041: Fall Tillage Practices and Cover Crops

cover crops

In this episode, we speak with Josh Sponheim, Agronomic Advisor in the North Central Iowa region with Premier Crop. Josh digs in on the topic of fall tillage and whether or not to use cover crops on your operation.

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RENEE HANSEN: Hi, everybody, and welcome to the Premier Podcast. Thanks for joining us today. Today, I have Josh Sponheim with me, and I’ll have Josh introduce himself. And we’re going to talk about the benefits of fall tillage. So, Josh, go ahead and introduce yourself.

JOSH SPONHEIM: Hi, everybody. This is Josh Sponheim. I’m an agronomic information advisor for Premier Crop up here in north-central Iowa. I think this is my seventh season with Premier, so I’ve been here quite a while now.

RENEE HANSEN: Awesome. Thanks, Josh. Since we’re going to talk about tillage, give us a little bit of background of why tillage is so important to you and some of the background that you have.

JOSH SPONHEIM: And it’s probably not the fact that tillage is important. It’s the lack of tillage that’s more important to me and what we have found on our own farm through the years. My father actually started strip-tilling back in the early 2000s and continued to do that on our own ground, as well as having a custom business for quite a few years. He has since sold that business, but the gentleman that has bought that has continued to do a lot of custom acres. Up in our area, primarily in Mitchell County, the adoption of strip-till has been very large and probably due to the fact that there were three or four people that started in the early 2000s, along with dad, that were pretty vocal about what they were seeing and what kind of benefits that they were really getting from reducing tillage and going to that strip-till pass.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so tell us: what are some of those benefits that you guys see?

JOSH SPONHEIM: Probably one of the biggest benefits we’ve seen is you’re only tilling a strip at six to eight inches wide, rather than tilling the entire soil surface, which greatly reduces, for us up here, wind erosion that we tend to get in the wintertime, especially if we don’t have a lot of snow cover. Now, in other areas, the strip-till would also help with water erosion, as well, especially in the spring. But for us up here, it’s primarily wind. The other thing that we really like is when we’re knifing in or using the coulter machines, we’re putting that PNK fertilizer right underneath where that plant is going to be growing next year. So we’re being very efficient with the fertilizer placement. And what we’ve seen up here is we can start a guy with a strip-till that has been full of tillage and not see a reduction in yield.

So that’s been the big benefit: when somebody starts doing a different tillage method, we can maintain that same yield. And what we’ve found over the years is yields have actually started to increase on our own farms and some of these other guys that have been long-term strip-till. Then, most of the guys that started back in the early 2000s up here have actually switched all their ground to no-till. So we’ve actually gone the full load up here. Where we started, when I was a kid, we were plowing, still. Then, dad started doing strip-till, and now we are no-tilling the long-term fields that have been strip-tilled for 10-plus years.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so tell me that. Why did you guys switch to no-till?

JOSH SPONHEIM: The switch to no-till was probably a push from some people around here, just saying: ‘You talk about how strip-till is always that transition phase from full tillage to no-till, but you haven’t switched yet.’ So we tried a farm. We split a farm in half, and it was a night-and-day difference. I think it was a 15 to 20 bushels difference in yield on the corn. We saw better width with the no-till, and I think that was because it was a drier spring. We conserved more of the moisture, and so we’ve since switched those farms that had been long-term strip-till into no-till.

RENEE HANSEN: There’s a lot of talk when it comes to soil health right now, and it’s kind of a hot topic. How does this impact soil health?

JOSH SPONHEIM: The less we disturb that soil, the more we’re going to improve that soil health by allowing the fungi to continue to grow into long strands that we have in the soil, allowing the bacteria to continue what they’re degrading or trying to decompose in that area. Basically, trying not to disturb their homes, really, is what it is. And by doing that, then, we get a larger population in the soil of the bacteria fungi that are a good benefit to us. Not only do they help break down the prior crops’ leaves and stock that we have left out there, but they’re also mining and bringing some of that additional N, P and K from deeper in the soil that our crops may not get at.

RENEE HANSEN: Before we hit record on this podcast, I had asked you a question that, when it comes to strip-till, or just tillage in general, was: they were saying something about the combine and how a combine can affect how you should be tilling your acres. So can you explain the conversation a little bit that we were having about that?

JOSH SPONHEIM: Sure can. So the big thing we’re finding, as these combines have gotten to the size they are today — and we’re running 45-50 foot beam platforms or draper heads on the front of these things — we’re seeing a real issue with trying to spread that crop residue out behind the combine the same width as the head. And if we don’t get that accomplished, especially if we’re looking at doing no-till, we’re going in and out of different soil temperatures in the spring. Where they’re right behind the combine, where we have more, that soil is going to tend to be cooler in the spring than on the outside. Where we didn’t spread anything, it’s probably going to be a little bit warmer just because it doesn’t have that layer on top, and that sun is hitting more bare dirt.

So what we really like to preach is we need to spread the residue out behind the combine evenly, the same width as the head. That way, we have a uniform layer out there come spring, that it’s a lot easier to set the planter and move the right amount in the spring to keep that seedbed clean for us.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and you said that this is something that they can adjust.

JOSH SPONHEIM: Correct. We are finding, though, as we get into the 45 and 50-foot heads — which we don’t have a lot of those up here, of course, but in other areas of the U.S. where they do have them — it gets really tough to spread that far. And I understand that these guys are trying to be more efficient and take more crop out quicker, but then we’ve got to remember what the implications down the road might be for us for that next crop year.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so how are you advising some of your growers that you’re working with for some of these decisions? How do you tell them to strip-till or tell them to no-till? How do you have that conversation?

