Turning Red Acres Black

Technology and conservation help North Dakota farmer convert low-producing land into productive property.

As a math teacher in a rural farming community, one of the main lessons Michael Sandness taught his students was that the material has an application beyond the classroom. 

“In my mind, farming is a numbers game,” Sandness says. “If you ignore the numbers, you could be missing out on an opportunity for a little extra profit.”

The Numbers Tell the Story

Since coming back to his family’s southeast North Dakota farm in 2013, Sandness has been applying that same philosophy to identify and remediate the underperforming acres in his highly variable soils. 

“There have been years where the same round in a cornfield went from 0 to 200 bushels per acre,” he says. “It made me question why I was putting the same amount of money and product on both the good and bad areas.”

The solution, Sandness believed, was variable-rate technology. Yet, he was convinced it would be too costly to upgrade his equipment. Once he began investigating its potential for applying fertilizer, the actual numbers proved him wrong.

“I spent around $6,000 to install variable-rate motors on my air seeder, which is how I put urea down,” he says. 

Although Sandness estimated it would take five years to see a return on the investment, he saw a $10,000 savings in year one without sacrificing yield. 

Three years later, any fertilizer or seed he now puts in the ground is variable rated. “In total, I did it for about $17,300 by adapting my older equipment to make it happen affordably,” he says.

His next move is to evaluate consistently unprofitable ground (which research shows is about 3% to 15% of most fields) and to consider a more productive alternative for those acres.

“You don’t want to leave acres idle, because you still have to deal with the weeds and keep those at bay,” Sandness says. “However, sometimes not farming a piece of ground does more than farming it.”

Better Managing Wet, Salty Areas 

Located in the Prairie Pothole Region, extremely wet springs are causing the wetlands that are scattered across the 2,500 acres Sandness covers to flood beyond their original vegetation. 

The excess water is not only drowning parts of his corn and soybean fields but also causing an increase in salt rings around the wetlands when evaporation happens faster than infiltration. 

“Soil salinity is linked to water management,” says Melissa Shockman, a precision ag and conservation specialist with Pheasants Forever. “If saline-impacted soils are not addressed, they tend to get worse over time.”

While it’s clear the water needs to be used before it reaches the surface, what is less known is just how much those trouble spots are actually costing Sandness. 

Painting a Clear Picture 

Using AgSolver features driven through FieldAlytics, Shockman is able to create profitability maps and reports to show Sandness whether or not he is getting an adequate return on every acre. 

“By analyzing his harvest data, as-applied data, and crop budget, the online tool shows how his current practices compare with alternative scenarios,” she says. 

Initially, the pair talked about wheat grass species because they are the most salt-tolerant perennial. However, Sandness wasn’t quite ready to take on this long-term investment; he was more interested in dabbling in salt-tolerant cover crops. 

“Basically, it comes down to the practice that fits well within his operation and what will be more cost effective,” Shockman says.

That led them to consider forage barley and rye, because both offer a high tolerance to saline and do well in lighter soils.

Although he does not own cattle or have a need for hay, Sandness knew his neighbor had cattle. The two found a way for both to benefit if forage barley was planted. Sandness will receive the soil health benefits of remediating the more saline areas and using up moisture, while his neighbor will have access to more hay for his cattle.


By replacing 21.76 acres of soybeans with forage barley, AgSolver’s Profit Zone Manager calculated that Sandness would gain a little over $5 per acre. (See comparison table.)

“I want to build a better environment to grow crops,” Sandness says. “That means identifying alternatives that use moisture, control weeds, improve the soil, and create habitat without losing money on those acres.”

Sandness is achieving that by paying close attention to the numbers so he can better understand the impact of every dollar.

By the Numbers

Since 2016, Pheasants Forever in southeast North Dakota has worked on 17 operations through the Precision Ag Business Planning Program covering over 44,000 acres. Of those 17 operations:

  • Producers increased their ROI (on average in a field) 7.4% by implementing a more profitable alternative on low-producing acres.
  • One has implemented 108 acres of pasture/hayland for forage production.
  • One has implemented 116 acres into perennial habitat on saline soil areas under a 10-year habitat agreement.
  • Six are in the middle of planning and establishing acres (fall 2019) for postharvest cover crops for grazing, barley for saline soil remediation, grass/forb mix for forage production, alfalfa for forage production, pasture for grazing, and pollinator habitat.

Breaking Down the Technology

Driven through FieldAlytics, AgSolver features can benefit you in four ways.

1. Financial Outcomes

Using your harvest data, as-applied data, and crop budget, the analysis tool lets you create management scenarios. Comparing the new outcomes can help you answer questions like whether or not your precision practices pay or which hybrid has a better return on investment.

2. Multiyear Analysis

By averaging the years of a field’s data, AgSolver’s Profit Zone Manager can generate a multiyear outcome. This allows you to identify performance trends year to year.

3. Data Maps

For each year of field data, the maps and reports generated let you see return on investment, breakeven commodity price, breakeven expense reduction, breakeven yield increase, and production efficiency. This information helps identify areas that are performing well and which are costing money. 

4. Data Processing

AgSolver supports all major manufacturers’ harvest, as-applied, and as-planted data, as well as shapefiles.

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