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Taking a Chance on Tech
Leigh Barry buys wisely to optimize yield potential, because, as with all farmers, every dollar counts. Technology that allows him to monitor his corn and soybeans in real time – and to make adjustments as needed – is key to achieving that.
Barry, who farms about 2,000 acres near Richville, Minnesota, is always trying to figure out the best placement and the best timing for inputs and how to eliminate applications that aren’t necessary.
“If we want to put more bushels in the bin, we have to do it in a way that not only is cost-effective but also improves soil health,” he says.
Taking a chance on the latest tools can be a daunting task. It requires a lot of trial and error – as well as patience.
To help him define which technologies make sense and how they can improve the management strategies on his soils that range from sand to heavy clay, Barry has been working with Kelsey VanOverbeke for the past two years.
“Leigh understands that if he wants to become better, technology has to be a part of that change,” says VanOverbeke, an agronomist with Farmers Union Oil of Southern Valley in Fairmount, North Dakota. “He also knows there will be growing pains, because not everything we try is going to be successful. We have to learn from those failures.”
Experimenting with a number of tools, including WinField’s R7 decision ag solution, they have learned these five lessons.
Five Technology Takeaways
Because their relationship began when snow was still on the ground, VanOverbeke used that time to learn about Barry’s fields, practices, and goals. The pair then turned to virtual analysis to make decisions before VanOverbeke set foot on the soil.
1. Virtual analysis helped identify less profitable areas.
Using the R7 Profitability Map, she compared in-season imagery with the previous year’s yield maps to calculate a return on investment in various cornfields. VanOverbeke identified the corners and other unproductive acres as less profitable, and Barry converted those areas to a crop that made more sense: alfalfa that could be baled to feed cattle.
The Field Forecasting tool, which uses historical and current weather data, field information, and tissue sampling results, helped the pair decide the best timing and rates for nutrient applications.
“The tool takes into account data from the Answer Plot Program and tissue samples from the NutriSolutions 360 system, and it uses the plant as a sensor to measure variables that data models can miss,” says Emily Alm, an agriculture technology specialist with WinField United and a resource for VanOverbeke.
Throughout the growing season, the model adjusts by measuring the potassium and nitrogen leaf contents of a tissue sample and by inputting observed dates of growth stages to improve predictions.
“We want to be in front of as much as we can,” Barry says. “But if an application doesn’t make sense, we move on. If it does, we take a serious look at it.”
2. Deficiencies could be caught early.
In 2017, a strip-till blend, which is about 75% of a broadcast blend (in pounds), was spread on a 65-acre cornfield.
Weekly tissue testing and soil sampling every other week (to get a better base of what the ground was like and to learn how it was reacting) revealed exactly what Barry and VanOverbeke were expecting: a potassium deficiency.
“Because we were monitoring it, we caught it early,” VanOverbeke says. “Leigh irrigates, so we had the option to apply melted potash through fertigation.”
For the 45 pounds of potash used, the crop tissue tests responded in a week, and the soil samples reacted in two weeks. Surprised by the crop’s reaction, the pair realized the efficiency factor must be extremely high with that form and the timing of the application.
Going into the following year, they made a plan to cut the dry potash up front and continue tissue testing. Once again, VanOverbeke caught a couple of fields running short on potassium. Melted potash was applied, and the crop reacted positively. They continued to experiment with the tool to ensure the levels remained on track.
“Leigh saw a return on his investment because we decreased the cost of production without sacrificing yield,” she says.
3. Placed trust but verified results.
In 2017, Barry cut the nitrogen up front for the first time on all irrigated and dryland cornfields. Through tissue testing and utilizing the Field Forecasting tool, the pair monitored the crop weekly all the way to silk.
“I thought we had given the fields all of the nutrition they needed through fertigation and Y-drop,” Barry says. “But I ran a late-season nitrogen application in the model to see how it would respond.”
The tool recommended an extra 4 gallons of nitrogen that would yield a 12-bushel response. After consulting with VanOverbeke, he placed his trust in the technology and made the application. The result was better test weights and improved yield.
“I wasn’t used to looking at a postsilk application, but it was so little for a nice return,” Barry says.
4. Water was better managed.
For water placement, Barry was treating the whole field as east to west, which transitioned from sandier to heavier soil. They were also doing in-field soil probing to measure moisture and then staging pivots to give the soil profile what it needed. However, to better understand and manage soil demands, he says more probes should have been implemented for the variability.
When they took an average of the water that was being applied on the east side of a 250-acre field, the Field Forecasting tool revealed the soil profile was actually behind on what it needed.
“Because it takes into account weather and the actual soil type, it has changed the way we manage our water systems,” Barry says. “Fields are now divided up into different sections, and we are watering by the acre rather than the whole field.”
5. White mold made assessment difficult.
What had historically been one of Barry’s most productive soybean fields experienced a significant outbreak of white mold in 2017.
“The intense disease pressure made it difficult to accurately assess – through tissue testing – what the plant’s nutritional needs were,” Alm says.
While all of this technology is about making more dollars, it also has to make sense. For some, passing over a field multiple times to give the crop only what it needs when it needs it may seem a bit inconvenient. Yet, it is also key to gaining a lot of these efficiencies.
“When you are decreasing your cost of production and increasing your yield, there is no reason why a farmer shouldn’t be looking at tools like this and technology that has advanced so much,” VanOverbeke says. “For a little over a bushel of corn and not even a half bushel of soybeans, the R7 platform provides a wonderful guideline to take farmers through the season.”
Nothing is better than boots on the ground, but this technology provides a nice dashboard so Barry and VanOverbeke can get a quick snapshot of how fields are doing and then target those areas that need adjustments or improvements.
Staying Ahead Of The Curve
Because she works with farmers who participate in Minnesota Water Quality, Conservation Stewardship Programs, and EQIP, VanOverbeke also believes this technology can prepare farmers for the inevitable.
“Nitrogen regulations will be coming down the pipeline,” she says. “By learning about and implementing these technologies, we are not just creating better efficiencies. We are going above and beyond with an average of .8 pounds of nitrogen per bushel.”
Start small and start now, she says, to learn how this technology can help you better manage your nitrogen – and still be profitable – before you’re forced to implement it across your entire operation.
“This is not the way my grandfather farmed. He did the same thing year after year,” Barry says. “Today, this technology is helping me balance my workload. It is allowing me to adapt to what the conditions are giving me and what I can produce.”
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