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Finding the Value in Ag Tech

Mid Kansas Cooperative is moving the precision agriculture adoption needle one farmer at a time.

Like any consumer, farmers want a product that delivers on what it claims it can do. When a brand doesn’t meet expectations, trust is quickly lost. That’s especially true when it comes to ag technology. Because the path to adoption has been littered with empty promises, it has become difficult to have a meaningful conversation about how the latest innovations can maximize production and improve farmers’ bottom lines.

It’s a realization Ross Benisch came to early in his career as a precision ag specialist. “When I first started at Mid Kansas Cooperative (MKC), I used to pull out my book and talk about everything we could do,” he recalls. “As soon as a farmer’s eyes started to glaze over, I knew I was missing the mark.”

“Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good for our operation,” says Darcy Nickel, who farms with his father, Floyd, in Newton, Kansas.

Capturing and holding farmers’ attention meant Benisch had to take a different approach. He needed to understand not only the operation but also the farmers’ pain points. “It’s about building that relationship and gaining farmer trust,” he says. “That takes time.”

Once Benisch began asking discovery questions, he was able to learn about the problems farmers were having and how technology could be a part of the solution. “All of a sudden, I was able to find one or two things they were interested in and where we could start,” he says.

Those candid conversations have gone a long way with Nickel.

“Ross deals with technology every day. I only deal with it for a few months,” he says. “He knows what’s going on and can help guide me. If it were up to me to figure it out, I’m not really sure I would be where I’m at today. I have to have someone like Ross who I can trust to help me.”

Farmers want those trusted partners every step of the way. “We’ve seen it at the machinery dealerships,” says Troy Walker, agronomy field sales manager at MKC. “It’s more important in technology, because a lot of it is so confusing in how it ties together.”

Defining Value

Through its Optimal Acre Program, the team at MKC is delivering on the promise of technology by clearly defining the value it brings to a farm. 

At the heart of the program is GPS grid soil sampling, which Benisch believes provides the necessary foundation on which Nickel can build his technology adoption. By taking a sample every 2½ acres, the variability in each field is mapped. The test evaluates many key factors, including soil nutrients vital to every crop like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, sulfur, as well as pH level. Variable-rate fertilizer prescriptions are then created to ensure the right product is being put in the right place, at the right rate, at the right time.

The recommendations for two 80-acre cornfields would demonstrate just how different the needs of Nickel’s soils can be.

“Yields can fluctuate across a field year to year for many reasons, but I feel it’s primarily when and how much rain falls throughout the season. Over time, this has led to a lot of variability in the soil nutrients that each field has,” Benisch says. 

When Nickel strip-tills, he applies nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Based on the recommendations for the first field, about 500 pounds of potash was applied in a few areas, and high rates of phosphate were variably applied across most of the field. The requirements for the next field switched to potash being the dominant product with a small amount of phosphate applied.

“If we had used a blanket rate, look where that would have put us – not in the right place,” Nickel says.

Since launching its Optimal Acre Program two years ago, about 50% of MKC customers have implemented variable-rate fertility. By addressing fertilizer and pH concerns, MKC says farmers can expect a conservative 10% to 15% yield increase with some situations being much higher.

“Hands down, variable-rate fertility is the one thing farmers can find value in,” Walker says. 

Low Adoption Rates

lthough technology is helping Nickel get to know his fields better and reduce some of the risk in his decisions, adoption across Kansas has been low.

When Walker became the precision ag manager at MKC two years ago, he quickly realized the state was “at least five years be- hind in technology adoption compared with the I-states. In fact, a number of growers in my territory didn’t even have any yield data or GPS,” he says.

Automated technologies, those that make life better for farmers, have been more readily adopted than those that are more data-intense like yield monitors, grid soil sampling, and variable rate, says Terry Griffin, associate professor, Kansas State University.

“The lack of third-party support for data-intense technologies may cause farmers to pause and consider if they have access to adequate hu- man capital to warrant investment in their own time and financial resources,” he says.

To gauge the use of specific precision ag technologies, Griffin conducted a study with Kansas Farm Management Association farms during the fall and winter of 2015/2016. Of the 348 responses, 65.5% said they use GPS automated guidance; 46.6% said they use GPS auto- mated section control. When it came to yield monitor use, 39.1% said they use a yield monitor with GPS; 24.7% use it without GPS. A little over 40% had adopted grid soil sampling.

finding the value in ag tech -graph

Historically, it has also been expensive for farmers to invest in precision agriculture. By spreading the cost of the Optimal Acre Program over four years, MKC is lowering the barrier to entry. 

“Farmers have to move away from the mind-set that technology is an expense, but rather an investment,” Walker says. “It’s so easy to see the value in iron. It’s very hard to see the value in technology since it just doesn’t seem tangible.”

Yet, it can be tough to break through that mental barrier and get farmers to see that there may be a much better way to do it. Typically, they want someone else to take the risk first. 

One thing Nickel keeps in mind when evaluating a technology is how long the idea has been around. If it lasts for a couple of years and looks like it has value, he’ll consider jumping on board. It also has to fit effortlessly into his workflow.

“It may be an excellent idea, but if I’m busy, I’ll throw it on the back burner be- cause it’s just one more thing to do,” Nickel says. “I have no shortage of things to do.”

But he is also aware that the more he knows about his fields, the better chance he has at increasing his profit margin. Whether he is cutting dollars or using the same number of dollars across his acres, technology can help put those dollars in the right place.

In Nickel’s case, he is raising the nutrient levels in his fields because many areas were below optimal levels. As a result, his return on investment isn’t much different; in some cases, it’s less. His return comes in putting exactly the right rate in the right areas as efficiently as possible. 

However, this is only temporary.

“Once we get Darcy’s fields to optimal levels, we then will shift from a build to a maintenance fertilizer program to allow him to improve his ROI on fertilizer applica- tion,” Benisch says.

With any of these data-intensive technol- ogies, Griffin says one of the best returns on investment for farmers is to conduct their own on-farm experiments to test new prod- ucts or systems.

“The one thing you have to remember with ag tech is that through it all, you’re still doing the same thing. You’re still putting seed in the ground. You’re still spreading fertilizer. The fundamentals will still be there. Technology just offers you a new way to do it better,” Benisch says.

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