037: Farm Analytics Show Where You’re Leaving Money

farm data

Today we are talking about farm analytics and how avoiding data can leave money on the table for your operation. We are joined by Katie McWhirter, Manager of Training and Development at Premier Crop Systems.

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

RENEE HANSEN: Welcome to the Premier Podcast, Katie. Thanks for joining us today. We were talking about how Premier Crop can really impact growers’ decisions through our analytics. Why don’t you just tell us a little story, how you were talking to somebody about how they didn’t realize how much analytics that we did?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Yeah, I was meeting with a grower who asked the question about: ‘Is the direction of Premier Crop going from being a prescription company to an analytics company?’ And I had to laugh, and I said: ‘Premier Crop has always been about analytics.’ And not only being a company known for their analytics, but then what to do with the information that is received in the data, in those analytics.

RENEE HANSEN: So you’re going to walk us through a report and how you talk about the analytics reports that we give growers. So can you just give us an example? You have a management zone report pulled up for us that we’re looking at, but it also isn’t only about agronomics. It’s also about economics. Can you walk us through how you would talk through these analytics, this specific report of management zones and the different pricing for our audience?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Yeah, so it’s funny as we’re sitting here. I was talking about this report this morning and how we have a suite of reports. And Renee, you’re awesome at marketing because you put on there what all these are: program offerings and the suite of reports. And I’ve had different people say: ‘What are these? Suite of reports?’ And I’m like: ‘Well, I could kill you with paperwork.’ But, really, it’s about the reports and the insights that I can take to be able to help them make better decisions.

The one report that I have up here is a management zone report with all the cost information in it. So, if I scroll to the bottom, it’s almost like a report card for the grower. So what we can see is the cost per acre in their different management zones. And we’re talking management zones. It’s not just about seeding rates. It’s about marrying up the nutrients that go along with increasing seeds. So, at the bottom of this report, we can see that we’ve invested more dollars per acre for nutrients and for seeds. Our chemical costs, our operations costs, management and land are going to be flat rates, or they’re equal across each of these zones. But when we get down to the bottom of this report, we can see that we’ve invested $30, $40, $47 more in our A zone, our best parts of the field, than in our C zone. $47 an acre is a lot more per acre. But when we look at that break-even cost per bushel, we notice that our break-even cost per bushel, or the amount it’s taking us to produce a bushel of corn, is about 90 cents less where we’ve spent more.

analytics - management zones

And so that’s amazing, to actually pull out and say, ‘No, variable-rate does pay,’ and to show that grower and prove to them that it does pay. I was telling this story this morning because I sent this report — it happens to be my dad’s — to my brother. And he goes: ‘But what do you do with it?’ And that’s the important part. We can produce reports and pretty graphs, but I’ve always laughed. What professional business person takes a pretty report, looks at it, goes, ‘Wow, that’s really neat,’ and sticks it in a three-ring white notebook in their office? So that’s where the advisor comes in, taking that data and saying: ‘What can I do with it?’ So the top of this report shows what the soil test attributes happened to be. But, then, right below it is the applied nutrients in each of these zones. So, very quickly, as an advisor, I can look and see: what was my average nitrogen that I put on in these zones? Or my average phosphate? Actual phosphate? Or actual K2O? And very quickly, I can see what’s been removed off and what I’ve put on in these areas.

As we’re going into the fall with these fertilizer inputs — and, actually, all inputs — being what they are, even though prices are good, people are going to be concerned. Growers are going to be concerned when they start to hear what these prices are. Can we take this information to make a better recommendation or a better prescription for next year’s crop? I’ve been telling people, for the last month, my worry is that when farmers get shown these prices, they could make some emotional decisions. And in fact, those emotional decisions of cutting across every acre could be cutting profitability in the areas where they could be returning the most.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, we were just talking about this on a call, how there’s a high risk, high reward right now, just because commodity prices are high, but also fertilizer rates are really high. Input rates are high. And Dan made a comment, how if you’re a gambling man or woman, you were sitting at the $10 table. You were sitting at the $10 table, playing blackjack, whatever. And now, you just moved to the $50 table, where the risk is high. The reward is high. So these decisions that you’re talking about, you’re looking at removal rates. And I think that’s something different, that a lot of companies don’t go to the depth of looking at an actual removal rate. This is coming from the yield monitor, and it’s telling you how much was removed of that specific nutrient and calculating that. So go deeper into that because I know that’s where you were looking at: some of these removal rates.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, I just think, as I say, we have to figure out what we actually have control over. There’s so much in the data world that there are certain things we don’t have control over. So let’s look at the things that we can help growers with. I’m not saying to starve out any area, but reallocate. What does the grower’s pocket book look like for a given field? I chuckle when growers tell me that their yield goals are the same across every field. Or if we treat every field the same, you can’t tell me that yield goals or, on the flip side, removals, as you’re talking about, are the same on every field. And we’re talking about removals spatially, with that yield file. That’s a huge variance. I mean, growers know. When they’re in a combine, and they’re watching that monitor, they see those high areas of the field. Well, those high areas of the field are removing a lot more nutrients than when that monitor hits those, we’ll say, the red areas on the map in their combine. I mean, there’s a big difference. So that means if there’s a big difference in yield, there’s a big difference in removals.

