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Farm Moneyball

Baseball and farming have more in common than you might think.

In the movie Moneyball from a few years ago, based on a true story of the Oakland Athletics, Brad Pitt’s character brought the power of big data to investing in baseball players. He used statistical formulas to assign value to players based on their ability to produce wins, rather than just using their batting average or strikeout totals.  

It produced a championship team and changed the business side of baseball forever.

The comparison of this to farming gets interesting. Both farming and baseball generate lots of statistics – some more important than others. Crop yield, for instance, is viewed a little like a batting average – the only thing that counts. But final yield doesn’t really answer the most important question: Did it win at profitability?

Yield alone won’t tell you what you did right or wrong, or where you could improve.

As baseball has changed with better data analysis, farming will, too. You’ll analyze and compare inputs and costs across fields, farms, and regions, and then you’ll cross-reference specific hybrids with soil type and disease risk. You’ll track when your machines are working and when they’re parked. These numbers will give you greater confidence in business decisions, including capital investments.

Impact of Farm Moneyball

Dan Frieberg, the CEO of Premier Crop Systems, a farm data management and analysis firm based in Iowa, thinks an important element of farm moneyball will come from better evaluation of practices on your own farm. 

“Ten years ago, we started putting check plots, which we call Learning Blocks, in the middle of customers’ fields. Those blocks are used to tell if something works or not, and if there is a payoff,” he says. “They are usually about an acre in size. We’ll add 10% or 20% more of some input, such as nitrogen, or subtract that much in the Learning Block. Sometimes we will cut the input rate to zero.”

Frieberg says farmers can look at their data from the subfield level, whole-field level, whole-farm level, or a pooled-data level with many other farmers in a data network in their area. Just like baseball, this deep data analysis helps point you to more informed decisions.

No, it doesn’t make the decision for you. It still takes a baseball manager – or you, the farm manager – to make the call. It just adds the confidence of a payoff. “Maybe it shows the value of a trusted adviser who can help you with the data analysis and decisions,” Frieberg says. 

It starts with capturing the data. “We also capture the costs in a whole field and in a Learning Block: the land, insurance, seed, fertilizer, machinery, and all other costs. The whole field average doesn’t really help you learn about the payoff of a practice,” he adds. “It’s agronomic and economic; they roll together really quickly. “

Following are eight ways – out of the hundreds of possibilities – of how you can use farm moneyball to make decisions.

1. Pay attention to the lower-yielding areas.

“You should never presume a field is all the same, either with yields or costs per bushel,” says Frieberg. “Of course, that resonates with farmers. They are in the fields, and they know there are wide differences.”

Then, he continues, sometimes you will discover that, if managed correctly, the low-yielding areas can be some of the lowest cost-per-bushel areas when you manage fields in zones. In other words, the high-yield zones are not necessarily the high-profit zones. That surprises some farmers.

“The lower input costs more than make up for the lower yield,” he says. “It makes you look at your low-yielding areas and lighter soils differently. Managing them correctly is equally important in your business success to the high-yielding areas.”

Farm Moneyball tip: Capitalizing on the potential of lower-yielding fields will require variable-rate technology (VRT) in fertilizer, seeding rate, or other inputs that take advantage of profit potential.

“We find there are still way more acres out there that are flat-rated than variable-rated,” says Frieberg. 

2. Plant early and quick.

You’ve long known that early planting usually gives top yields. Data shows that sometimes this happens simply because you plant your best ground first. What looks like an advantage to earlier planting is really just an advantage to better soil.

“Data analysis has let us plot yield against soil attributes,” says Sarah Windhorst, a Premier Crop adviser. “We often find that the yield penalty for late-planting is more severe on lighter soils. It may seem backward, but it’s true.”

Farm Moneyball tip: All of your fields benefit from the early planting window, and investment in plenty of planter capacity quickly pays off, she says. “We know there is about a nine-day window in most planting seasons that gives optimal corn yields. We don’t know exactly when it will be, but your planter capacity needs to fit that window.”

3. Don’t forget the soybeans.

The common perception is that the soybean planting date isn’t as critical as corn. It’s not true, says Windhorst. “Best soybean performance also falls into an early window. It may not be that exact same window as corn, but it’s early and smaller than we sometimes think.”

Farm Moneyball tip: Frieberg says there are several decisions you can consider in response to the early window for both corn and soybeans. “Less tillage is one. Should you be planting when you are now tilling or applying fertilizer? Maybe you should convert some acres to no-till.”

4. Use hybrids where they work.

Usually, farmers plant 75% or 80% of their corn acres to second-year numbers, says Frieberg. They’re not the brand-new hybrids, but farmers like to stick with the tried-and-true numbers. 
“What if a hybrid or variety just performs better on certain soil types or in your high-fertility fields?” asks Frieberg. “Do you have a distorted view of what is the best hybrid on the other acres?”

