Take the guesswork out of in-field applications

Today’s tough economic climate means farmers likely will be hesitant to deploy new technologies. As farmers focus on near-term cash flow vs. maximizing profit long term, Aaron Rudberg predicts there may be a short-term slowdown in technology adoption.

“We believe the top-performing farmers will continue to look for digital solutions that improve their business,” says Rudberg, chief operating officer and managing director, S2G Ventures. “However, those farmers will be focused on the ‘need to have’ rather than the shiny, new toy. Specifically, products and services that drive yield improvements and reduce input costs will be more compelling than technologies that just provide data without clear insights toward actions.”

Control = Success

For Ryan Christensen, being successful in the current environment is all about control.

Ryan Christensen
Ryan Christensen, Illustration credit: Lauren Crow

“No longer can farming be just about going for the biggest yields,” says Christensen, who is a fifth-generation farmer in Idaho. “You have to also understand what is going to help you gain the biggest profits and capture that return on investment.” 

That means using technology to determine exactly where to reduce or best utilize inputs while maximizing outputs for the myriad crops, which include wheat and potatoes, his family grows.

“Applying 200 pounds of fertilizer might increase my yield, but if it doesn’t increase my profit, I have to question whether that investment is really worth it,” he says. 

By using Zone Economics, a tool from Conservis that analyzes input costs against yield performance using data from the John Deere Operations Center or Climate FieldView, Christensen can get a concrete answer on how much, dollarwise, is attached to that application. The technology allows him to perform cost-based financial analysis for an accurate picture of how in-field decisions affect his bottom line.

“Why should I keep pumping inputs into an area of a field when there’s no potential for that area to benefit from it like another area would,” Christensen says, adding that zones are defined using a combination of historical yield data, elevation maps, and satellite imagery. Fields are divided into two to five zones based on variability.

For example, Field A is highly variable; some parts yield 140 bushels of wheat while others yield 100, 75, and 60 bushels. “These zones are consistent across different crops and years,” he says. “Therefore, I divide the field into four management zones and monitor them through Zone Economics.”

Field B is fairly uniform. Therefore, only two zones are needed to separate the one high spot in the field from the rest. Field C has average variability, so Christensen uses three zones. 

“Drone imagery notices a color difference in the bare soil, so the zones in Field C are derived from this color difference,” he explains.

Because Zone Economics allows him to compare and evaluate the financial efficiency of his field practices, Christensen says tools like this are even more important in today’s economic climate.

“If I cut my input costs, I may save $100 per acre,” he says. “While I may lose yield, if I can keep that number proportionate, then I can take that money and put some of it toward the technology that helps me make those decisions.”

The Right Recipe

Because Kyle Musselman never feels like he has the perfect recipe for the crops grown on his family’s Indiana operation, he’s been using Zone Economics to prove return on investment in field tests. 

“It’s important to understand how and where we are spending money in each field, so we can make the best decisions for our operation,” says Musselman, who grows corn, soybeans, and wheat. “Zone Economics gives me the confidence that we’re analyzing every acre accurately to get a clear picture of what paid and what didn’t.”

For instance, the tool helped him determine whether a high-yielding corn seed was actually worth the investment. (See “Avoid the Guessing Game,” below.)

“I may pay $85 more for a bag of seed, but I don’t want that extra risk if we’re profiting the same amount of money with a seed that costs less because it has fewer traits,” he says. “Zone Economics showed me that those extra traits just aren’t paying right now, but that certainly could change in a few years.”

“Farmers are moving away from using yield alone to measure field performance,” says Pat Christie, founder of Conservis. “In reality, a high-yielding field may not be the most cost-efficient. As a result, cost-effective production is becoming the new measure of success.”

Kyle Musselman
Kyle Musselman, Illustration credit: Lauren Crow

Avoid the Guessing Game

When evaluating what’s most effective economically for his operation, a farmer often gets caught in a guessing game. Which seed is most profitable? Can I reduce my seeding rate and still be profitable? Was that extra fertilizer worth it? Was that fungicide application really necessary? By applying Zone Economics, farmers Ryan Christensen and Kyle Musselman are getting concrete answers to these questions.

Which seed is most profitable?

Whether it’s a corn variety he’s planting on his own ground or one he’s selling to a customer, Musselman wants to ensure that seed choice can stand up to the competition.

“I had planted a competitor’s higher dollar seed with all of these traits,” he recalls. “I was getting frustrated because on our sandier ground it was beating the seed I sell, which was much cheaper because it has fewer traits in yield.”

To further compare the two varieties, he once again planted the competitor’s seed the following spring alongside the corn seed he sells. Running the field through Zone Economics, the technology revealed that more bushels don’t necessarily mean more profit. 

“All of a sudden I was seeing green lines in the areas where the cheaper seed had been planted,” Musselman recalls. “While the more expensive seed may have beat the less expensive seed on yield, those green lines meant that the less expensive seed was still more profitable.” 

Can I reduce my seeding rate and still be profitable?

Historically, the Christensens have planted 60 pounds of wheat seed per acre on their dryland acres. Using Zone Economics and variable-rate technology, the Idaho farmers have started cutting their wheat seed back to a range of 35 to 50 pounds per acre.

