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Tech Investments Pay Big Dividends for Iowa Grower

Jason Ludwig doesn’t want to farm for free. As commodity prices fall and the profit margin narrows, he is faced with that reality.

“My threshold is $4,” says the Elma, Iowa, farmer. “If I calculate it out in bushels on a field-by-field basis, I need to yield around 200 bushels to break even. Anything below that is not putting money back in the bank.”

Unfavorable weather has also been a challenge. “We’re coming off of a couple of tough years in this area,” notes Ludwig, who farms with his father, John, and his brother, Darrin. “In 2012, we had a drought. A year later, we were faced with prevent plant.”

Although 2014 looked to be one of their better crops, at slightly above 200 bushels per acre, it wasn’t the bin buster Ludwig had hoped for. Despite the weather, he realizes there is untapped potential in his fields that have been transitioned to all corn.

“Our goal is to reach 300 bushels per acre,” he says. “We know our ground will generate that because we’ve seen it on the yield monitor a time or two. However, it doesn’t stay there for very long. What can we do differently to move from 270 to 300?”

To tip the scale in his favor, the third-generation farmer has turned to technology to precisely select and place inputs that will ultimately increase yields.

“A lot of people figure end rows are just end rows, but end rows with a 24-row planter encompass a lot of the field,” he says. It’s why Ludwig added swath control to the planter and sprayer nearly seven years ago.

“Because the 1,900 acres we cover have a fair amount of contours and terraces, this technology has paid big dividends,” he says. “We’ve seen about a 5% savings in seed costs. Most of that savings is because we’re not overlapping on the end rows.”

Swath control has also taken a lot of the headache and fatigue away from spraying. “I used to rely on wheel tracks and foam markers. That meant if I decided to spray a field, I made sure I sprayed the entire field that day. If I didn’t, there was no guarantee I wasn’t going to have skips,” Ludwig says. “Now my maps tell me exactly where I left off, so I’m confident I won’t skip any areas.”

In 2014, he installed an electric drive on the corn planter. “This allows us to shut each row off vs. on a two-row section,” he explains. “The individual row shutoffs keep the population consistent on the full width of the planter, especially in turns. With a conventional system, you underapply when you turn one way and overapply when you turn the other way.”

He’s also seen a benefit from incorporating variable-rate seeding into their operation. “Our populations range from 28,000 to 38,000. Even though variable-rate technology hasn’t saved us any seed, what it has done is maximize every acre and the dollars we are investing,” says Ludwig.

Seed selection

While the technology has helped him become a better manager, none of it does him any good if he’s not selecting the right hybrid. 

“The ultimate goal is to marry that seed to the soil to get the best yield I possibly can,” Ludwig says. 

With a bag of seed costing him around $325 and variety options changing rapidly, how he selects seed has changed significantly over the past 20 years he’s been farming. 

“It used to be that whatever bag of seed was closest to the door was the one we used first,” Ludwig recalls. “We then worked our way to the back of the shed.” 

Today, attributes that were once taken for granted, as well as newly added traits, are closely scrutinized. Yet, it’s a task Ludwig struggled with.

“I used to absolutely hate sitting down and trying to figure out where I was going to plant everything,” recalls Ludwig. “I would look at plots. I would look at seed guides. I would look at weigh wagon data. All of this information would be spread out on the counter, and it was overwhelming. I had a hard time making a decision based on all of these facts.”

Help came through WinField’s R7 decision tool, which merges multiyear satellite imagery, weather data, and each of his field’s yield maps with Answer Plot data to deliver a comprehensive recommendation for each of his fields. The tool then rates the 10 best-performing hybrids for each field’s soil type, showing anticipated ear size and root appearance for individual hybrids. 

“With all of these new hybrids coming into the system, growers struggle with how to manage which ones to plant,” says WinField’s Paul Reicks, retail development manager. “I help Jason sort through the data so he can make more informed decisions. When we do hybrid selections, one variety might be the best fit based on pure yield, but we have to bring in what we had there last year and what its tolerance to diseases like Goss’s wilt is that he may be fighting. It might be the top-yielding hybrid, but if it gets Goss’s wilt, that takes away 30 to 50 bushels. We’re not going to take a chance.”

WinField is also trying to get the least significant differences (LSD) low so it’s easier for growers like Ludwig to decide which hybrid will fit in a specific field. LSD values are used in the company’s Answer Plots to compare the mean scores of various treatments with the same number of replications. More trial replications produce lower LSD values, which helps build a sound, statistical foundation for local and regional agronomic recommendations.

“Until I understood it, I wondered why they even included the LSD number,” says Ludwig. “Now that I understand it, it’s the first thing I look at. If the LSD is low, I can get a better, more accurate comparison of which hybrid really shined in that plot.”

Decisions from data

When he started using R7 about five years ago, he didn’t use it to write prescriptions for every acre. “The acres we did use it on have really produced,” notes Ludwig. “While we may need to tweak certain areas, it has made it a lot easier to generate prescriptions. We will use this tool to refine our map-based seeding recommendations in the future based on what the yield data is telling us.”

Ludwig has also changed his nitrogen strategies. “When we bring the hybrid data into the R7 tool, it gives Jason the response to nitrogen scores in the hybrids he’s planting, so he knows if one hybrid needs more nitrogen than another. We have seen big responses to different hybrids. Some really need nitrogen; others don’t need a lot,” says Reicks.

It’s also affected his fungicide applications. “Normally, we were very proactive and applied fungicide to almost every acre. In 2014, we were able to pick and choose when and where to apply based on what we saw in the field or based on the Answer Plot data,” says Ludwig.

Today, Ludwig plants between 10 and 12 different hybrids. With yields well over 200 bushels per acre in 2015, choosing the right seed, as well as variable-rate technology, is moving him closer to his goal. Yet, there’s another important element.

“The R7 tool, along with Paul’s guidance, has made selecting a hybrid a lot simpler,” Ludwig says. “While the tool is helpful, it’s also about aligning ourselves with the right people who can help define what hybrids work best in a certain location. If we don’t have experts to rely on, we may be missing out on 30, 40, or even 50 bushels per acre.”

Ludwig is a good example of someone who wants to make the tools work to his advantage, says Reicks. “We are getting the results he wants and helping to push him to the next level,” he says. 

 

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