JOSH SPONHEIM: It’s different for every person. What we’ve learned is that it is a complete mindset change. So that grower has to have interest in it. If he doesn’t, I’m not going to push the issue. Of course, I would love everybody to switch to strip-till and then down the road to no-till, but I understand that some guys aren’t in that mindset. They want to keep doing things the way they have been doing. And it’s not that it’s always bad what they’re doing, but I think there are better ways, from a long-term farming standpoint, to do things differently when it comes to soil health and keeping soil around for the next generation of farmers.

So it’s, like I said, a mindset change, and that has to come from that grower. And a lot of times what it gets into is talking about yields, talking about what the cost of equipment is going to be. The nice thing in this area up here is we have a lot of guys that do some custom work. So guys can try it for a couple years before they go make the investment on their own strip-till rig, if it will be. It’s just a simple conversation, and put that bug in their ear and let them think on it, ponder on it. And usually, about a year or two later, it transforms into a more in-depth conversation on what exactly is involved in switching into those, whether it’s strip-till or into no-till or whatever it may be.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah. So, after they’ve done it a couple years, what kind of data, or do you have any data examples that you share with them that help them continue doing the type of tillage behavior that they want to continue with?

JOSH SPONHEIM: I have all kinds of data that I can pull up from guys that have switched in the past. And like I mentioned earlier, we have never really seen a yield decrease when we switched a guy from full-width tillage to strip-till. However — I learned this with Premier too, of course — the best is to see the data on their own farms. So we can start pulling that apart with Premier Crop Systems and say: ‘No, this did not hurt us in yield, and maybe you even gained a little bit in yield.’ And this year, with the dry weather we had, some of my higher-yielding guys are the ones that have reduced tillage to almost nothing, just because we conserve every drop of moisture we had in the soil in the spring, which was pretty crucial when we were, I think, in this area, roughly eight inches of rain behind until August. From April one until August one, we were way behind on moisture. And the guys that reduced tillage, you could definitely see it in the crop this year.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so I like seeing a trend that a lot of people are moving more toward this no-till, but wouldn’t that also help with operational efficiency? You’re talking: you’re not using your equipment as much. You’re not harder on your equipment. What are some of those other benefits?

JOSH SPONHEIM: Yes, there’s reduced wear and tear. Some of the other things we’ve noticed, especially in a wetter fall: as what we call the soil transitions or changes for us, it has more core space. It has more structure. And in a wetter fall, we don’t cut the roots like somebody else that may be doing full-width tillage does. We may leave an inch or two print, while they are sinking into the depths of their tillage layer. So that definitely helps in the fall, but the nice thing with the strip-till is you get it done in the fall, and that’s the last pass you do. You can come back and plant it and then spray. So it definitely reduces one or two trips out of that system for us too. Especially if fuel continues to go up too, we’re burning a lot less fuel. Then, when we make a trip in the fall with a ripper, we come back in the spring, and we run the soil finisher on it maybe once, maybe twice, depending on how well it worked up.

So, yeah, we are definitely going to reduce trips, reduce fuel. We have reduced our equipment line here, what we have. Basically, we have a strip-till machine and a planter. And I’m not saying tillage doesn’t have its place because I actually had to go buy a disk because on one of the farms I rent, they tiled, and I had to work on tile lines. With a strip-till, that is one thing that doesn’t happen. So I’m not saying tillage needs to be abandoned completely. There are times where it’s needed, but the more we can reduce it, the better off we’re going to be, I think, in the long run. 

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and compaction too. What about compaction?

JOSH SPONHEIM: So I was once told by a guy that had been long-term strip-till and also was very involved in soil health studies, he said: ‘There’s no piece of iron in the world that’ll take out the compaction that is put in by another piece of iron.’ We need Mother Nature to do that with our freeze-thaw cycle, as well as the other thing we like to add into a guy’s system as he starts to reduce tillage: cover crops. And let that living root help bust up that compaction for us.

RENEE HANSEN: Well, you just segued into my next question of what I was looking for. 

JOSH SPONHEIM: So did you like that?

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, what about cover crops?

JOSH SPONHEIM: Yup. So, for us, the cover crop game has been very important up here. Once again, for us, it’s primarily probably wind erosion we have up here, rather than other areas of the state that are probably more for water and where you have slope. But for us, it’s primarily wind, and there are some areas here too that it’ll help with water too. But the big thing is having a living root or a living plant in that soil as long as we can.

Right now, we miss out on probably five to six months, where in a traditional system, we have no plant growing in that soil. And that soil doesn’t like that. It is a living, breathing thing that we need to feed, and cover crops definitely add that. In my mind, what I like to tell guys is we are trying to still produce high-yielding crops — corn and soybeans, primarily, in this area — but mimic the prairies as best we can. We’re trying to go back to what we had before they broke the prairie. We want that living plant out there. We want different species of plants out there that add all kinds of benefits, whether it’s bringing in different bacteria, or it’s just a different type of root structure out there.

RENEE HANSEN: What type of cover crops are you recommending or happening up in your area?

JOSH SPONHEIM: Up in our area, there are a lot of people who say you can’t grow cover crops in north-central Iowa. We’re too far north. We don’t have enough growing season up here, but we’ve been proving those guys wrong since 2012. We have learned quite a bit up here. There are a lot of species of cover crops that they can use in southern Iowa or other states further south that we can’t get to grow up here. Well, they’ll grow, but we don’t get a lot of benefit out of them because we don’t have enough heat. So, primarily up here, we’ve had very good luck with cereal rye. It’s kind of about as bulletproof as you can get with a cover crop. It tolerates cold very well. It germinates in very cold soils and starts very quickly. It’ll actually grow on concrete as long as it’s got sun and moisture. That’s how tough this stuff is. So it works really well, whether we want to put it on a plain, a guy wants to drill it. It’s just very diverse on how well it works for us in a lot of different scenarios.