“Because one particular field has never been a very good producer, we planted the majority of it at 35 pounds per acre,” Christensen says. “My dad was concerned 35 pounds was too low and that it wouldn’t produce well.”

After harvest, they reviewed the Zone Economics map on that field. The technology clearly showed the field produced a better return on investment at 35 pounds per acre than at their typical rate of 60 pounds per acre. “The ground is simply not very good. Increasing inputs was a waste of money,” he says.

Was the extra fertilizer worth it?

In 2018, Musselman Farms tried a different fertilizer program that included a slight increase in rates. 

“We were stream applying fertilizer to soybeans,” Musselman says. “In these test strips, it was costing us about $30 per acre. We didn’t do that to everything, but we were trying to add something to increase yields.”

The investment didn’t pay off. “We didn’t see much of a yield difference, so I ran Zone Economics on those applications,” he says. “There were red lines everywhere – and I mean everywhere – we sprayed, which meant we wasted a bunch of money.”

Was the fungicide application really necessary?

For the past two years, Musselman Farms has been putting fungicide on corn acres. “To be honest, I was questioning why,” Musselman says, adding that the input, which they apply themselves, costs about $12 to $16 per acre. 

The corn was a darker green, 1% wetter, and looked a lot prettier. Ultimately, however, it was not yielding more bushels.

“The Zone Economics maps showed red lines where I had applied the fungicide,” he says. “We just aren’t seeing a financial advantage for those applications.”

Based on that information, they continue to taper fungicide applications. “We’re going to get to a point where we’re only applying it on 25% or less of our corn,” Musselman says, adding that he tries not to make too many major decisions like completely eliminating or tweaking an entire program because of what he sees in a single year.

“When I start seeing a big difference on our profitability maps, I have to question what we did differently in those areas,” he says. “If it’s a good thing, how can we see more of that? If it’s a negative, maybe we should consider not doing that same thing to every acre next year.”

Defining Zones

Management zones are areas within a field that are alike in yield potential. However, this similar performance can be due to a variety of factors, including soil type, elevation, and weather conditions between years.

“Like a fingerprint, the soil in each field is unique,” says Newell Kitchen, soil scientist, NRCS ARS. “Management zones recognize soil at its most basic level.”

Managing by zone is not a new concept. “In the early 1990s, it was an idea that was evolving,” Kitchen recalls. “Everyone was trying to figure out what it meant and how you did it, including us. Back then, some of our work was specifically on how you take soil electrical conductivity [EC] information to develop a zone. In the Missouri soils we work with, we quickly learned that raw EC mapping by itself wasn’t nearly as good as an EC map paired with soil profile information from a hydraulic profiling probe.”

In 1993, a graduate student working with Kitchen developed Management Zone Analyst (MZA). The algorithmic-driven decision tool defines zones using quantitative field information. “It creates zones based on the similarities between the input variables entered in the tool and the number of zones the user specifies, but the results are only as good as the input variables. You must have a really good agronomic understanding of what that means,” he says. “People still download the tool today.” 

For most farmers, Kitchen says, the motivating benefit of dividing a field into zones comes down to optimization. “The more a farmer can understand about the soil, the better position he is in to look at how to manage it in a more optimized way for greater return on management investments.”

It was certainly the case for Musselman Farms in 2014. Instead of trying to manage about 70 different fields, Kyle Musselman developed seven zones for the Indiana fields. Each zone is defined using a combination of historical yield data, elevation maps, and satellite imagery. 

“A zone may have two totally different soil types, but the area generally yields about the same, so I put them in the same zone,” he explains. “I’m just trying to narrow down my chances of being wrong at the end of the day.”

His cornfields in zone one yield about 140 bushels per acre; soybeans yield around 40 bushels per acre. In zone seven, corn yields more than 250 bushels per acre, and soybeans yield over 75 bushels per acre.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a whole lot of sevens,” Musselman says, adding that it’s common for an average field to have at least four zones that range from 2 to 40 acres. 

Stephanie Turner
Stephanie Turner, Illustration credit: Lauren Crow

Back Up The Buy

As part of the Conservis Customer Success team, Stephanie Turner partners with Musselman Farms to ensure the operation gets the most out of its technology investment, season after season.

“I help when questions arise about all things Conservis,” she says. “I am their first line of defense for troubleshooting.” 

Raised on a corn, soybean, and cattle operation in Illinois, Turner also continuously monitors the Musselmans’ records to evaluate how fields are performing. They can then make informed decisions for the next growing season.

“Kyle and I walk through each step of planning, production, and harvest to ensure the data coming into Conservis through machine integration is correct,” she says. “We not only make sure we are recording all of the passes made across a field, but the products applied on those fields as well. This is a huge piece of making Zone Economics work and a major value to the customer.”

Kyle Musselman says without accurate data, you have nothing to build on. 

“When I began digging into our farm’s historical field data to create zones in 2014, I started noticing we had a lot of junk data. There wasn’t much that was consistently accurate,” he recalls. “We didn’t change field names. We didn’t change crops. Back then, they didn’t realize what impact that could have.”

Going forward, creating accurate data became a priority. 

“Collecting accurate data takes time,” Musselman says. “But you get out of these programs what you put into them. If you don’t do a good job collecting that data, it’s all just a waste of time.”

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