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Crop Tech Tour: Putting data to work

Each corn or soybean field is home to reams of data. New technology in the last decade has helped farmers unlock that data. Now, the focus has turned to making use of that data in crop management and, more importantly, making it a profitable part of the farm.

Like many farmers, Lyle Mabus began collecting detailed data through yield monitors and field mapping a few years ago. Now that his data set has reached a mature age, he's looking to make it add to the right side of his balance sheet.

"To interpret all this data, that's where we're at now," says Mabus, who farms near Lakota in northern Iowa. "That's what we're after--we're trying to hone in on where we need this or that."

To this end, Mabus is working with certified crop adviser (CCA) Bryan Arndorfer of Precision Management Services in Bancroft, Iowa. He's got five years of yield data in hand, is gleaning more as he implements more precision technology in his operation, and is now looking to make it pay.

"Lyle's been working with some of the newer technologies and he came to us to help him sort out some of his information, try to keep track of the records and present the data in a fashion that he can use to make some of the management decisions he has to make," Arndorfer says. "Lyle came to us and he was looking to keep track of his records better. We take his information and present it in a useful format for him to sit down and look over."

For Mabus, it started with a yield monitor, and now with a field mapping program and precise fertility testing he's able to nail down his nutrient needs and direct fertilizer to specific spots in the field where they're needed. In addition to this method to save money on fertilizer, Mabus can now select corn hybrids and plant them where they'll be most effective.

"We set up all his fields on a productivity zone basis, then he keeps track of everything with his monitor," Arndorfer says. "There are definitely different hybrids that perform better across different soil types. He'll be able to select those hybrids to get the most productivity out of each field possible."

Another way Mabus utilized specific field data in 2007 was for variable-rate nitrogen applications. It's the first year he and Arndorfer tracked data for this purpose, so the jury is still out. But, the goal is ultimately to cut fertilizer costs through more precise applications based on specific data.

"We soil-sampled all of Lyle's fields based on productivity zones. We've been applying fertilizer accordingly for what those areas call for, then he'll come back in and variable-rate apply to level out the nitrogen credits. At the same time, we've been doing check strips throughout the field to determine if the applications are beneficial," Arndorfer says.

"The whole goal is to not apply any more nitrogen than what is needed. But, every year is different, so it could take a few years of data across different weather and environmental conditions to be confident about what the decisions are based on."

In the future, Arndorfer says Mabus' data-gathering capabilities could yield more insight into better financial management decision-making capabilities. Yet, as the technology advances, the same basic premise will need to remain.

"Right now, there's some basic financial record-keeping tools, but as we get more advanced with our financial tools, we'll be able to keep more detailed financial records," Arndorfer says. "I think the whole key in utilizing any of these types of tools is that, at the end of the day, you want to have the most money in your pocket possible. There are a lot of tools out there to assist in trying to come up with the most economical way to farm, but a guy's got to be able to present the information and record it in a way that's useful."

What makes a farmer like Mabus well-equipped to continue implementing a growing data set into the management of his farm? It's all about patience.

"Lyle is a very patient person, and with some of this technology, it takes some patience," Arndorfer says. "A person has to be willing to take a few minutes of your day to sit and understand what's happening with the tools that are in front of you. But, I also think Lyle realizes the value of good, correct information. So he's willing to do it correctly. That's probably the most important part of any operation."

Each corn or soybean field is home to reams of data. New technology in the last decade has helped farmers unlock that data. Now, the focus has turned to making use of that data in crop management and, more importantly, making it a profitable part of the farm.

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