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Iowa Grower Finds 9 Golden Nuggets Buried in His Data

Farmers are eternal optimists, and that includes Nels Leo. 

“I always hope for big yields on every acre,” says the Jamaica, Iowa, farmer.

Leo also knows that the information streaming from his Integra monitors and AFS Pro 600 display is a reality check. Yet, he says his biggest challenge is utilizing all of that data to its fullest potential.  

“On some farms, I have 15 years of yield data, 13 years of planting data, and nine years of spraying data,” says Leo. “I look at my data, but the experts at Premier Crop Systems help me make sense of it all. Based on what the data is telling me and the objective perspective they provide, I have cut back on areas I normally would not have.”

“We help Nels by utilizing our database and collecting all of the variables that can have an effect on yield by measuring and benchmarking every acre,” says TJ Masker, Premier Crop Systems agronomic information adviser. “We also take the emotion out of some of these fields. Just because a part of a field yielded 250 bushels per acre five years ago and has averaged 160 since, doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of money hoping it will yield that high again.”

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Unearthing the truth

Leo, who grows corn and soybeans across 1,800 acres, uses the West Des Moines, Iowa, company’s management zone approach to ensure that every acre gets exactly what it needs. Rather than cutting inputs across the board, they are allocated based on field productivity for the best return on investment. Zones are developed for a field utilizing the yield history, as well as soil types and grid soil sampling maps, to variable-rate seed and nitrogen. 

“An A zone is the highest yielding, a B zone is average, a C zone is lighter soils, and a D zone has drainage issues,” explains Masker. “It all comes down to cost per bushel by management zone. We may be spending the most per acre in A, but it is often the lowest cost per bushel because it provides the highest level of yield. ”

Because Leo has so many years of information, it allows Masker to see spots in the field that have under-performed over time and areas that are, typically, the highest yielding. 

“Then, I overlay soil type, aerial, and drainage-class maps to identify what the issues might be on the lower yielding areas,” says Masker.

On average, the approach is saving $20 to $25 per acre in seed, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 

“However, there is much more to the data outside of this,” says Masker. “Think of the whole growing season from the moment that fertilizer spreader goes across a field, to the planter, the sprayer, the sidedress bar, the sprayer again, and finally the combine. Every time we enter that field, we are affecting yield, and we need to measure every aspect of that.”

As he develops management zones, Masker says he likes to hop in the pickup and actually go to Leo’s fields. “We talk through the spots and make notes on the map,” he explains. “Zones are evaluated every year and adjusted as we learn more about the fields.”

9 nuggets

Below are nine nuggets that have been revealed.

Truth #1: Drainage issues equate to poorer yielding areas. There are spots in Leo’s fields prone to flooding or ponding. Masker helped him realize that because those areas are not the best, his seed and fertilizer rates should be cut. In corn, he dropped his seeds per acre by 2,000 to 4,000. Since those portions of the land all tested high on fertilizer, he also cut back on the amount being applied. 

Truth #2: Overseeding doesn’t pay. Rather than clean out the planter, Leo decided to empty the planter by spreading the remaining soybeans across a field. “That showed up on the yield monitor as a poor decision, because I lost about 5 bushels per acre in the areas I planted it out,” he says. “It takes me about two hours to clean out the planter. Planting it out took about half an hour. Let’s say I planted 8 acres at a half rate over what had already been planted. That hour and a half I saved cost me $350.”

Truth #3: Foliar fertilizer isn’t beneficial. “I used foliar fertilizer two years ago on soybeans,” says Leo. “It cost about $9 an acre, and I used my sprayer. If I figure in the custom rate for my area at $7 an acre, it would have taken 1 bushel better yield to break even. It yielded .5 bushel per acre more. It paid for the product but not the application, so no more of that product.”

Truth #4: Fuel usage must be a factor. “I track my fuel usage for each operation,” he says. “It gives me a good idea of what each operation is really costing me.”

