Precision Ag Specialist Alleviates Growers’ Technology Angst Through Education
Teaching is a challenging job with many frustrations, but the rewards that come from educating farmers are numerable for Rich Schlipf. For nearly 15 years, the Indiana farmer-turned-precision ag specialist has helped other growers better understand the ways technology can positively impact their operations.
“I think we’ve all had the experience of buying a piece of technology and not knowing how to use it properly,” he says. “We didn’t get the full value out of it because someone dropped the ball. Ultimately, we were disappointed because we didn’t learn what we wanted to learn.”
As a seed salesman early in his ag career, Schlipf saw firsthand the frustrations farmers were feeling when it came to technology adoption, especially on the planter.
“Growers wanted to understand how they could maximize the performance of their planting equipment, because they knew it was the one job they had to do right,” he recalls. “Yet, some were having difficulty not only understanding how to operate the technology but also getting the full value out of their investment. The more I worked with growers, the more I realized I could be teaching and assisting them with their planter-technology decisions.”
The most important pass
Because you set the stage for the entire growing season, planting is the most important pass you will make in the field.
“This one single pass can determine your yield potential,” says Jason Webster, who is a commercial agronomist and crop adviser at Precision Planting. “When you think about it, that’s pretty daunting!”
It is the same reason it’s crucial to have a trusted adviser who can help you not only with the technology, but also with how it relates to the agronomics.
“I personally think that’s what’s missing for a lot of growers today,” notes Webster. “They can go buy whatever parts or technology they think they need, but truly understanding the agronomics of the technology is so critical.”
That’s where Schlipf comes in. “Having a resource like Rich is so important for growers today, because he can discuss the agronomy issues and explain how these technologies can fix problems in the field,” Webster says.
The lesson plan
Schlipf’s approach is what differentiates him in making the grade with growers. He, along with the team he has assembled, relies on five key strategies.
1 Listen to growers.
“Before recommending any technology, my team and I need to find out what the growers’ goals are,” says Schlipf. “Once they explain what they want to achieve, we walk through whether it’s really the most beneficial approach for their fields. We look at what will give them the biggest return on their investment given their current situation.”
For example, growers may come to Schlipf and say they want to invest in swath control. “Here in northern Indiana, there are a lot of irregular-shape fields,” he says. “If that’s the case, it’s likely their fields could be good candidates for this technology.”
However, if the majority of the fields are square, swath control is probably not the best use of the technology budget.
“We’ll walk through the percentage of their farm that has point rows,” explains Schlipf. “We can then make a recommendation on whether or not it would be a good investment and give them a best-case guesstimate on how long it would take to see a return on investment.”
As technology moves to the market at a faster pace, having an expert who recognizes when it’s not a good fit is a quality Matt Darr appreciates. “Many of these products sound like they will solve any problem,” says the Iowa State University professor. “As a customer, I feel like I have to rely more on my dealer to inform me of the limitations a new technology has.”
“Every farm and farmer is different,” says Scott Sheets, who farms in Bourbon, Indiana, and has worked with Schlipf for more than a decade. “Rich recognizes that and really works to customize each planter so it has what farmers need and are comfortable with.”
As one of his first customers, Sheets, too, sat down with Schlipf to discuss the struggles he had when it came to planting. “Rich knew I was very particular about my planter and how I plant,” he says. “I don’t drive very fast with my planter, and he saw my level of productivity. Rich thought he could help me get a better picket-fence corn stand.”
“Getting a planter’s meters to perform perfectly is most certainly achievable with the great technology we have today,” adds Webster. “Most farmers are striving for this, but some need help to make adjustments to ensure that seed is singulated and spaced properly.”
One of the first technologies Schlipf recommended was eSet meters. Like many farmers, Sheets was skeptical about the value it could bring to his bottom line, especially when one technology seemed to lead to investing in another.
“Communicating ROI on new technology is very challenging,” says Darr. “There are simply very few cases of the type of rock-solid ROI we saw a decade ago with steering and section control. New tech offers benefits that may be more closely linked to productivity or job quality, but those factors may or may not have a guaranteed return for a specific year.”
It’s the reality we live in today and the future of precision ag technology. “We need to think about ag tech more like other ag input selections where we set goals for better returns in the long term knowing it will help us produce a crop in a more precise way,” he adds.
“I knew planting was all about seed placement but doubted that ½ inch would make that big of a difference,” says Sheets. “However, my yields became more consistent when I went from finger pickups to eSet and ultimately vDrive. Rich also told me that if I thought those technologies made a difference, wait until I saw what DeltaForce could do for seed spacing and depth control, especially since I strip-till.”
Too much downforce causes too much smearing in the seed trench. Not enough downforce reduces planting depth, which can cause the seed to be planted too shallow.