RENEE HANSEN: How well does that also help with weed pressure?

JOSH SPONHEIM: If we can get a good, solid, consistent stand in the fall, since cereal rye will overwinter for us and will start growing probably at the end of March up here if we get some warmer weather, it is unbelievable what it does for weed control. Especially, the big one we fight up here is waterhemp. And if we get a nice, solid stand of cereal rye growing to cover, it will basically knock that waterhemp pressure back to zero. I’m not going to say it is zero, but it’s probably less than 5% compared to if we were just going to leave it, nothing growing out there, and we go and do our normal stuff in the spring. And I have a couple farms that it’s really bad on. In the areas where I may not have the best stand of cereal rye, that’s where the waterhemp is at. Where I have good stands of cereal rye, there’s not any waterhemp there. It is unbelievable how well it works for weed control out there. So that’s another benefit too. We’ve seen, by reducing our tillage, we get the full benefit out of these covers. Because if you’re wanting to put a cover on it and then work it up, well, then you just killed that plant or killed a lot of them, and we don’t see that benefit out of it. 

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and so I’m going to go down this. I know that you’re also passionate — I’ve talked to you before — about sustainability, and this whole carbon sequestration conversation is a really hot topic right now. How does this — strip-till, no-till, cover crops — fit into this carbon sequestration conversation?

JOSH SPONHEIM: That’s about the only way that it’s really going to work. We need to reduce tillage because, as we till ground, we actually release carbon in the air, and that is from the organic matter starting to break down. As we add more air to it, it breaks down even faster, and we release that carbon. So, by leaving that soil untouched — and I shouldn’t say completely untouched like we do with a strip-till — we just do a very small area. Then, between the rows, we have areas that are untouched, and we are not breaking down that organic matter out there very fast. And we’re pulling, actually, more carbon into that than we are releasing throughout the year.

Cover crops just add another page to that, or another layer to that, because they are growing year round for us, especially this one, like cereal rye, that will overwinter for us. Granted that plant isn’t growing up here necessarily in the winter and adding leaf area or root, but it is still alive. It is still respiring. There are still microbes in the soil feeding on it, pulling in carbon from the air. So it’s one of those things that, to really get the full benefit of capturing that carbon, we need to reduce tillage and add some cover crop, to some degree, in there, so we have something there all year long for us.

RENEE HANSEN: So how does this tie back to Premier Crop? All of this soil health, fall tillage, carbon sequestration? What can Premier Crop help a grower with?

JOSH SPONHEIM: The carbon program is still so new, and it’s hard to really and truly understand where we’re going to be, in five years with it, on what we can track. I would say the biggest thing for guys that are in Premier Crop is we have the ability to go back and query just that yield environment and say: ‘Here’s what the strip-till did. Here’s what the full tillage did.’ Or even if you want to throw in a three-way, and the guy tried the no-till right away too, we have that ability to dig down and really come to a true yield on their farm, on what system gives them the best return. And that’s probably the other one too: it’s not necessarily, at the end of the day, 100% on yield, but what their net return is. And as we reduce those trips, we have reduced costs. So we can give up a bushel or two on things and still maintain the same income at the end of the year, and that’s what Premier can really provide. It’s those kinds of numbers.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, I totally agree with you. How many of your growers in your area are doing cover crops right now?

JOSH SPONHEIM: Of the customers that I have in Premier Crop, I would say probably, maybe, a quarter of them to a third of them are using a lot of cover crops. Then, I have a few other guys that are just starting to play with them. They’re trying a field here or there and seeing what happens with it. That’s another thing I always push the guys I work with to do. It’s not a: ‘One year. I’m done.’ We need to do this for three or four years to really understand what’s going on, on your own farm, and make a decision from it. Not just this: ‘One year, I’m in. And I don’t think that it works, and then I’m going to try something different right away.’ We need to try this long-term because it’s really a long-term benefit: the soil health and reducing our tillage out there. It’s not a one or two-year thing. It’s a five to 10-year type investment.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, I agree with you so much in that sense because I also feel like that has happened a lot with some growers when it comes to variable rate with anything, whether that is with their fertilizer or their seeding, that they tried it one year, and they’re like: ‘Well, I just didn’t see anything.’ So does it pay? Why am I going to waste the money on utilizing the equipment that I have or getting a service? But I think it’s so beneficial that you said it takes more than one year to see the benefits of it. You have to continue doing it, at least two to three years, to look at the data and then see what management practices you want to change or implement moving forward.

JOSH SPONHEIM: Right, and that’s the nice thing of having Premier Crop in the background: we have that historical data already stored in the system, and we can go back and query against it and see how things have changed over the last three or four years. It just gives us that in-depth reporting and the ability to track things long-term too.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and I liked what you said earlier in our conversation too, that it’s not only for the grower’s operation, but we can also look within our query data set against a group — whether that be in the area, whether that be in the state, whether that be just in a region — to look and see if those management practices are beneficial for that specific field in that specific area. 

JOSH SPONHEIM: That is correct.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah. Thanks, Josh. Really appreciate talking with you today and all of your knowledge. Is there anything else that you would like to add before we close?

JOSH SPONHEIM: I guess not at this time, other than go out and try it. And try it for 3-4 years, and I’m going to bet that it’ll surprise you: what you find by trying some of these different things out there.

