Steel-blade pocketknife or silicon computer chip, both are vital on a farm. Old and new, Texas grower Todd Westerfeld sounds off on five technologies indispensable to his operation.
With only three bodies to cover 5,500 acres of corn, cotton, and winter wheat, Westerfeld stays on the hunt for tech advances. “We’ve got a heavy respect and appreciation for all levels of technology on our ground,” he says. “Figuring out what innovations work best requires patience, but there are tremendous gains to be had and we’re seeing that right now across our farm.”
Less is More
In the Blacklands outside Moody, Texas, roughly 30 minutes southwest of Waco, Westerfeld, 36, works 5,550 dryland acres on gently rolling ground, alongside his father, Terry. Their farmland stretches 14 miles from north to south.
“That’s about as low on labor as you’ll find in corn and cotton, and that means efficiency is everything,” he says. “In fact, the last six months, me and dad planted all the crops, sprayed, and sidedressed—by ourselves.”
In recent years, in tandem with trimmed labor, Westerfeld’s equipment fleet of tractors and strippers, all John Deere, has shrunk. “We used to run two plow tractors, but I’ve moved to one—9RX 640—and we’re able to pull bigger and plow faster. We have two row crop tractors in rotation, one to pull a 12-row planter and the other to pull a 24-row planter. Also, we have a 120’ sprayer, and a SS70 combine with a 12-row header.”
A decade back, Westerfeld ran two 6-row strippers (and five farmhands) during cotton harvest averaging 110 cleared acres per day. As of 2023, he runs a single stripper, a 12-row C770, deploying two people to cover 200 acres per day. “Less equipment is a must for us. If a new technology is a fit, I’m going there.”
Eyes wide open, Westerfeld says patience is an absolute necessity when using any new digital technology in agriculture machinery. “A mechanical problem is often a 5-minute find and 5-hour fix. A computer problem is a 5-hour find and 5-minute fix.”
5 + 1
Simple to fancy, Westerfeld says five technologies, in no particular order, are invaluable on a day-to-day basis.
He starts old-school. “First, I’ve got to say pocketknife, and I’m talking about the one with the broken tip that becomes a flathead. Every farmer I know has always carried one and I’m no different. Whether cutting cable ties or taking off shields, I can’t do without it. I use generic ones for farm use because I lose way too many to buy anything except the dime-a-dozen kind.”
Second, and tagged as “irreplaceable,” Westerfeld touts GPS. “We were one of the first farms to run Deere’s Brown Box ITC receivers. At the speeds we move now and with our big equipment size, I can’t imagine having to stare at a fencepost across the field.”
Section control is third. “Our sprayer is equipped with ExactApply and that means nozzle by nozzle control, and not only for on-off, but also for turn compensation. The same thing goes for our planter, row by row control. It’s really simple: section control saves us big dollars.”
Fourth, a smartphone’s value is “incomparable,” Westerfeld explains. “What can I say? Looking up parts, apps, logging into a monitor, ag markets, weather, communication, and much, much more, all through my phone screen. I remember the days when my dad had to run the farm through his pickup and payphones.”
On-farm radio communication ranks fifth. “We’ve got three people stretched over a lot of acres and communication was a stressor for us in the past—not anymore. Our pickups, semis, and all the tractors are equipped with Midland radios or handhelds. It’s instant, reliable communication and something we can’t do without.”
“Those five are awesome, but it’s so hard to stop at five great pieces of technology,” he adds. “From a corn standpoint, how can I mention technology without talking about our grain facility? In our geography, no storage means losing $2 per bushel in some years. The tech behind a grain facility changes our whole dynamic of corn harvest and marketing.”
Expect a Flurry
What technologies does Westerfeld see around the bend?
“Autonomy is coming,” he says. “Does that mean John Deere, for example, can achieve a completely autonomous corn crop from planting to harvest by 2030? I don’t know about the timing, but I’ve tested for Deere engineers and it’s coming.”
Instantaneous soil analysis, taken in real-time alongside fertilizer application, is on the near-horizon, Westerfeld contends. “One day it’s going to exist, where you soil sample on the fly while running a dry spreader or sidedress rig. It’ll read the soil and respond with P and K applications on the go. That will automatically take out grid sampling and would be incredibly groundbreaking from an efficiency standpoint. Will I see instantaneous fertilizer analysis technology in my career? I think it’ll be close, but I believe I will.”
Expect a flurry of agriculture technology advances, Westerfeld concludes. “We’re at a point where I think we’ll have Deere’s See and Spray as a farm regular in 10 years from now. Tech advancements arrive in layers, and these advancements you hear about coming to farms really are going to happen. Again, I think they’ll get here before I retire.”