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Harvest Technologies Help Target Opportunities
Implementing management decisions based on data analysis may have seemed far-fetched to past generations. Yet, harvest tools equipped with precision farming technologies are allowing today’s farmers to supervise each acre individually.
“We have been collecting information on our farm for many years, but if we don’t have any use for that data, it’s hard to understand why we keep collecting it,” says southwest Iowa farmer Steve Killpack. “Getting a return on our investment and improving our farms is why we collect the data.”
A crop consultant for more than a decade, Killpack saw the growing need for data analysis. In 2015, he founded Acumen Agronomics (acumen.ag), a software company that would help him make the data he was collecting more meaningful. While his management decisions hinge on profitability, adjustments to his practices are based on the analysis of the data being collected through his yield monitor.
As Killpack realized how agronomic decisions drove profitability, he opened up the service to other farmers. Making the data useful for all farmers no matter what brand of equipment or software they run is important to him. Since launching in 2017, the business has grown to include more than 225 subscribers and cover over 520,000 acres.
By uploading his harvest data, farmers can download two free reports: a profitability report and a yield report. The yield report shows both yield in bushels per acre, down to the specific acre, and profit per acre. Killpack says these insights help farmers learn how to better manage the outliers of a field to increase profits.
He believes the information being transferred to the Acumen program should be based on the best year seen on that field. Otherwise, it’s hard to know what changes need to be made to improve management. Killpack wants a farmer to be able to improve off of his best year, not an average year.
“There is so much power in the information we are getting on our farms,” Killpack says. “Farmers just want to know how to do a better job.”
They also want a platform that makes data analysis simple. “I didn’t want to make it difficult,” Killpack says. “Rather, I wanted to give farmers like me a printout that is easy to decipher.”
For an annual fee of $1,000, farmers can receive more detailed or additional reports by uploading their inputs into the program.
How to Better Manage An Acre
Laila Puntel, assistant professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says while farmers have been collecting data for nearly 30 years, it hasn’t been until more recently that they’ve known how to use the information.
“Research shows that more than 70% of U.S. farmers have GPS-linked yield monitors on their harvest equipment; another 18% have yield monitors without GPS-links,” Puntel says. “Now, instead of just watching it on their monitors, they can download the data and print the maps.”
Having access to this data helps farmers make management decisions in areas like seeding rates and chemical use to optimize every acre.
Killpack says farmers understand there are many factors involved in yield, but by knowing how to manage a specific acre, more yield can be achieved. “On our farm, we have gone from planting an average of 35,000 seeds per acre for corn to 27,800 seeds per acre because we know how to optimize the production of each kernel,” he says.
Since the data from the 1,200 acres Killpack farms now shows profitability through the reports generated by the Acumen program, he has been able to realize up to a $100-per-acre savings.
“We’ve optimized nitrogen use and use variable-rate applications,” he says. “Nutrients are applied following what the map shows us, and seeding rates have been decreased.”
At times, he has added more seed or more nitrogen in areas for better production. The poorest areas of each field are the ones that need more attention. By using the data from the yield monitor, he can more accurately apply nutrients with the proper seeding rate to see better production.
“We also have to be sustainable in what we’re doing to the land. I have been able to cut back seeding rates by 30% and have seen some savings of nitrogen and fertilizer,” Killpack says. “The most important thing is, we are targeting the areas that can give us more and managing those spots. Every field has a different opportunity.”
Puntel says collecting a large amount of data has allowed farmers to make the necessary management changes and decisions to have more production per acre. “I think most farmers are not using this data at the maximum potential yet. We are seeing more efforts from the industry to help farmers understand this data,” she says.
“Farmers need to realize their data does have value. Whether they have 300 acres or 30,000 acres, knowing how to use this data will help farmers be more productive,” Killpack says.
Yet, research indicates that farms over 2,000 acres are more inclined to use precision agriculture practices, which is likely because of the amount of return that can be collected through analyzing the data. Yield mapping is used on about 40% of corn and soybean acres, according to USDA Economic Research Service numbers.
While technology can help farmers pinpoint trouble spots, it doesn’t replace the boots on the ground. Once farmers identify where the problem areas are, Killpack says they need to get out in the field to understand why the problems are showing up. Does the area have poor drainage, rocky soils, or other factors that are affecting yield?
Think Outside The Box
On the Killpack farm, some unconventional practices are utilized to give crops an even better chance to perform. Subsurface drip irrigation is available on 250 acres, and pivot irrigation is available on 300 acres. More recently, he has also added strip cropping of corn and soybeans, with wheat surrounding the outside of the field.
“The strip cropping has been a good way for us to implement better water management in some fields,” Killpack says. “The crop that benefits the most in this practice is corn because we can manage photosynthesis better than we can for the soybean crop since it’s shaded in some areas during part of the day. We’ve also seen an increase in soybean yields.”
Wheat was added, which is an unusual crop in Iowa, to give more diversity in the rotation and to increase ground cover to improve how water soaks into the soil.
Killpack also plants cereal rye as a cover crop. The use of this, along with winter wheat, allows for cover over the winter and livestock grazing or harvesting of both. He says this slows down loss of soil on the edges of the fields while building the soil’s organic matter. At times, alfalfa is used in the rotation to help drive up production on the farm.
“When I decided I wanted to farm, I knew it would be very important to be efficient and profitable even if the practices I use to accomplish that are more uncommon,” Killpack says.