“This is somewhat understood by the majority of farmers, but most don’t know how soil moisture, texture, combine or auger cart compaction areas, and the amount of seed in seed boxes can affect downforce needs on a second-by-second basis,” explains Webster. “This causes the need for variable-rate downforce to maintain the proper row unit weight throughout the entire field. One static rate will not be sufficient.”
Schlipf reinforces his recommendations with practical examples – farmer to farmer.
“We have conducted on-farm studies of downforce. AirForce, which automatically controls downforce, showed a 7- to 14-bushel yield advantage compared with a static setting. It was interesting because our results mirrored a study done by an independent research team,” he says. “Our experience with DeltaForce has been that it will be a few bushels ahead of AirForce. Our research has also shown that the more challenging the planting conditions, the more DeltaForce has an advantage over other systems.”
Schlipf was so confident the technology could make a difference, he offered to take DeltaForce off Sheets’ planter if he wasn’t completely satisfied. His trust in Schlipf paid off, as Sheets saw an immediate return on his investment. “Nothing is perfect, but it’s pretty darn close,” he says.
Effortlessly keeping the rows clean was next on the list. Before investing in CleanSweep, Sheets would have to stop and move every pin to adjust the row cleaners. “I questioned whether I really needed it,” he recalls. “Rich said if I did this, I could raise and lower the row cleaners from the cab, which would make me more productive and efficient.”
Schlipf has shown Sheets, and the more than 200 growers he works with, how these technologies work and why they’re a good fit in the operation.
“It’s all about helping growers better understand if their goals are in line with what their fields would truly benefit from,” says Schlipf.
2 Don’t oversell.
“Some growers are not the best candidates for certain technologies,” he says. “If they cannot get to the point where they can understand how to use a technology, they will not get the full value out of owning it.”
3 Pick up the phone.
“Growers need to know that my team and I will be there after the sale with quality service,” says Schlipf. “Sometimes we’re not perfect, but we strive to ensure that growers know they can count on us no matter what.”
4 Keep current on tech.
“Growers look to us for our insight on the technology,” he says. “That means my team and I need to know what we are talking about when we’re selling a customer a piece of technology or we’re discussing short- and long-range plans.”
While part of their insight comes from putting products to the test on Schlipf’s 750-acre farm, they also draw on their own knowledge base.
“We’re learning so much every year. As technology changes, we’re realizing how much we don’t know. It opens the door for more learning,” he says. “Since we have used or tested most of the products we sell, it definitely helps when talking to growers about their goals. We can talk and teach from personal experience.”
When he first started out, the average planter build was around $7,500. Today, Schlipf says, it’s not uncommon to have a $40,000 planter project.
While he says each of the first four points are important, the cornerstone for completing the connection lies in continually educating and training growers.
5 Keep teaching.
“We hold several training classes each year to get growers as up to speed as we can while sitting in the shop. This minimizes the questions once they’re in the field,” says Schlipf.
Those lessons are crossing over generations as Sheets’ son, Caleb, transitions into the operation.
“My son took over planting about three years ago,” says Sheets. “Rich has been able to adapt to educating a younger generation.”
Schlipf’s philosophy of educating growers – young or old – mirrors that of Precision Planting founder Gregg Sauder. From the very beginning, the Illinois farmer shared what he learned on his own farm with other growers.
Sauder’s business model resonates with growers from across the country as hundreds come together for his meetings each year.
Schlipf is seeing similar success. More than 50 farmers gather in his shop three times a year to learn from him and his team.
“I saw Gregg’s passion for wanting to help farmers improve their operations,” says Sheets. “If farmers are willing to share their ideas with other farmers, we are more than willing to listen. I see that same passion in Rich. It’s why he’s so successful.”
The Next Big Thing in Planter Technology
There’s a lot of buzz in the industry about high-speed planters, says Rich Schlipf, Milford, Indiana.
“However, these planters don’t work well in my area because of the round hard things that tend to do damage to a planter running at a high speed,” he says.
A technology that Schlipf feels will take off in his area is multihybrid planting.
“I believe multihybrid technology is going to be really common in five years because of my variable soils, especially as seed genetics progress and become more fine-tuned,” he says. “After using vSet Select for a couple of years, my experience shows that I can increase my yield on my lower productivity soils by placing the right hybrid on them. It was my tendency to plant more of a racehorse-type hybrid hoping for a good growing season.”
Now Schlipf places a defensive hybrid on the management zones he is sure will not produce well using the racehorse genetics.
“Growers who have tremendous soil variability are excited about multigenetic planting,” says Jason Webster, a commercial agronomist and certified crop adviser at Precision Planting. “They are adopting the technology, and they are seeing great yield results.”