So, yeah, using that removal file as part of their nutrient plan or recommendation is going to be really, really big this coming year, in addition to establishing: what is the goal for that field moving forward for this following year? Is it setting spatial yield goals? Is it setting spatial fertility goals? What kind of a goal are we going to have based on input prices, with the potential for these input prices being what they are? I sent an email to one of my growers last week, and I said: ‘We really need to talk in the next 10 days. If prices are going to remain as they are, what are you thinking for fall fertilizer?’ Because we’re going to need to put some on, what does it look like if prices stay this way? Then, how do we pivot as we move into harvest season and that sort of thing in order to prevent those emotional decisions? And growers with a plan don’t make emotional decisions. They’re a lot more confident and a lot calmer in fall and harvest time.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and you have all these reports that come out year over year because it’s not just a ‘one year, set it and forget it.’ There are so many factors that go into this and all of the farm analytics that you’re looking at because every year is different, of course, depending on weather too. I mean, so you’re layering that as a factor on top also.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. Exactly. It’s not just one piece of information. We focused a lot here in our conversation on fertility. But, we were talking ‘seeding rates’ this morning and making sure that’s the right rate on the field. I mean, that’s just so important, to be able to use that information. And we’ve always said that we knew variable-rate seeding paid, and now we can prove it. And those are real dollars. That’s a lot of money on the table and at stake. Like you said, you’re at the $50 table. And I told somebody a couple weeks ago, I said: ‘We really should, like agriculture, call 1-800-BETSOFF.’

RENEE HANSEN: It is a total gambling game, isn’t it? I mean, they always say that. Let’s do some quick math, though, on this report, Katie. So, in the A zone you’re showing that there, it was 200.2 bushels per acre. The C zone is 150.9 bushels per acre. And if you scroll down to the bottom of this report that we’re looking at, it shows us what you had said: the break-even cost per bushel, what it costs to raise that bushel of corn.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: If we want to do the math on this report, Renee, if it’s 200 bushels in the A zone, I’m just going to use $4.50 for corn. That would bring us to $900 for revenue per acre. And if we take out, as this report shows, I’m just going to round up at $718 per acre. That’s going to be $181 profit in that A zone versus our C zone yielding 150 at $4.50 corn. That’s $675. We’ll round up the cost per acre in the C zone just to $670. It’s $5. So it’s breaking even in the C zone. I mean that, then — and I know math’s not your strong suit — but, I mean, that’s $176. $175. $176 per acre.

RENEE HANSEN: Per acre in your A zone. And the things that you changed, and it shows what you variable-rated on. It looks like it was your nutrient, your seed and some chemicals.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Yeah, so there were some spatial chemical costs in there. Yep.

RENEE HANSEN: So variable-rate clearly pays. So what if you were to flat-rate this whole field? What would this look like? I mean, you would clearly be losing your money in the C zone, more than if you’re over-applying your nutrients.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I once had an advisor tell me, he’s like: ‘Think about, in your C zones, if you’re even at break-even or losing money, and you could bring those areas up — not lose as much money just in those C zones — what that could equate over 1000, 2000, 5000 acres in an operation.’ Those are real dollars, Renee.

RENEE HANSEN: Those are real dollars. That’s the economics of it. There’s so much agronomics that you guys go into when you start breaking it out into some of your fertilizer costs, as well. But we’ll get into that another time. Maybe we can talk about an ELB report on the next one. Hopefully, we didn’t confuse everybody too much with the math here. But there’s a clear reason that these reports show that the profitability of variable-rate pays. Using something like Premier Crop, looking at the farm analytics, is highly beneficial.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: If you just use yield, you really don’t know how much money there is out there. 

RENEE HANSEN: Thanks for joining us today, Katie. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: You’re welcome, Renee.