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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Free Resources:

040: The Importance of Yield Efficiency, Group Data, and Benchmarking w/Sarah Windhorst

yield efficiency dashboard

Sarah Windhorst is the VP of Data Services at Premier Crop. With over a decade of experience in ag data, Sarah digs in to some of the main areas to focus on with data on your operation. We cover the importance of yield efficiency, group data, and benchmarking to track improvement.

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

RENEE HANSEN: Hi, Sarah, and welcome to the Premier Podcast. Thanks for joining us today. I know that you’ve been with Premier Crop for close to, or a little over, 12 years. So I know you have a ton of experience and knowledge, and I really wanted to get you on here to share some of your information that you have worked through over all these years and most recently with what Premier Crop has been coming out with: yield efficiency scores. And I just wanted to have you first introduce yourself, and then we’ll just get more into the topic.

SARAH WINDHORST: Yeah. Hey, Renee. Thank you. It’s great to be here and visit with you. Yeah, so, like you said, I’ve been with Premier Crop for quite a while. Most of my career, really. I’ve kind of done quite a few things for the company. I started working in our advisor support team, which is, in my opinion, a great place to start. Really get to understand everything that we do in the background, how we manage data, how we put data into our system, all the nuances of the work that goes into really making Premier Crop be an amazing database. And I have also spent a lot of time working with some of our external partners, spent some time managing some of our retail accounts and working with them closely. Then, I’ve also done quite a bit helping us understand how we can do trials on farm and help our retail partners, help our growers do more on-farm research on their own. So I spent a lot of years doing that and now, in the last few years, managing our data services team, which is kind of back to my roots, working with the team that is directly handling the data and putting data into our system. So, with that, I’ve got at least a decent understanding of everything that we do and how our system works and just the ins and outs of it. So I’m excited to talk to you today about yield efficiency and just where we’re going with that.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, great history you have with Premier Crop, Sarah. So thanks again for joining us. Let’s just get into our topic, about: what is yield efficiency? And why has Premier Crop decided to focus on yield efficiency?

SARAH WINDHORST: Yeah, I’ll start by answering that with a little bit of background just about who Premier Crop is. And for those of you that maybe are tuning in here for the first time, I just wanted to talk about what we really strive to be as a company. And ultimately, we are an agronomy company. We’ve been supporting advisors and growers for 20-plus years, and we really understand yield is a key measurement that growers are really focused on. We’ve really worked a lot over the years with our customer base to understand just how different parts of your field are impacted by changes in rates, products, application, timing and different methods. We’ve really focused on building new agronomy knowledge. We’re trying to give growers easy ways to test ideas and check what works and see what they think is going to increase yield on their own fields and put methods in their hands that they can really do some of that on-farm testing themselves. And that’s been really popular with growers. We know growers are always trying to find what’s going to move the needle. How can we push the limits of what they’re trying to achieve in their fields, just to get to a place that they haven’t been before? Our advisors are absolutely at the heart of that, and yield efficiency is just a new metric to try to understand how we can measure what’s working and what’s not working. We’re also really aware that sometimes high yields come at a really high cost. So it’s easy for growers to chase high yields and try to win that high-yield contest. But ultimately, when it comes at a high cost, the question is: is that really sustainable? Is that really worth it? I think growers know there are areas within every field that you farm that will never, or at least inconsistently, be the top performing part of the field. No matter how many specialty products you use or how much fertilizer you put on, you can’t overcome the effects of a sand hill or a drainage problem, for example.

If those parts of your fields are treated the same, oftentimes you’re throwing away input dollars. On the flip side, there are phenomenal parts of your field that can be pushed even harder than you think. And if we want to really help growers learn and improve their operations, we understand we’ve got to answer the questions: what’s the return? Does it really pay? Rather than just helping them strive after high yields alone. So it really means that the conversation isn’t just about agronomy, and it isn’t just about economics. We’ve got to tie those two together in a really tangible way for growers. So yield efficiency is a metric that we’ve created to help growers understand if they are profitable at each field level based on their inputs and their yield and then a benchmark selling price that you can input and change on the fly. While you can see yield efficiency scores at a whole farm operation level, you can also see it field by field. So it helps farmers know which fields are making them the most money and, ultimately, whether the management practices they’re using are as profitable as they can be. We’re trying to help growers understand what’s driving yield agronomically. We know high yields don’t always translate to high profits. So, adding yield efficiency as this kind of new measuring stick, advisors and growers can see not just through the agronomic lens but the economic lens, as well. So it kind of also gives you an easy way to benchmark against your peers in an anonymous but really powerful way. So you’ve got this field view. You’ve got a grower-level view, and then you’ve got the ability to look at your operation against others that are part of the Premier Crop network, if you will. That was a long answer.

RENEE HANSEN: No, that was excellent, and that’s great. But I do have a question because we talk about high yields and how sometimes, a lot of the time, that has been a metric for growers: how to measure their yield, that they’re improving year over year. And you said it can sometimes be at a high cost. However, with the markets where they are right now, I mean, it seems like it’s comfortable to continue to chase after yields. Why would a grower need to dive down, or how would they view that yield efficiency to let them know at what cost this is to their benefit or not to their benefit?

SARAH WINDHORST: Sure. Yeah, and we’ve seen that in years past, right? When grain prices soar, it seems a lot easier to say: ‘Okay, now is the time. I can go chase those inputs.’ But at the same time as we’re watching grain prices soar, we’re also seeing input costs go really high too. So, I mean, at the end of the day, as markets change and as prices change, no matter where you are year to year, you can’t really know how profitable you are, unless you’re doing a great job of recording every input cost, as it varies across your field too, and then comparing that back against your yield. It just becomes more and more important as there are more dollars at stake, I think. And we can talk a little bit more later about some specific examples too, Renee, where we can understand: what is the impact? I’ve got some of that prepared for you too today.

