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Dance with data

Flash back to 1986. It's the first year Gary Petersohn begins gathering yield data on his Tingley, Iowa, fields. Flash forward to 2012. He's surrounded by the multitude of facts and statistics the technology has been stockpiling. With no clear idea on what steps to take to effectively interpret the information, he has danced around the very data that has the potential to help him save on inputs and increase yields.

“I have a lot of maps and they're fun to look at, but I never plugged the data into anything that really made any sense,” he admits. “I'm old enough that I'm a little challenged on some of the technology, and I need help.”

Petersohn isn't alone.

Set the mood

So you don't get tripped up on the details of the data, you need to have the right mind-set. “I think the stumbling block is the technology passed farmers at a high rate of speed,” says Mike Fugate, Precision Services Manager, Barker Implement. “This funky little tool comes in a chunk of iron you buy and you're in a hurry. You learn enough to run it or do the job of combining or planting, and you don't have time to do the rest. The technology overwhelms you.”

Now that you have had the technology for two, five, or 10 years, you're being told there's a lot of knowledge in the data that's being collected. Yet, you get tripped up when it comes to making actionable decisions based on the data.

“Once you capture the data, how do you dissect it and make a prescription or an analysis of it?” asks Fugate. “With today's high land costs, high equipment costs, and high input costs, every acre – every bushel – counts, and you don't know how to get your hands and head around it.”

According to Matt Darr, a precision ag specialist with Iowa State University, there is another limiting factor.

“It's only been a few years since we've had some sort of standardized data formats across the industry,” he says. “If you've got mixed fleets of products, you can now bring that data together. Ten years ago that wasn't the case, and it was more difficult to read all of those products in.”

Yet, Darr agrees with Fugate that the bigger hurdle is the detailed examination of the data itself.

“The data analysis piece requires some analysis of spatial data and applying agronomy to that, which is a specialty,” he notes. “It's not something you are naturally trained in. I think anyone who uses computer software can appreciate the fact that if you only use it once a year for a few weeks, it's not going to be a very easy process.”

Choose your partner

In the past, you typically turned to your input suppliers for advice on how to transfer the collected data into actionable items. “I think 75% of the time farmers will ask their input supplier questions such as: ‘What input do I buy? How much do I buy? What do I buy? Where do I put it?’ ” says Dave Shields, agronomy and retail sales manager, Farmers Cooperative in Afton, Iowa. “Hopefully, the supplier is asking questions, as well, such as: ‘Does it pay to do this? Does it not pay? What did it pay?’ ”

The remaining 25% of the time, he feels, farmers ask their equipment dealers. “But the dealers struggle with questions such as: ‘What do you mean fertilizer? I don't know what you're talking about in fertility recommendations,’ ” notes Shields. “So it kind of hits a brick wall. As a dealer, I can help you get it recorded. After that, I'm not sure what to tell you.”

Going forward, Darr says, “I think the key things you need to look for in someone who's going to provide that sort of advice is a person you really trust and who understands your goals. Is your goal to reduce variability? Is your goal to maximize yield? Is your goal to improve environmental influence of your farming practice? You have to have someone who really understands that.”

Equally important, Darr says, is the person's commitment to putting the time in to really address your questions.

“I think there are some businesses that are almost trying to industrialize this too much, where it's sort of a cookie-cutter approach,” he notes. “Dealing with farms in that way loses the big piece of past management history and your experience of how you've handled your farm over the past 10, 15, or 30 years. It's important to not miss out on that component.”

From there, you also have to understand that even though you're paying someone to help you manage your data and make decisions, you also need to be involved in the process.

“There's a lot of information you can't get from a yield map or from a planting map – it comes from your experience with the field,” says Darr. “When you write the check for the consultant, think about it as more of a partnership and that you are part of the process. To really maximize the benefit, it's really important you be a part of that process."

Learn the steps

Like many of you, Petersohn doesn't have to be convinced there's value in his data. So when the community began buzzing about a local equipment dealer, co-op, and consultant joining forces to help transform data into actionable field information, he didn't hesitate to sign up.

“After hearing about the Smart Yield program, I'm excited to be a part of the first year. Smart Yield set a limited number of growers for year one to be able to take the appropriate time to further develop the process and identify all of the needs of the program,” he says.

A collaboration between Barker Implement, Farmers Cooperative, and Premier Crop Systems, Inc., the program partners agronomic information with machinery while managing data to provide a tiered precision agronomy program designed to meet individual needs. It begins with georeferenced soil samples done every four years.

The point person for the project will be Kody Sump, Smart Yield account manager. His time will be devoted to ensuring the 40 farmers in year one build a routine to put every aspect of their operation in sync to maximize the growers' return on investment of equipment and crop inputs by putting the correct products in the right place on every acre.

Rather than working with two left feet, Sump will be able to draw from the expertise of field agronomists and equipment solution specialists to find the rhythm that works best for the 40 participants.

“Growers were struggling, as were we,” says Shields. “For example, I would have an agronomy program for a farmer, but he wouldn't have the right planter.”

On the equipment side, the John Deere dealership would have farmers in its Equipment Optimization program, but producers weren't getting everything out of their operation, because they didn't have the agronomy influence on the front side.

Is your goal to improve the environmental influence of your farming practice?