RENEE HANSEN: Thanks for listening to the Premier Podcast, where everything agronomic is economic. Please subscribe, rate and review this podcast so we can continue to provide the best precision ag and analytic results for you. And to learn more about Premier Crop, visit our blog at premiercrop.com.


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036: Vision for the Future w/Darren Fehr


Today we are talking with Darren about the future of ag data and our plans for the next few years as a company. We also cover emerging technologies, trends, and what to expect as a farmer in 2021 and beyond.

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.

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

RENEE HANSEN: Welcome to the Premier Podcast. Darren, thank you for joining us. I wanted to talk to you today about some of the trends that are happening in precision ag, and the future of ag data right now. There’s going to be an increased adoption of variable-rate technology, predictive analytics, more forecasting. There’s remote sensing, robotics, all of these things that are happening in precision ag right now. How is Premier Crop going to stay relevant in this market?

DARREN FEHR: Well, I think, first of all, I’m not sure we’re exactly responding to some of the global trends. I think we’re responding to our vision of serving growers and helping them improve yield efficiency. And part of the innovation story is: how do we effectively use the data to help them make these kinds of decisions that we’re going to see both an agronomic and economic lens to it? So, overall, I would say our innovation story is driven by using the kind of data that allows us to share best practice. That allows us to benchmark against other fields and against other farms and allows us to take in the overwhelming amount of data to be able to drive analytics and insights.

RENEE HANSEN: There are a lot of players in this market space. There are so many, and it’s hard to differentiate who does what. So how does Premier Crop differentiate?

DARREN FEHR: I think one of the ways we’ve always differentiated is we’ve taken the variable-rate prescriptions that we have created and actually taken them to yield, actually done some analysis and say: ‘How do we get better? How do we make these more effective?’ And what we see in the world of precision ag, in general, over the last two decades has been: ‘Let’s make sure we get some methodology on how we create a variable-rate prescription.’ So analytics and benchmarking has been a really important part of our business over the last decade. It will continue to be a very important part.

RENEE HANSEN: Great. And you say it continues to be an important part. Where’s Premier Crop going in the future? What is the innovation that is driving Premier Crop to continue to be better? You mentioned best practices. And also Premier Crop does a lot of the hard work by getting the yield. Some other companies in the market do not do that. What is our innovation moving forward?

DARREN FEHR: I’d say that our focus has been on managing variability through zone management and learning blocks and enhanced learning blocks. We’ve done a lot to create new knowledge and develop this right-rate technology. What our future looks like is continuing to drive best-in-class recommendations, looking at the agronomic areas that have some commonality and treating those areas differently. We know that when you generalize a large, large area, some of those areas will respond better than others. And what we have done is create these different like-agronomic environments, if you will, to understand that we’re going to treat these types of soils and these types of environments differently than others. And it’s all in the ambition to create the best, world-class recommendations. To ultimately drive the highest return to land and management and using data insights and performance analytics to do that.

RENEE HANSEN: But what about these growers who have tried this before? And they’re just like: ‘You know what? This didn’t work.’

DARREN FEHR: We come across that all the time. This is probably one of the most common discussions we have: ‘Why should I come back to precision ag when I’ve been there, done that, and it didn’t work?’ And I would say part of the differentiation here is the way we organize the farm, the way we create zones, the way we create recommendations and the way we actually do the analytics gives a way more comprehensive view of the farm. One of the differences is that we share in the learning. It’s a journey that we learn together with our customers. We create new knowledge to look for new benchmarks, new high watermarks, if you will, in productivity. That’s been a really key testimonial from some of our existing customers: ‘I have learned so much in this process.’

RENEE HANSEN: You’ve mentioned benchmarking a couple times, and benchmarking comes from data. Premier Crop has and houses a lot of data for our customers, so how important? We talked about some of the trends going in precision ag, and some of that is predictive analytics. Some of that is machine learning. What is Premier Crop doing to stay relevant in that space to continue with this benchmarking in this huge source of data that we are sitting on?

DARREN FEHR: Yes, definitely, some of our new recommendation tools will most definitely have machine learning data concepts involved. We have developed a lot of different recipes for different agronomic environments based on actual data over time, based on the soil environments. So we’re really not doing that much on predictive analytics, but we’re focused on prescriptive analytics. And that would be probably our key data science tool that we’re using in the platform that we’ll be launching next fall.