RENEE HANSEN: Well, great. Yeah, because I was going to ask: what are the metrics that a grower needs to see the yield efficiency score? What do they need to record, so they can check if they are actually profiting in that part of the field?

SARAH WINDHORST: Yeah, it’s really simple. We want yield efficiency to be simple. While it’s a new concept, it’s really not. All you’re doing is adding up input costs, and you subtract your input costs from the yield. And you multiply that by your sale price for the bushels that you’re able to sell on that yield. The only thing that we’re leaving out of that equation is land costs and management costs. And the reason we’re doing that is, really, just leaving some room for a grower to have some privacy from their advisor and, at the same time, still supply enough information to gain insights into their own operation. It becomes a number that is really easy to understand. If you’ve got a yield efficiency score of $500, you know right away, as a grower: ‘Okay, well, what am I paying for land?’ And that might be different if it’s owned or if it’s rented, but right away, in your head, you can subtract out what you’re spending on land. And whatever’s left, that’s your return. That’s how much you have left to pay yourself, and that can be considered your profit, then.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so you keep talking about these scores, and what do they look like? How does a grower physically see these measurements?

SARAH WINDHORST: On our website, we’ve got a dashboard that has a ton of great visuals to show you, really, what your yield efficiency score is. It shows you what the range of the score is. As you walk into looking at your yield efficiency dashboard on our website, you would choose all the way down to a field level. And at the field level, you can see what the yield efficiency is for that one field, but it’s kind of showing you on this gauge. And on that same gauge, you can see what your lowest yield efficiency was for other fields that you farm and then, also, what your highest field efficiency was. And it kind of shows you, depending on what field you’re ‘on,’ you can see, then, where that land in the range of yield efficiency is that you have on your own operation. And there, again, if you’re looking at it from the grower level, it would show you that against a group. When you’re part of Premier Crop, you have the ability to benchmark against other growers in your region. We create regional groups that can be really hyper-local, where they’re just your neighborhood even, or they can be much broader geographies. It kind of depends on what you’re trying to understand. But, then, if you’re benchmarking, at that level, you would see your grower average yield efficiency for all of your fields as it compares to other operations that are also in our network. But yeah, a lot of visuals try to make it really easy to understand. It’s all web-based, so you can view it anywhere on your mobile device or however you want to access the web.

RENEE HANSEN: Right, and so it’s not like you’re looking at a spreadsheet and trying to find the numbers. You can visually see this pretty easily. So how would you say that’s different from other competitors in the marketplace?

SARAH WINDHORST: Yeah, I don’t know that anybody has this level of detail that we do, Renee. I think there are a lot of people that are really focused on agronomics and a lot that are really focused on economics. You could even say that there are some that are tying together agronomics and economics, really, at a broader whole-operation perspective. But what we’re trying to do here is, really, just taking it down to the field and even the sub-field level. So another thing that you can get — we’re talking about yield efficiency, but another thing that you can see when you’ve got all of this information in Premier Crop — you can also get a cost-per-bushel map. And you can see visually, even at a sub-field level, what it costs you throughout a field as you have increases or decreases in yield and as you have increases or decreases in your input costs. So those roll up at a field level for a yield efficiency score. We even go to that sub-field level to help you understand if your variable-rate applications are even paying.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and you had mentioned not a lot of, or if any, other competitors have something like this because we’re entering in all the cost data for the products. But you’re also uploading all of these data layers that have been applied — your true actual yield — and it’s merging it all together to create this score.

SARAH WINDHORST: That’s right. Thanks for calling that out because that’s a really important key. We’re not just inputting what was your whole farm average for X, Y and Z. We’re doing a lot of work. We’re doing a lot of work. The advisors are doing a lot of work to collect data from growers, making it easy for growers. But yeah, we’re starting from building a plan for a field that includes a variable-rate prescription for fertilizer, a variable-rate prescription for seed if, in fact, the grower is doing that. That certainly isn’t a limiting factor for us, but we’ve got variable-rate prescriptions that are going out to the field. We’ve got as-applied data that’s coming back from the field, and all of that can be layers that are impacting your yield efficiency score. So you could say we’ve got the real cost, right? It’s not just an average. We’ve got the real cost, including what was actually applied.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, there are no guesstimates here. This is the true story. Yeah, so you said you had an example to share. So go ahead and share with us the example that you have prepared.

SARAH WINDHORST: Sure. Okay, so I wanted to try and walk through numbers. I know sometimes it’s hard to walk through numbers when we’re just listening to audio. But hopefully, you can, as you’re listening, pause and rewind and try to really understand what I’m taking you through here. Okay, so yield efficiency, we’re saying, is made up of four segments of input costs: seed, chem, fert and operations. So, if we take a specific example, I’ve got a grower who, last year, had an owned field versus a rented field that we were trying to understand how they compared to one another. And this grower was trying to decide if they should be renting more ground or not: ‘Is my rented land being profitable? And should we go after more acres?’ So, in this example, this owned piece of land, their seed costs were at $98. Their chem costs were $45. The fertilizer was $113, and operations were $119. That particular field didn’t have amazing yields last year: 198 bushels on average. If we used last year, just at the end of the year, as we were seeing some increase in the market, their grain sale price was $3.98 a bushel. So, when we used those numbers, the yield efficiency for that field was $414. That’s the number that’s not including land and management. So, right away, as a grower, as you’re training your brain to what yield efficiency is, you say: ‘Okay, so that $414, I’ve got to hold back whatever I’m considering my land costs.’ Now, like I say, this is an owned piece of ground. So this is where it can be tricky, and why we don’t include land as part of a metric, because some growers might want to change how much they’re attributing on their own ground. So, in this case, for them to pay taxes and a small land payment, we’re calling it $120 per acre as their land costs. So there’s something assigned there, but it’s certainly not as much as rented ground would be. So, if you just take $414 minus $120, we’re saying that they made $294 per acre on that field. That’s what they’ve got left to pay themselves. Their profit, I mean, that’s the number. So that’s a pretty good number in my mind. 