You have to have someone who really understands that.

“I kept saying there has to be a platform we can develop that brings together the agronomic knowledge, the data management, and the iron so there's a one-stop shop to get a problem resolved,” says Shields. “Tomorrow's grower cannot afford the time or the results of going in three different directions to get answers to such timely and valuable decisions that will directly affect his returns per acre.”

It's a trend Darr has seen evolve over the past few years. “Companies are starting to collaborate more because they understand that it takes all sides – seed, fertility, and machinery – to make it all work,” he notes.

Take the lead

Designed as a tiered approach, farmers are able to choose their level of participation, with the cost per acre ranging from $7 to $12.

At the level Petersohn has committed to, he estimates the program will cost him $10 per acre. For that amount, his instructor will deliver soil test levels and fertility, seed placement and population, trackable aggregated/actionable data management, interactive equipment management, and a scorecard review with an action plan for year two.

“We started with 4-acre grids. I was dumbfounded by the nutrient supply, because they were low – phosphate and potash – on my better-producing soils,” says Petersohn. “I had been broadcasting a flat 11-52-60 every year. I was probably about right at that rate on the less-productive soil types, but I was missing the boat on the better-producing soils.”

In the first year, he'll variable-rate the nutrients where they're needed the most, lighten up where they're not needed as much, and, in the end, raise a better crop. And because the grid sampling will be valuable for four years, he won't have to come back in every year.

“At the end of the fourth year, I'll sample again to measure my soil levels and compare my crop production to evaluate how I did and what's next,” he explains. “In previous years, I wasn't putting back enough nutrients to maintain the levels of phosphate, potash, and lime I actually need to increase yields and returns on inputs. With my equipment and the equipment from my suppliers, it's time to start getting the valuable results from the variable-rate technology that will benefit my operation.”

In addition, Barker Implement, where Petersohn buys 99% of his equipment, will do inspections and get his 2630 display tuned into the planter.

Petersohn is also going to explore variable-rate seeding. “I traded my planter last spring before I even knew of the program and was doing a little variable-rate planting,” he says. “My new planter is hydraulically driven; Kody is going to write the prescription so I can bump the population up on the better soils and drop it on those thinner sidehills.”

We don't make decisions for you.

The tractor he was planting with was GreenStar-ready, but it wasn't auto steer-ready. “It took $5,100 to put the steering valve in it,” he says. “Then there was the cost of trading from a 2600 to a 2630 display and a StarFire 3000 receiver instead of an ITC. It all adds up, but by rolling it all into a four-year payback, I can pay for it gradually and ease into it.”

Petersohn admits he was on the fence about upgrading to RTK from a less accurate steering signal.

“With this program, it was advantageous,” he notes. “If I never have it, I'll never know what it can do. I'm hoping it will be an advantage in spraying, especially on beans, because every time I run over beans, they're not going to come back. They'll fill in on the side, but I'm usually into at least a two-pass application to keep the weeds down, maybe even three. If the sprayer can run on the same row with RTK and not run over my beans, that's going to be an advantage.”

As he looks to spring, the next step is going over the details of planting.

“I need to determine which hybrids I'm going to plant in which fields and determine the population I need,” he says.

“I think year one is a learning year, but I hope to see some seed savings by variable-rating the seed,” says Petersohn. “Seed has gotten terribly expensive. It's not $50 a bag anymore. I try to stay in that $250-per-bag range.”

Show your style

One aspect of the program that Petersohn really likes is the learning blocks. “I wonder if what I'm doing is making any headway,” he says. “But this program can put a 1- to 2-acre learning block in my higher-producing and lower-producing soils.

We give you the information, and we'll give you advice to help you make better agronomic decisions.

“When the applicator goes over these areas, the prescription changes the application rate to what I would have done in the past to measure how we are doing with the new changes. Hopefully, that's my check, so when I harvest this fall, I can say, ‘This is what I would have yielded on my better-producing soils and this is what I would have yielded on the poorer soils if I'd have fertilized like I normally did.’ ”

Yet, this program is not just about making sure the dealership, co-op, and consultant are working together to provide you with a smooth routine. It's also about you taking ownership in the decision-making process.

“You are the fourth member of this team,” says Fugate. “We don't make decisions for you. We give you the information, and we'll give you advice to help you make better agronomic decisions. At the end of the day, if somebody is just handing you and telling you what's best, there is no buy-in. When it's your decision and we helped you get there, it's better for everyone.”

For $10 per acre, Smart Yield is going to do the legwork, but Petersohn knows his role in the process will be key to the program's success, and the ultimate judgment rests with him.

“When we did the fertilizer maps, it was going to cost me $400 per acre for phosphorous and potash,” he notes. “I made the final decision on how much to spend. Kody was recommending $90. I said let's push it up to $100 and schedule a four-year build.”

End with a flair

While Smart Yield is a step in the right direction, Petersohn admits that if corn were $3 and beans $7, the program probably wouldn't look as affordable.

“Although, that's when I really need to get down and dirty, when prices are low. But it's hard to come up with the cash to do that,” he says. “We all know commodity prices are eventually going to go backwards. Hopefully, I'll have something in line that will put me a little further up than where I would have been in terms of yield and nutrient savings. I have to be proactive in the good times so when the bad times do roll around, I've got something in place.”

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