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Get More From Crop Data

For many farmers, precision agriculture has been long on promise but short on results.

Slowly but surely, that’s changing, say agronomy technology experts at Premier Crop Systems. It’s a 15-year-old company that specializes in helping you and your advisers manage and create value from precision ag data to drive agronomic decisions. They have four tips for adding a payoff to all those numbers you’ve been collecting.

1. Simplify your management zones

Aaron Rahe, account manager for Premier Crop, says you really only need three productivity zones. “A” zones are the most productive and managed most aggressively with plant populations and fertility. “B” zones are average. “C” zones are low yield and are given more conservative inputs.

“You can have more zones, but if you are just starting out, three zones fit just about every field,” says Rahe. “It’s simple.”

Premier Crop then breaks each zone down into cells of less than .10 acre each. The company manages your data and makes recommendations cell by cell. “With the variable-rate technology that we have today, we can recommend to the exact needs of each cell,” he says.

2. Manage on actual yields

While many avenues exist for building management zones, Premier Crop’s favorite way is to utilize each field’s yield data, says Sarah Uthe, also an account manager.

“If you have at least three years of historical yield data, that’s a far better set of data,” she says. “Actual yield is the best reflection of a field’s true capability. It’s the most powerful decision-making tool you possess. All other layers are just a theory as to how your fields should perform.

“Whatever is driving yield – soil types, fertility, or other factors – will be reflected in your yield file,” says Uthe.

3. Integrate the agronomy

This is the perfect example of making sure the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, says Rahe. For instance, you may decide that seed populations in an “A” zone cornfield can be managed aggressively, and bump them up to 38,000 plants per acre. The fertilizer applicator, however, was never told that.

“You have to feed the extra plants,” he says. It’s one reason farmers get frustrated with variable-rate technology, when they don’t see a payoff to a higher population.

4. Check your work

Rahe says another frustration for many farmers is that they have no way of knowing if a particular precision ag practice actually worked.

“Variable-rate technology is not a hard thing to do now. If there is no agronomic evaluation behind it, though, it doesn’t benefit you next year and beyond. You don’t know if there was a payoff,” he says.

What Premier Crop suggests is small checkpoints or learning blocks within field zones. These are 1- to 3-acre plots that are mini test plots.

For example, it may have been recommended to you to apply sulfur to cornfields. With a learning block, you can test higher and lower rates of recommended amounts of sulfur fertilizer – or none at all – in the middle of a field zone. Your yield monitor will track the results in the learning block.

“It’s a research plot on your own farm,” says Rahe. “You don’t have to try to extrapolate data from a university farm. 

“Our goal is to transform complex data into usable agronomic knowledge specific to your fields and management system.”

Tight margins, spend wisely
Sarah Uthe of Premier Crop says that with tight margins in crop production, it’s more important than ever to maximize the benefits of precision farming.

“For example, let’s say you budget $40 an acre for phosphorus for corn,” she says. “Variable-rate application will put it where it does the most good. Your “A” zones [highest yield potential] will get more, “B” and “C” zones will get less, and you’ll get more return on your investment. You only have so many dollars, so spend wisely. Reward your high-yield areas,” she says.

Premier Crop has 15 years of data from multiple cropping systems and practices on millions of acres, and it can track the results of just about any practice.

“Our customers have the option of aggregating their data with their neighbors (anonymously, of course) and seeing what happened to yields with certain practices. The data is solely owned by them, not Premier Crop, and it’s always their decision whether or not to utilize group data,” says Uthe.

“If you want to know what happened on 500,000 acres of corn-on-corn with 200 pounds of nitrogen, a certain tillage practice, and a certain insecticide program, we can show you that.

ou can compare your farm and practices to lots of others,” she says.

Katie McWhirter, precision ag specialist at farm retailer Eldon C. Stutsman, Inc., in Hills, Iowa, uses Premier Crop to manage data for her farm customers. She verifies that precision ag technology is moving rapidly forward. “Our variable-rate corn planting acres went from 4,000 in 2013 to 17,000 acres in 2014,” she says.

One of McWhirter’s customers is Lane Yoder from Lone Tree, Iowa. He’s in his second full season of using the Premier Crop services to manage crop data.

“I like the flexibility,” Yoder says. “It tracks a lot of variables that might impact yield, and I can find patterns and problem areas. I could do it on my own, but I don’t think I would be as effective.”

Recently, the data analysis revealed a potassium deficiency that was limiting production on about 20% of Yoder’s corn acres. “I couldn’t see it any other way.”

He’s also used Premier Crop’s learning block system to test practices on small check plots. “I might have a half dozen learning blocks within an 80-acre field,” he says. “I can test things without the expense of doing it over an entire field. Last year, I bumped up nitrogen rates on some learning blocks, and I found that it didn’t give me any higher yields.”

Variable-rate technology usually doesn’t change the total amount of inputs on his fields, says Yoder. “It just moves them around to where they do the most good.”

The cost for crop data management services can range from $2.50 to $15 per acre, depending on the level of service.

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