Okay, so same grower: if we compared that to a rented field that they had, their costs were similar, but their soil tests on that rented field weren’t as good. So we were working with them to have a higher spend on their fertilizer inputs to try to raise some of those soil test values. So they spend a little more on fertilizer. Their seed costs here are $105, a little bit higher. Fertilizer was $134 average and quite a bit more in some parts of the field than that. But overall, averaged, that was $30 higher on fertilizer spend. Chemicals were $50, and their operations were the same at $119. So the yield on that field actually was far better. It was 220 bushels. So, if you use the same sale price, that rented field’s yield efficiency was $466 compared to that $414. So, even with a higher overall spend to try to build up fertility, they made $52 more per acre. Okay, we also saw some amazing correlations to the applied potassium as compared to yield on that field. So we were also running some tests and trying to understand: is this additional fertilizer actually paying? And we did. We saw some increases. We saw some really clear increases from that applied potassium to yield. And it was a very boring application, and we had some learning blocks in there. So we had the ability to really hone in on what was responsible for the agronomic impact, and we thought that that applied potassium was. So, okay, now this is a rented field. The rent is $275. So it only left them $191 for their profit. That’s compared to the $294 on their own field. So we learned a few things. Number one: first of all, both of those fields were profitable, which is amazing. I would say very profitable. They did pretty well. But we learned a few things: lower yields on the lower-cost land still had the biggest return on their investment. So, even though the yield was worse with the input cost that they had, there was still a bigger return because their land costs are really low.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, I was going to ask that too when you were explaining this. Okay, wait, that’s great. Their yield efficiency score is $466 over $414, but that’s owned versus rented land.

SARAH WINDHORST: Yes. So, at the end of the day, they do the math for that second piece of the equation, but it’s pretty easy math, right? So the other piece that we learned was higher yields, as they spent more on applied fertility, paid off, and it covered. Remember, they had a higher fertilizer spend. There was a higher fertilizer cost per acre on that rented ground. But at the end of the day, they still ended up with more money in their pocket. So the higher yields covered the higher cost, and it covered the higher cost of the land. So we had a really key learning: it encouraged us to focus more on building potassium levels even higher, even in their own ground. So, this year, they ended up going after trying to build fertility on their own ground too and figured if we could achieve the 220 bushels on that ground, they could increase their profits by another $87 per acre at those same prices. I’m not done with the analysis for ‘21, but if we drew that into ‘21, the owned field that we were looking at in that example did have far better yields: 225-plus this year. Obviously, the grain prices are there. They’re great, so we know that they’re going to see a really good return this year. And we had increased their fertilizer spend by quite a bit this year. So they’re spending a lot, really trying to build up the ground. Some of those prices are high. Some people, obviously, have significantly different input prices, maybe have great fertility and aren’t spending as much on fertilizer. They don’t have to try to build, but where these guys are at, some of their potassium levels are 240-plus. But there are parts of the field that were under 100 parts per million of potassium. We’ve definitely got areas to work on but are finding that, even while working on that, they can still have really great profits as you use this metric to understand: did it pay or not?

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, Sarah, I think this is a great example of how a grower can make a decision for next year. And I guess my question is: what made you guys think that you wanted to look at potassium specifically?

SARAH WINDHORST: That’s where it comes back to the agronomics and why, really, at Premier Crop, we partner with advisors, and we employ some advisors. But it’s really about that conversation that you’re probably already having with the grower as an advisor, trying to chase after high yields. I mean, really, you’re looking at, agronomically, what’s lacking, and what do we need to do? So, in this case, it was obvious because they had some fertility issues that they wanted to try to tackle. If you’re just talking to a grower about having a higher spend on potassium, let’s say, that’s a tricky conversation. There’s got to be some convincing done there. Well, how do I know it’s going to pay? How can I be sure that that’s going to have a payback? And in this case, we had the example of this rented field, where we had learning blocks out, and we had a really clear correlation that we saw some increases even from the applied fertility. It was a really easy conversation when we had put out some trials, had results from that from the prior year and then were trying to make decisions in that same thread. So, yeah, it’s all back to just trying to tie in a way to help bolster the agronomic knowledge with solid economic data.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, I think that’s a great example that you just explained of how a grower can make decisions for next year. Not only on that field alone, but they also changed it for some of their other fields, so their other fields could profit based on that information. So this is an excellent conversation, Sarah. I really appreciate you explaining more about yield efficiency and how Premier Crop can help a grower make decisions for next year based off of visuals and group benchmarking and the dashboards that we’re able to show them. There are a lot of conversations that go into it. It’s not just a pretty picture that they look at and say: ‘Okay, now I’m going to make a decision.’ There are advisor conversations, like you said, that go based on economics and agronomics. So, if there’s anything else you’d like to add, or how people can get ahold of Premier Crop, that’d be great.

