Boots on the Ground or Eyes in the Sky?

High-tech tools are a supplement for a good old-fashioned agronomic sense.

In 1999, it wouldn’t have been loony to think that in 2019 you could make field decisions with just a few strokes of a computer keyboard.

We’re not there yet, but the proliferation of web-based crop-scouting tools and smartphone applications in the last decade has put much information in the palms of your hands. Dozens of these crop-scouting and analysis products exist courtesy of numerous firms ranging from venture capital-backed Silicon Valley start-ups to multinational seed and chemical companies.

Orvin and Austin Bontrager know this better than most. 

Orvin is a 43-year certified crop adviser at ServiTech Crop Consulting. Based in Aurora, Nebraska, he scouts 16,000 acres annually. His son, Austin, is a physics teacher-turned ag tech specialist at ServiTech, based in Seward, Nebraska.

Think of Orvin as doing boots-on-the-ground, in-field scouting, while Austin deploys sensors, data, and technology. The end goal for both Bontragers, however, is the same: maximize grower profitability by using the least amount of crop inputs. 

Orvin Bontrager
Courtesy: The Bontragers

Austin Bontrager
Courtesy: The Bontragers

No matter how powerful the high-tech tools are, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned agronomic know-how and in-field analysis. That’s why you’ve heard your grandpa say, “The one thing you want to see in your fields is your shadow.” 

So what gives? Can you make solid agronomic decisions without ever leaving your office? 

Not so fast.

Where Drones Fall Short

The low-hanging fruit in ag tech is aerial imagery. First with satellites and now with drones, aerial imagery is a useful tool in overall crop analysis. Imagery resolution has improved dramatically, giving farmers great bird’s-eye views of field areas damaged by disease, environmental effects, or even weeds. However, it’s no substitute for in-field analysis. Ground-truthing those problem areas seen from above is essential.

“I haven’t seen a drone yet that can flip soybean leaves over and look for the aphids underneath it,” Austin says. “When these producers are out there scouting, they’re not just looking, they’re physically pulling up plants, cutting open stems, and looking underneath the leaves.”

Aerial imagery maps show the results of decisions farmers have made, Orvin adds. 

“But you have to treat many of your insects and diseases way before they even show up on imagery. If you wait for the imagery to show it, you’re way too late,” he explains. 

The developing field of thermal imagery for agriculture shows greater potential payback, particularly in irrigated fields. Thermal imagery measures the relative ground temperature of a field and shows differences throughout the field. For irrigators, thermal imagery can detect where sprinkler nozzles are plugged. 

“In western Nebraska or Kansas, that can be huge,” Orvin says. 

User Input Needed

Growers often send Orvin files of seeds planted and crop-protection products through any of a number of web-based crop-management tools. He can access these on his work-issued iPad, which also hosts satellite imagery of all the fields he scouts. 

These tools – FarmLogs, FBN, Encirca, and many others – can aggregate crop information quickly, often providing prediction tools using crop modeling algorithms combined with weather information. 

It’s easy to get swayed by the marketing hype of a new tech product that promises farmers faster and easier decision making. 

Seemingly, these tools are an improvement over a pen and paper or even a computer and spreadsheet, but they are only as good as the information and time that users put into them. 

“It takes a level of engagement,” Austin says. “It’s not something that you’re just going to write a check and say, ‘I’m good,’ push a button on the technology, and that’s all the investment you make.”

Crop scouting, meanwhile, requires effort, too. Walking fields, looking at plant roots and leaves, searching for insects and weeds all take effort. There is a satisfaction from seeing those fields firsthand during the growing season and then seeing the impacts at harvest. 

“Seeing those results now rolling in with harvest after I’ve looked at fields every week all summer is a real intangible that’s hard to measure – and to see it year after year on the same field,” Orvin says.

Snap Judgments

As much as technology can influence agronomic decisions, there’s no substitute for the human element. “Agronomy is totally unpredictable,” Orvin says. “Biological systems are way more complicated than any rocket science.” 

The complexity of soil biology and crop physiology – coupled with decisions on which inputs are used where – can have a major impact on a crop’s success. Then, factor in the impact of weather. 

“It’s not like you can make 5% better decisions on the farm and you’re going to get 5% better income than the farmer making 5% worse decisions,” he explains. 

The bottom line? Whether a crop consultant’s advice, a farmer’s firsthand observations, or a suite of high-tech tools, farming is still a roll of the dice. 

“The best you can do is load your dice better,” Austin says. “You can get the best recommendations of when to spray, when to water, or anything like that. But you know, you get that wrong windstorm that lays all your corn down flat, and it doesn’t matter how good of a job you did.”

Bontrager and Bontrager: Three Steps To Profitability

Data analysis and in-field scouting can work together to enhance your profitability, according to Orvin and Austin Bontrager, technical support agronomist and ag tech specialist, respectively, at ServiTech Crop Consulting. 

Here’s how.

1. Identify Profit Zones

Many farmers know there are areas within a field that simply don’t produce as well as others. Maybe it’s a wet spot or an old building site. Whatever the case, there’s no sense in applying the same seed, fertility, and crop-
protection treatment more profitable areas receive. 

There are online tools to help you determine how much money is made or lost on these areas. Or, calculate those costs yourself using fixed and variable-cost calculations combined with a yield map. Variable-rate applications are more difficult to ascertain, but it’s doable, they say. The bottom line is, you’re likely spending more money on those areas of the field that will never give you a positive net return on investment.  

2. Cover End Rows

The biggest waste of crop inputs? Year in and out, it’s end rows. Farmers put the same amount of money – or more – in their end rows and oftentimes get half the yield. Check your yield monitor or satellite imagery to see how end-row yields pale in comparison.

“If farmers literally left those in a permanent cover, they’d make more profit even if they were still paying rent on them,” Orvin says. 

Besides, end rows are weed nurseries, he adds. 

“How many fields do you drive by and the end rows are just full of Palmer pigweed? I mean, they’re just weed nurseries, and you’re dragging that seed out into the field.” 

It’s hard not to plant every acre in a field, but think of it this way: A 20-foot strip of grass on each end of a quarter-section is only 3.64 acres. The cost savings in reduced weed pressure, eliminating seed and fertilizer expense, and yield lost to compaction from farm and harvest machinery adds up over time. 

3. Run Test Strips

With widespread adoption of yield monitors and GPS steering assistance hardware, there is no excuse to not have test strips of the latest seeds, chemistries, or practices, Austin says. 

All too often, growers rely on one year of data across an entire field to determine whether a new product or practice provides more yield or profit. That’s not accurate, he reasons. Useful data requires comparisons – preferably multiple comparisons, and within the same field. 

Austin suggests testing the theory to be proven or disproven. Try a little more product than is recommended and a little bit less than recommended on multiple areas. “You can look at your yield map later and see the difference,” he says. 

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