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Crop tech payback

Agriculture.com Staff 02/19/2008 @ 10:16am

All the precise yield data in the world is worth nothing unless you can do something with it. That's just what Jim Erdahl is in the middle of doing.

Erdahl, who farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Blue Earth, Minnesota, can see the growing bite that increasing nitrogen fertilizer costs could take out of his bottom line. At the same time, he can look at the growing stack of data he's been compiling from yield monitors and mapping programs and ask what the real function of the growing archive is in the management of his farm.

Erdahl has teamed up with Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) Bryan Arndorfer and now sees precise data as a key element in boosting his farm's efficiency. He's putting to work the knowledge he's gleaned in years of tracking yields to help him apply nitrogen only when, how and where it's needed.

"Jim wanted to see what the response was from different nitrogen applications," says Arndorfer, owner of Precision Management Services in Bancroft, Iowa. "He monitors sidedressed nitrogen, starter fertilizer, and manure applications, and he checks the response to each one."

Tracking yield data is nothing new for Erdahl. In the early 1990s, Erdahl began with a "poor man's yield monitor," then transitioned to a yield monitor and field mapping software. Now it allows him to see not just yields, but also soil conditions and fertility.

"We started with just a weigh wagon with a scale on it. We'd do strip tests in certain areas of a field, or across representative areas of a field, so we could get an idea of what our yields were. We would then correlate that with the fertility program on the farm," he says.

Once he began to see the value of this initial setup -- an element the Minnesota farmer says is key to bringing along new technology on the farm -- Erdahl added a yield monitor. But, as he started gleaning more data from each field, it started to feel like slight overkill, Erdahl says, since the data compilation was far outpacing utilization.

"As the years went by, I wanted to overlay my fertility maps with my yield maps, then try to drill through and be more site-specific with what I was doing," he says. "The frustration was that I had the data but couldn't get it compiled into a useful form."

Erdahl had all the pieces in place. But for the next, most important, step he had to make it all financially worthwhile. So he enlisted the help of CCA Arndorfer to turn the reams of field data into data-backed management decisions, not just to achieve the highest possible yield or the lowest possible cost, but also to find the most efficient balance between the two.

"I don't think there's a yield focus or a cost focus. It's just about finding a balance between yield and cost of inputs," Arndorfer says. "It's more just about efficiency than anything. That's what we're doing -- showing cost per acre and tying that back to yield to show if it's more efficient."

Arndorfer built on the data set by including the capability to track nitrogen rates and corn varieties on a site-specific basis. They also compile soil sampling data to, as the CCA says, "make it easier to determine where changes need to be made."

"My hope is that we can be more efficient in the use of fertilizers, seed populations, and all the things that are important to efficiency," Erdahl says. "Little things like that can mean a lot to your efficiency."

All the precise yield data in the world is worth nothing unless you can do something with it. That's just what Jim Erdahl is in the middle of doing.

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