SARAH WINDHORST: Yeah, the only other thing I would add is, if you think about that relationship between an advisor and a grower, the other thing that this does is it creates excitement to learn more. So we’ve got growers who — even if they, historically, are like, yeah, sure, whatever you say — who’s got growers that are all of a sudden engaging and wanting to really talk through their decisions and having powerful tools to use in those discussions. We’re just bringing growers to the table in a new way. And we’ve got growers that are really excited about what they’re going to find out next year and people who are just chomping at the bit to see their reports and see their dashboards. As soon as that yield is ready off the combine, sending it in and asking if the data is ready. And: ‘When can I look at my dashboard?’ Because there’s such great information that really does drive them into the next year. And as they’re trying to make decisions and trying to plan for the next crop, that’s really key information to have. So, yeah, it’s been a really great way to just solidify relationships and get people excited about doing better agronomy with economics tied in a really solid way to it.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, that’s a key point, that it is continuous learning, using that advisor. So, yeah, thank you, Sarah, so much. Thanks for joining us, and thanks everybody for listening to the Premier Podcast.

SARAH WINDHORST: Great. Thanks, 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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039: Variable Rate Fertilizer w/Kevin Kruize

fall nitrogen

Kevin Kruize, Strategic Account Manager for the Northern Region at Premier Crop Systems discusses Variable Rate Fertilizer and the options growers have to utilize it on their operation.

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RENEE HANSEN: Welcome to the Premier Podcast, Kevin. It’s good to have you back here.

KEVIN KRUIZE: Hi. Thanks for having me, Renee.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, why don’t you do just a quick introduction of yourself one more time?

KEVIN KRUIZE: Sure. Yeah, my name is Kevin Kruize. I’m the Strategic Account Manager for the Northern Region for Premier Crop Systems. I live in southern Minnesota.

RENEE HANSEN: Great, thanks. Welcome again today. And today, we’re going to talk about fertilizer — the increasing, rising cost of fertilizer — and the need to variable-rate your fertilizer. So, Kevin, can you just tell us what some of the benefits are to variable-rating your fertilizer or your nutrients?

KEVIN KRUIZE: When you think about variable-rating nutrients, there are lots of different things. This year, in particular, with the rising fertilizer costs, there are lots of different ways to look at it. If you take out the cost aspect, really, it’s going down to making sure your different environments of your farm and your fields are getting the adequate nutrients that they need to raise the highest yield and crop potential in each part of the field. When you look at input and the input costs this year, the mentality and the way you want to look at it and how you want to approach it might be a little bit different. You might not be on a build year. You might want to just maintain some of those really high-producing areas and make sure that if you’re limited in nutrients in certain spots, you want to hit those spots to make sure that you’re not losing profit by not fertilizing it because that can easily happen by under-fertilizing.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, elaborate a little bit more. You said you want to produce the highest raised crop potential. You didn’t say yield, so just tell me a little bit about that.

KEVIN KRUIZE: Right. Yeah, a lot of things at Premier Crop, when we work with growers in their operations, yield, obviously, is a huge driver, right? We want higher yields, right? But sometimes the highest yield necessarily isn’t the most profitable, so we want to try to raise and help them raise the most profitable yield that they can across their whole operation. So, when we talk about that with growers, we really break down their fields into different producing parts of the field, where you have your — we like to call them — A Zones, where it’s really aggressive, really driving yield. We want to make sure that we’re hitting the right nutrient targets on those fields and those parts of the field especially, just because we typically find that is your lowest fertility area. Because, over time, you’ve been bringing down those nutrients with high-yielding crops, right?

So, when you start looking at some of your poor-yielding areas in the field, yeah, you might not need to spend any money on that part of the field this year, in particular, because putting that nutrient there might not be getting you any benefit from yield. Because yeah, you want to maybe maintain those areas, but if it’s not going to give you any yield potential for this particular year with the cost of the inputs, you definitely don’t need to spend some money there.

RENEE HANSEN: Well, and it’s not only not spending the money there too, I mean, because you don’t want to over-apply. You don’t want to under-apply, but you’re also being a better steward of the land. So I know that you, in the field, talk about how you could be a better steward utilizing variable-rate in your fertilizer. So talk about that a little more.

KEVIN KRUIZE: Yeah, being a better steward, utilizing variable-rate fertilizer, is a major benefit. Especially if you have different types of regulations and rules in your territory, you want to make sure that you’re not over-applying in areas that don’t need it. It’s just a waste of dollars to your acre and reduces your profit. And if you already have a significant amount of nutrients there, it’s a potential for runoff and going to places that you necessarily don’t want it to be.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so what would a potential cost difference — I don’t know if you have this answer — but what would the potential cost difference be from a flat rate to a variable rate? Do you have a hypothetical situation?

KEVIN KRUIZE: I actually was working with a customer and some groups here earlier this fall when we were going into it. And what I did was I took a look at three different operations, and I wanted to basically figure out how many acres already meet adequate fertility levels, whether it’s where you want it to be for your phosphorus test or your potassium test. And by doing that, I was able to see on three different operations — one in southern Minnesota, one in west-central Minnesota, one in South Dakota — completely different farmers, completely different territories: on the phosphorus for the adequate tests, we were looking at about 50% of the acres. Not quite. About 48% of the acres didn’t necessarily need a phosphorus application. And there were about a couple growers: up to 80% of their acres didn’t necessarily need a potassium application this year. But one of the growers: about 90% of his acres needed some sort of potassium. But when you look at those and put those numbers together, we’re really seeing about a $20 to $40-an-acre swing from using variable rate and putting it exactly where it needed to be versus flat-rating it. If they would’ve flat-rated the whole field based off of even a pretty low spread of 100 pounds of MAP and a 100 pounds of potash, just by putting that 100-pound spread in the areas that were less than adequate, it was a $23 to $30-an-acre savings. That would include your grid sampling fee. So, even above and beyond any soil sampling costs, you’re still saving yourself $30 an acre by variable-rating it versus flat-rating all your fields.

