009: On Offense During Farm Planning

farmer and advisor

Today we are talking with Dan and Darren about going on offense during farm planning of each season. Topics covered include ever changing complexities in the field, using data to create a farm plan for planting, and treating different parts of the field differently.

About Darren: CEO and President of Premier Crop. Fehr joined Premier Crop in 2018 and has successfully led the company in significant growth over the last two years. His passion for mentoring, leading and growing the business will be instrumental in the future of Premier Crop.

About Dan: Founder and current VP of Technical Services. Since founding PCS in 1999, Dan has witnessed many changes and transitions in the ag data industry.

If you are enjoying the show, tweet us using #PremierPodcast.

DARREN FEHR: The point is, to be responsible and to plan appropriately, it takes a lot of effort. And I think that’s the theme for this podcast: it isn’t easy to plan ahead for some of these things. For you to be successful, it isn’t easy, and it takes some time. With all that being said, Dan, what are some of the key principles here to plan effectively, prior to purchasing products and prior to getting into the production cycle?

DAN FRIEBERG: Part of what amazes me so much is how much the growers we work with plan. That’s what they do. They plan. There’s an old saying that says you plan your work and then you work your plan. To be successful, it’s all about getting organized ahead of time. For a lot of them, it starts really early. It’s really common.

We are coming up on August of 2020, and, for a lot of growers, that’s when the 2021 plan details really start to take effect. It’s because they can’t do anything else. In August of 2020, in a whole bunch of the market, you can’t do anything to affect the 2020 crop. Any kind of treatment is done. Then they turn their attention to 2021. For a lot of growers, it’s what fields are going to be rotated into what crop. They’re starting to make crop rotation decisions really early the year before.

One of the big benefits of being a great planner is related to buying opportunities. You get out in front of everything, and that sets you up to figure out when to buy what during the year. Of course, the plan is not just what’s going to happen agronomically to set up for the next crop year. It’s also your budget. It’s having placeholders in your cash flow for those buying opportunities.

DARREN FEHR: I had a chance to work with farmers for several years now. I asked every group the same question: do you plan before you buy, or do you buy before you plan? And I would say the overwhelming number bought first because there’s this pressure of getting in early, getting the early program discounts. So, speaking for products and committing to something, and then doing some detailed planning with the products that they purchased.

DAN FRIEBERG: That really happens a lot with seed. Some people think crop protection is like this area that you can’t plan, and that’s just nonsense. It’s really easy to develop a crop protection plan. All you gotta do in August is do some evaluation of what worked and where you have escapes. You can evaluate. 80 to 90 percent of your crop protection could be planned a year ahead of time because you know what weeds escaped. You can plan to tackle them next year, as you go into rotations.

DARREN FEHR: For the likelihood of having new weeds appear, would you say that’s reasonably low? Do you have a pretty good idea of your weed spectrum, your resistance levels, from year to year?

DAN FRIEBERG: Yeah. Growers can definitely get a feel for resistance. Weed resistance doesn’t happen overnight, obviously, so they can get a feel for that really quickly. We went through a decade where we didn’t have weed resistance, and crop protection planning was way easier. It was just: how many ounces of glyphosate are we going to use? Now, it’s really changed, but most of it can be planned. And by having a great plan, that lets you take advantage of prepay opportunities or the right pricing opportunities.

DARREN FEHR: How do you prepare for farm planning? What data is relevant, as you think about planning your next crop year? We’re sitting here, and we’re going to start looking at variable-rate nutrient recommendations in August. What’s the relevant amount of data that I need to start planning?

DAN FRIEBERG: In our case, we manage fields based on different productivity opportunities within the field. We manage how we create zones, where we’re more aggressive or less aggressive, so that’s a component of it. Obviously, some have some kind of a spatial soil sample, where you’re capturing pH changes and organic matter changes. In soil tests, nutrient changes throughout the field is a big piece of it. That’s kind of annual, where a certain percent of the acres are getting re-sampled every year, so that information is constantly being updated. Those are big parts of the nutrient plans.

DARREN FEHR: One of the myths is planning is an event. It happens, and then you’re done, and then you go on to implement. But, Dan, that’s not what I’ve seen from farmers who are effective planners. It is a multistep process. Would you agree, and what would you see as those multiple steps that farmers need to take to plan effectively?

DAN FRIEBERG: Maybe the best way to explain it is to use an example. When you talk about farm planning with growers, one of the things they’ll say is: “It’s all weather dependent, and I can’t plan. Nobody can forecast the weather. Nobody can predict the weather. I can’t plan because I don’t know what the weather is going to be.” And in their defense, it does seem like we are having bigger swings and weather events than we did before. It could be that we are coming into a period with more weather variability.

What I find is that people can plan around weather. With nitrogen management, a lot of these growers plan their nitrogen program to have handoffs during the year. A lot of growers in heavier soils want to do some nitrogen application early because it takes the workload off. Instead of applying nitrogen in the spring, they’re planting. So, they’ll do some nitrogen ahead of time. They’ll do some nitrogen at planting, and the idea of that is to have something immediately available to the young plant. That could be a starter or a weed-and-feed application. They’ll plan a post-emerge application, and that could be anywhere from when the corn is really small to a Y-drop application later. At different places, you’re handing the crop off to different types of nitrogen applications.