Pooled data from many other growers lets you sort hybrid data by just your conditions and soil type, so you are comparing apples to apples, he says. “Good data can help you place hybrids based on all your soils and conditions.”

Farm Moneyball tip: A lot of yield trials are conducted in ideal soils, Frieberg says. Yet, not every field you farm is perfect. “If you get a top yield on your best soils and you think the lesson is to just plant more of that number, you could be making a mistake.”

5. Examine your soil fertility interactions.

Surprisingly, says Windhorst, farmers often see good response to phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in fields that already tested high in those nutrients. Why? 

“We think there is a lot of interaction between the individual nutrients. For instance, when farm economics are tight, like now, farmers often cut back on everything except nitrogen (N). The P and K soil tests look good, so they cut back on them to save money, and then they full-rate N. Well, comparison data analysis tells us that with high yields, that could be the wrong thing to do.”

Farm Moneyball tip: “This is where a Learning Block can really pay off,” Windhorst says. “It lets you see if cutting back on P and K or some other nutrient is a good decision. It can prove the value of investing in VRT equipment for fertilizer applications.”

6. Put manure where it matters.

Sometimes, data shows that the best response to manure application is in lighter soils, says Windhorst. It could be because those areas are lower in organic matter to start with and respond well to manure. 

Typically, for convenience sake, manure is hauled to those fields within about 2 miles of the source. “It could pay to haul farther away,” she says. 

Farm Moneyball tip: Equipment investment or hiring a custom applicator may allow you to economically haul farther and give a good payoff.

7. Look at fungicides and seed treatments.

This one can be harder to evaluate, says Frieberg, because normally fungicides and seed treatments are flat-rated across a whole field. “If you are going to compare the payoff for fungicides, you have to look at all the other things going on in the background,” he says. For instance, what about fungicide impact on corn by specific hybrid? Or maturity? Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re seeing a yield increase from seed treatments or from early planting. Data analysis can help you know that and make better decisions.

Farm Moneyball tip: Closely correlating the data and a tool like a Learning Block can sort out the connections between hybrids, planting dates, maturity dates, and specific crop-disease treatments.

8. Utilize your machines’ efficiencies.

Jake Thomsen, an agronomic consultant for Yield Force at Sinclair Tractor in Washington, Iowa, says farm moneyball applies to machines, too. His company can pool and analyze data from John Deere’s JDLink to give farm customers insight into machine efficiency. 

For instance, the program can record the engine-use data to help right-size a machine or to identify harvest bottlenecks.

Thomsen says one of his customers quickly saw that he was underutilizing the capacity of his combine with a 30-foot platform  compared with other similar machines in the pooled data. “He upgraded to a 35-foot platform and increased his overall efficiency.”

The data system also captures combine engine idle time with a full grain tank, a good indicator of harvest bottlenecks. 

“One farmer with multiple machines saw that his machines had the highest idle hours with a full grain tank of all the machines in the data pool. He added a tractor and grain cart to the harvest crew and upgraded the grain facilities. “It paid off,” he says.

“We calculate that if an average machine reduced the idle time by just a third, that could save around $3,000 a year on machine hours alone,” says Thomsen.

Farm Moneyball tip: Using a good data-capture-and-analysis program is the only way you can see a statistic such as engine idle time and be able to compare it with similar machines on your farm or other farms.

You Bought It, Now Put It To Use

One of the good things that happened a few years ago when corn was $7 a bushel is that a lot of farmers bought some high-powered technology with their new machines. In some cases, says Sarah Windhorst of Premier Crop, they’re not fully utilizing it and, therefore, are missing an opportunity to put farm moneyball to work.

“They use the auto steer, maybe, but sometimes we find they are not using the variable-rate technology (VRT) they bought or even the yield monitor. That amazes me,” says Windhorst.

“Most planters are now hydraulic-driven, which means they are VRT capable,” she says. “With tight margins now, it’s time to put that technology to use. Technology can help you squeeze the most from every acre and practice on your farm.”

Data Pools Build Confidence

Dan Frieberg says Premier Crop (premiercrop.com) offers farm customers the chance to participate in anonymous shared data pools to see how their numbers stack up. The data pools don’t identify individual growers; they simply pool the numbers.

“It really adds to your confidence level,” he says. “Most growers want to be a part of it for that reason. In some cases, their cost-per-bushel data is the most personal data growers can share. They really have to trust us, but it’s how they can best turn the data into confident business decisions.”

Shared data can be displayed in several different ways – from a broad regional level or drilled down to every acre that fits a certain soil type, hybrid, or management practice.

Who, if anyone, helps you analyze the data you gather with your precision farming tools?

48% — Agronomist
33% — I analyze the data myself
27% — Seed rep
16% — Equipment dealer
12% — Independent consultant
11% — I currently do not analyze the data
5% — Software specialist 
Source: 2016 Successful Farming Technology in Ag Study

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