Big machines play key role in getting crops to grow

Farm Forum

Fertilizer application has grown into a customized service, and the equipment used has had to change to meet that demand.

Take, for example, the TerraGator, a three-wheeled tractor with tires about as tall as the average person and a cab that sits about 12 feet above the ground.

South Dakota Wheat Growers has a fleet of the contraptions to provide customized application based on soil conditions.

“Each field is a different recipe,” said Dick Siefkes, manager of the Wheat Growers fertilizer facility in Bath.

He said field agronomists determine the fertilizer mix, and the product is applied using the TerraGator. Placement of the fertilizer is all controlled by a computer, Siefkes said. The computers not only control the mixture of up to four types of fertilizer, but also where the fertilizer is applied.

Siefkes said the GPS coordinates are recorded for the edges of the field. That way, he said, programming won’t allow application off the field. The tractors also use an auto-steer function that keeps track of where the product has been applied.

The most popular fertilizer applied to fields is nitrogen, Siefkes said.

One of the more notable features of the TerraGator are its wide tires.

“It’s a high floatation machine,” Siefkes said. “The idea is not to compact the ground.”

That doesn’t mean it won’t get stuck. Siefkes said his applicators have been pulled out of more than one muddy situation.

The tracks left by the TerraGator appear as one wide strip, he said, with the tread from the front tire in between the rear tires.

Even without the fertilizer, the equipment is heavy, exceeding most spring load limit restrictions, Siefkes said. That’s why two or three trucks carrying fertilizer follow the TerraGator to a field. Spring load limits generally restrict vehicles to 6 tons per axle.

The trucks also provide additional fertilizer as field work is completed.

While the TerraGator and other machines have gotten larger and more advanced in capabilities, Siefkes said, it’s also equipment that’s been around for the past 32 years growing to accommodate higher-capacity truck boxes and increased application rates.

Technological advances

Tod Borge, dispatcher for the fertilizer applicators, spent several years in the TerraGator seat. His familiarity with farmers’ fields is definitely an advantage, but today’s technology also allows him to track where the trucks are, map the fields where fertilizer application is happening and electronically send fertilizer mix for a field directly to a TerraGator.

“We just went live with the computer system,” Borge said, explaining that the system has been a time saver this spring.

He previously highlighted the fields where fertilizer was spread on township maps.

Borge said dry conditions this spring have been advantageous for Wheat Growers. Crews have been out for the past six to eight weeks, and he estimates about three-fourths of the fertilizer spreading is finished.