We have a partner, Central Advantage in southern Minnesota, that has a program called Nitrate Now that they branded. It’s a planned side dress program, where they’re doing spatial nitrate sampling in not quite 100,000 acres every year. It’s a planned handoff. They basically account for weather. If it’s a great mineralization spring, like this year, where everything warmed up great and we had adequate moisture and everything took off, they probably are saving growers a bundle. There’s probably a lot of planned side dress that didn’t happen because it wasn’t needed. What you don’t want to do is be reactive. There’s a lot of mentality around: “I’m going to take a picture of the field through an image, and I’m going to identify, through the image, the areas that need something.”

DARREN FEHR: Definitely.

DAN FRIEBERG: Well, by the time the crop tells you it needs something, it’s too late. You’ve already lost yield. If an image tells you that the crop is denitrified, it’s not that you shouldn’t address those denitrified areas, but you’ve already lost yield. The idea is to never have the plant have a bad day. That’s what high yields are all about. You just want, from start to finish, to execute this plan where the plant never has a bad day, and that’s how you maximize yield and yield efficiency.

DARREN FEHR: Now, you talk about maximizing yield efficiency. Well, a lot of the farm planning that I’ve seen take place really has an agronomic emphasis. The economics are more difficult. Tell me about how we can effectively plan for yield efficiency.

DAN FRIEBERG: For me, it’s really in the details. These plans that we’re talking about are very detailed, and part of the detail, Darren, is we have to get out of this mindset of treating entire fields as though they’re the same. They’re not. There’s terrific variability within fields. If we’re going to drive higher return to land and management, if we’re going to drive bigger dollar return, it’s all about where we invest and how much we invest in what part of fields and how we treat parts of fields differently and how we treat fields differently from one another. They’re not all the same. Managing that variability is where the big dollar returns come in. We have single decisions that are 100-dollar-an-acre swings, basically 100-dollar-an-acre net swings for growers.

DARREN FEHR: The devil’s in the details. The complexity is: “If I’m going to variable rate my nutrients and my seed, that’s more difficult and adding cost to it is difficult.” But you’re right. Every high-performing grower that we have in yield efficiency does those things extremely well with our team, with our people.

DAN FRIEBERG: The difficulty is that’s what you pay an advisor to do, to make it not difficult, make “complex” easier. You can’t make “complex” simple, but you sure can make it easier. That’s the whole idea, just to make it easier. The outcome, by having a plan, is growers feel more in control. And when you feel more in control, you have more peace of mind.

Right now, the world seems pretty darn out of control. We’re finding out just how much our food production system is a just-in-time delivery system. There’s a lot of just-in-time everything, and that’s all detailed planning and logistics. It’s an amazing system, but, right now, having a better plan in really tight financial times just gives you more control and more peace of mind.

It’s amazing, over the years, how much I’ve witnessed, for example, growers who plan seed around the destination of the grain. Based on where the grain is going to go, they plan what they plant where. For fields that they know are going to be the last to be harvested, they are picking hybrids that have terrific standability and retention, that can stand until very late in the fall. They have fields that are coming out early to fill the grain dryer, to get the grain system going. They’re chasing an early ethanol bid on some fields. Everything is planned for details that are very plannable, but it’s just thinking ahead.

We have growers who plan manure applications two or three years ahead of time. They’ll contract with a turkey litter company way out. It’s their fertility plan. They know, every few years, they’re going to get access to so much litter or so much manure, and they plan that far out. They plan rotations around that. It’s impressive, just that ability to manage details and use your data to drive confident decision making.

DARREN FEHR: As we wrap up here, what historical data is relevant? How do farmers go about starting this plan, and what should they have prepared when we start putting their plan together, prior to harvest?

DAN FRIEBERG: For us, it’s just identifying field boundaries and grabbing anything we can. A lot of growers are sitting on a lot of yield data, historic yield data. We love to grab that because we can put that to use immediately. A lot of growers haven’t really done much with their yield data. They haven’t made a lot of decisions off of it, so they really like the idea of being able to take advantage of some of that data they’ve been collecting. We’re really big on getting a benchmark year started when we get started, so we like to grab the current planting data and applied fertility data. That way, we can establish a baseline year and judge ourselves and mark ourselves by how much we improve yields and yield efficiency.

DARREN FEHR: Yeah, we’re setting up the next podcast to talk about yield efficiency, but I want to make sure that our listeners understand we do this full, end-to-end planning process with growers, prior to them purchasing products and after, if that’s the case. I just want to remind everybody that this is a great time to get started. Make sure you contact us if you want to get involved or get started or have an opinion on our planning process. Dan, thank you again for today for being part of this podcast with me. I hope everybody has a fantastic beginning to July.

DAN FRIEBERG: Awesome, thank you.


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