He also used that information to help make a decision on whether or not to trade a tractor. “The fuel savings amounted to around $2,500 a year to get the newer tractor, and fuel was higher then,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to get into a higher payment, thinking that the ag economy was headed into a downturn. Turns out that has been a good decision.”

Truth #5: Tiling is beneficial. “Showing just how large the wet spots are has made it easier to decide where to put tile,” says Leo. “I am a partner in a drainage business called Accurate Drainage, LLC. 
I know right where the wet spots are and have greatly improved the productivity of those acres.”

Truth #6: Mapping makes sense. “I try to map every operation in the field,” he notes. “It has been difficult to get my fertilizer dealers to come on board with this. I now make it clear that any operation I have them do, they are to give me the raw data off the monitor. Otherwise, I will find someone who will.”

In the future, these maps will help him precisely place fertilizer and seed where they will be best utilized, as well as help decide which acres are profitable and which are not. “I may variable-plant different hybrids, but the technology needs to come along a little further before it will work for me,” notes Leo.

Truth #7: Think of big data as silver buckshot rather than a silver bullet. “There isn’t any one concept that is going to add 50 bushels per acre from data,” says Masker. “However, with a system in place, we can implement a variety of concepts that each add 4 to 5 bushels and help us climb the yield ladder.”

Truth #8: Cost per bushel is king. “I may tell Nels to spend $10 to $15 per acre on a concept,” says Masker. “That concept has historically returned 12 bushels per acre. Even at $3 corn, that is a nice return on investment. It is not always about cutting back on inputs; it’s more about allocating them in a way that makes the most economical sense and gives us the best return.”

Truth #9: Data and analytics are an evolution, not a revolution. “We make incremental changes each year that affect yield,” says Masker. “We measure a new concept, and once it’s proven, we move to the next idea.”

Data integrity

While Leo knows the decisions from data he’s implementing make him more efficient and profitable, it all starts with ensuring it is quality information.

“Every fall, I calibrate the yield monitor for each crop. During planting, I make sure to change the monitor whenever I change varieties or hybrids,” he says. 

“When I spray, I record where each product went so that information can be overlaid. All of the tillage passes are recorded, as well. It all has an effect on yield,” says Leo.

“Utilizing big data requires that all of the little data is correct,” says Masker. “Without doing all of the little things correctly, big data is practically useless on a macro level.”

Population rates
One field on Nels Leo’s farm has an A zone that is 35% to 40% of the field; the B zone is 45% to 50%; and the C/D zone is 10% to 15%, based on soil types and drainage issues.

Population rates are then calculated. “Everyone thinks of pounds of nitrogen per bushel,” says TJ Masker, Premier Crop Systems agronomic information adviser. “Why not bushels per 1,000 seeds per acre?”

  • A zone: 35,500 seeds/acre
  • B zone: 33,000 seeds/acre
  • C zone: 31,000 seeds/acre
  • D zone: 31,000 seeds/acre

“These are the optimal and economical seeding rates because of the hybrid’s performance, not only on this farm but also when we look at the group data as a whole – the 150,000 acres that Premier Crop Systems work with in Iowa,” he notes.

The total average seeding rate is 33,575 seeds per acre, depending on the field. 

“If we cut seeding rates in an A zone, we lose yield potential. Allocating seeds by zone on a typical farm with an average seed cost of $230 per bag saves our farmers, on average, $5.53 per acre,” says Masker.

N rates on corn

Nitrogen is allocated based on zones, organic matter, and P and K levels from soil tests.

  • A zone: 205 pounds
  • B zone: 185 pounds
  • C zone: 170 pounds
  • D zone: 170 pounds

“The total average for nitrogen used is 190 pounds per acre. At $595 per ton for NH3 and $295 per ton for 32% UAN, that equates to a $9.70-per-acre savings,” says TJ Masker, Premier Crop Systems.

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