RENEE HANSEN: And you said not necessarily an algorithm, but more of a methodology that our data scientist is working on and working through to figure out, you say, best-in-class recommendations, the best recommendations. Why is that so important? Why is finding the best recommendations so important for the farmer tomorrow? 

DARREN FEHR: Well, I think it comes down to, maybe, one of our core values, and that is getting data right. Data accuracy has been a really incredibly important part of what we do. Everything falls apart if we don’t have the right data going in. Then, the benchmarking part is we know that there are similar environments out there with dramatically different productivity spectrums. So what we’re trying to do is understand and learn from those similar environments, to say: ‘Why did one area do better than the other? And can we actually bring up all of the productivity for that type of area through some of this shared journey?’ The other part of that is to drive a higher watermark. We’re definitely looking at some of our own R&D initiatives to look for new productivity levels. That’s all part of our innovation journey over the next two years.

RENEE HANSEN: What would you say to a grower or an advisor or a partner who is not yet working with Premier Crop? Why should they come on board? Why is this such an exciting time within Premier Crop’s footprint and moving forward?

DARREN FEHR: Well, number one, I see more farmers wanting to be professional farmers. And what I mean by that is I am farming with a purpose. I am farming with a purpose to be as efficient as I can be. I want to be profitable. This is a lifestyle that I love. It’s great for our family, and we want it to be here and in better shape than we left it. We have this whole story around farmers. Farmers are getting bigger. They’re getting better. I think it’s important that every professional farmer has a data partner that they can rely on. Trust and credibility and confidence are really key factors in this story of getting better and farming more efficiently. There are a lot of factors to that. I think we’re one that should be considered as farmers strive to hit higher profitability benchmarks.

RENEE HANSEN: You talk about profitability. We didn’t really mention that in the beginning. We sit on all of this data. We’re talking about benchmarking, and we also go into the agronomic. But Premier Crop is also really about economics too. That’s a highly important part of the direction that we’re going, to continue to have a farmer be profitable. So we’ve come up with a yield efficiency score. We launched that over a year ago. We’re going to continue with that too, on top of these best recommendations. So tell me a little bit more about how the pairing of that will really move the needle forward for Premier Crop.

DARREN FEHR: Well, I think the context of this is for two decades or more, the success metric has been yield, and what we very quickly realized many years ago is all yield is not created equal. Some yield requires a lot more inputs and a lot more effort than others, and what we’re looking at is managing. In this quest to manage variability, let’s also manage costs through that variability. That’s where the concept of yield efficiency came from. And it makes perfect sense because we find that more and more people are looking for some type of performance analytics in both areas of agronomy and economics and farm finance. I think we’re responding to a market need. I don’t see a lot of people wanting to go into this space. It’s complex. It is not easy for us to do this, but we are very focused on improving yield efficiency with our farmer customers. So we have our lead advisor network also very much in tune with this idea and this concept. We’re really proud of this direction and committed to it, as well.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, I like how you mentioned one of our core values of data accuracy. But I think when it comes down to it, Premier Crop, since day one, has always been about the success of the farmer. How can we continue to make the farmer more efficient, more profitable? Help them also with their agronomy, their analytics, and Premier Crop is going to stay true to that moving forward in the future, as well.

DARREN FEHR: Yeah, I would definitely say that, as a culture of our company, I’ve never seen a group of people more committed to customers than this group. Everything we do is focused on our customers. We work through our partners and with our partners. But at the end of the day, if our customers are not performing at a higher level, we realize that they have other options. Our goal is to be the highest performing partner/service provider possible.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and we even see that through the feedback. So we really thank our partners and customers who work with us every day and continue to work with us in the future. Thank you, Darren. I really appreciate your insight, your perspective. Is there anything you’d like to leave us with as we leave the podcast today?

DARREN FEHR: Well, it’s an exciting time. We’re getting through a bit of a technology bubble, and I think we’re settling into what is the emerging technology that will advance agriculture. I feel like we’re in a great position. I feel like we’re squarely centered in that. We’ll be focusing a little more on mobile solutions and some on in-season and crop diagnostics but focused on soil more so than some of the above-ground metrics. So look for that. We have an exciting innovation pipeline ahead of us, and we’re excited to deploy that over the next three years.

RENEE HANSEN: Great. Thanks, Darren. 

DARREN FEHR: Take care. Thank you.

RENEE HANSEN: Thanks for listening to the Premier Podcast, where everything agronomic is economic. Please subscribe, rate and review this podcast so we can continue to provide the best precision ag and analytic results for you. And to learn more about Premier Crop, visit our blog at premiercrop.com.