of educating our youth is what drives me to do what I do everyday. Maybe one day I can pass the farm down to them.
What new technologies today are proving to be most promising for your work?
Even though I knew I wanted to farm at an early age, I never realized how much I loved it until all of the recent technologies became available. When I first came back to the farm in 2008, we immediately invested in GPS and autosteer. At that point, the only other technology we were using was yield monitoring, but with the addition of the GPS we were now able to map data that we were collecting on our farm. My dad was very hesitant about making the investment, but we immediately identified two ways the technology was going to pay. First, by adding autosteer, we immediately cut down on the amount of tractors that were needed for any given task. We simplified our planting operation to one tractor that we could run 24 hours a day if needed. Second, GPS mapping allowed us an accurate report card of what was going on in the field.
What is your relationship to farm data? How do you use field maps, machine data, and other field data on a day-to-day basis?
I remember printing out all of our yield maps in my first year and my dad kept making fun of me. He only saw them as expensive pieces of paper, and he was right. Those maps didn’t really tell us much at first. He probably could have drawn the maps himself from memory of what each part of the field was capable of making year in and year out. It was then that I challenged myself to do something with this data. Our first move was taking grid samples of our place and trying to even out the fertility of our fields. We applied lime, potash, and phosphorous at variable rates. After the first year we started to see a marginal ground improvement. We continued this program for a few years, but eventually our results began to plateau.
So about four years ago we decided to make the move from 38 inch rows (which are common in our area because most growers farm grain and cotton) to 30 inch rows. We capitalized on this switch to buy a new 16-row John Deere 1720 with hydraulic variable rate drives and row command. The row command paid for itself in the first year. We have so many bayous that meander through our farms that there are only a few rectangular fields. The row command allowed us to save seed on our point rows and brought up our yields on the headlands. This was a welcomed improvement, but the biggest benefit of the planter was the variable rate drive.
The biggest benefit of the planter was the variable rate drive. I bought SMS Basic software from AgLeader and began tinkering with my plans for planting. I didn’t have enough data to make a viable prescription, so we had a local fertilizer dealer map the varying electrical conductivity of our soils. I used this data, along with soil maps, as a guideline for my experiment. The first year was eye opening. I would plant a single low rate on one pass, then a high rate on the next. Then we would plant varying rates throughout the field. If we switched varieties we would tinker with the rates again to see how they would react. We were only planting between 26,000- 34,000 seeds to the acre the first year.
In most cases, we got a higher return on investment at rates lower than we traditionally planted. So the next year, we varied even more, planting between 22,000- 36,000 seeds per acre. Like I expected, in some places we dropped populations and the yields were as good as they’d been before. However, in our better ground we planted a higher population and the yields went up. We were on to something, and it was only possible due to the investment we had made in new technology years before.
This past year was a huge challenge. We had over two feet of rain after we planted corn and we had to start all over again. We had picked up some sandy fields from our landlord and I was timid about planting corn at high populations in these areas. However, the lower ends of the fields were very strong. We planted the upper ends around 25,000 plants to the acre and the lower ends at 34,000. When we pulled into the field the first thing that surprised me was how uniform the field looked from above. After we finished, the yield map confirmed what I had seen. The range from the best to the worst parts of the field was only a 20 bushel difference. If we had planted the field using a constant planting rate, we would either be overpopulating on one side or leaving money on the table on the other, or both.
Which has a greater impact on your work, and why: ag/farm policy (like the Farm Bill) or new ag tech?
As I’ve adopted more technology, I feel like we have increased our yields, but more importantly we have become more efficient. We are able to cover more acres in tighter windows. This gives me the opportunity to spend more time with my family, which is the biggest return on investment in my opinion.
My dad was always torn between spending time with family and getting work done. With today’s technology, I am able to get more done in smaller windows, which frees up more time for me to spend with my family. That is why I feel ag tech has played a larger role than other factors such as ag policy. Ag policy is always changing, and I feel I need to pay more attention to the variables that I can control.
Paint a picture of the Ag Tech industry in the next 10 years. What changes do you foresee happening?
Looking forward, we have invested in equipment to variable rate our nitrogen sidedress program in corn. We feel that we will be able to cut back in some areas and increase our nitrogen in other areas. Last year we used a drone to record NDVI images of our corn crop at different stages. We used the images to monitor crop health before and after we did a foliar fungicide application.
This fall I purchased a Climate Fieldview Drive. We used it in the combine to record our yield data and upload it to the cloud where I can access it from anywhere. That same product will be in our planter tractor next year, recording all the data from the planter. At harvest time we will be able to instantaneously analyze how varying inputs are affecting yields. I am as excited as I’ve ever been to be a part of agriculture, and I hope that one day my children share my love and joy for this way of life.
Kickin’ Up The Dirt is a weekly Q & A series focused on sharing authentic perspectives and insights from American farmers. If you or a farmer you know would like to be interviewed for this series, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear your story.