RENEE HANSEN: Then, on top of that, the potential data that we see, you can see that it might be higher yielding in that area too. The economic benefit is significant.

KEVIN KRUIZE: Right. Yeah, most of the time, we have lots of different analytics and reports that help us identify where the highest-yielding potential is versus not. And a lot of the times, when we see the correlations, the highest fertility areas are your lowest-yielding areas anyway. So, by flat-rating a straight rate across all your acres, thinking that’s the easy button and it’s going to save you money, really, in turn, you’re actually spending money in areas that don’t need any fertilizer. And, too, they’re your lower-yielding areas anyway, so they’re not going to give you any return on investment for this year. So, yeah, it’s all about trying to understand your fertility and how it works across your farm.

RENEE HANSEN: So someone could argue that the grower is — depending on whether they have the equipment to do it themselves or not — the grower would have to spend more to have it variable-rate applied. Plus they’re also paying a company like Premier Crop, so those dollars add up. Is there an economic benefit that you see, even though they’re paying for services that are having/utilizing variable-rate fertilizer versus the outcome?

KEVIN KRUIZE: When you start looking at your fields, and if you’re not soil sampling it to a certain level or taking a look and seeing how your yield compares to your different attributes across your farm, it’s kind of a shot in the dark if you’re making any money from the different things that you’re doing or not. There are so many people, or there are so many examples out there where people are just running a standard variable-rate prescription that sometimes they don’t even know what it actually is standing for. So, yeah, they might feel really good that they’re putting a variable-rate spread down. But if you can’t look at the prescription, understand what it means agronomically to your farm, you might be hurting yourself. So it’s really taking a look, stepping back and understanding the economics of what you’re doing. Then, when you do that, like with Premier Crop or spending that extra few dollars to do variable-rate spreading applications, it really, really starts paying you back pretty quickly once you can kind of understand the data.

RENEE HANSEN: Kevin, do you have any specific examples of how you’ve helped a farmer improve their soil fertility utilizing variable-rate fertilizer?

KEVIN KRUIZE: Yeah, there are probably quite a few of them, but one that really sticks in the mind is one group of growers I worked with. I started working with them in 2007, and just a great group of guys. We started looking at their fertility. They came to us and were wondering: ‘How can we improve yields?’ And: ‘Do we need to do some grid sampling and whatnot?’

So we started diving in and taking a look, and we noticed on a couple of their fields that their average soybean crop yield was probably right around 35 bushel on average, which was probably about 20 bushel lower than the county average or that average of that territory. And on their corn, they were running about a 170 to 175-bushel average. But there were a couple of fields that were actually running up in the 200 and up in the 60-bushel beans. We started looking at what the difference was — and they were rented farms — and they had significantly higher fertility levels. So, then, we started doing some good sampling and looking in-depth at what their fields looked like. They had been doing a great job of collecting yield history in the past, which definitely can be a big help in trying to understand how your fields are performing. But what we were able to do is we basically identified the high-yielding areas of each field and the low-yielding areas. And we implemented a pretty aggressive fertility program.

Within five years, we had doubled their soybean yields. They were at 30-bushel soybeans. Now, they’re running 60 to 65-bushel, on average, soybeans, and their corn is running 220-plus. I just actually recently looked back at all of our field variance reports, so we can see, over the years: what are their consistent yield trends on every single field? And they’re still running above 215 average consistently on their corn. And there are years of 75-bushel average beans, 80-bushel beans. I mean, it’s just unbelievable the different things that they have accomplished by implementing a variable-rate strategy, using grid sampling and their zones to be able to figure out where they need to put the best dollars. 

RENEE HANSEN: So year one: did they see — I don’t want to say a loss — but did they spend a lot more in year one to get kind of a baseline or a level? Or was it just incremental that you saw over the years?

KEVIN KRUIZE: They definitely did spend quite a bit more in the first couple years. But, I mean, when you think about that, if they grew 30 bushel more per-acre beans, let’s say it’s at 13 bucks. That’s $455 per acre that they’re making now. And at 50-bushel corn at five bucks, that’s $250 worth of yield and profit that they’re bringing back in. So that’s a lot of extra money they could now spend on fertility to basically maintain those levels where they’re at, to keep pushing up and driving their yield ceilings.

Yeah, it’s definitely a little bit of investment. I’m not necessarily saying today, with the input pricing, to do that, but you need to grid sample or do some sort of intensive soil sampling to understand your fertility and make some decisions. Understand where your high-yielding areas are versus your low and treat those the way you can, just to get through this year or the next couple years. Hopefully, the prices turn around, and we can be really profitable. But yeah, it’s just one of those things we’ve got to manage, right? It’s just the risk that we all have to endure, and having the right plan is always going to come out more positive than not.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and the profitability definitely makes a difference. So I have a question for you because I’m just curious. So, in those first two years, were the rates incredibly high that you were applying? Or not necessarily?

KEVIN KRUIZE: No, they weren’t necessarily because we, like we talked about earlier, we talked about: what are their yield goals? What is their part-per-million soil test goal? So, when we started identifying their high-yielding areas versus their low-yielding areas, yeah, we didn’t want to build the low-yielding areas. We cut input costs a little bit there and focused on the areas that we really knew were going to produce higher yields. And that’s where we focused most of the dollars. Once we got those up, those were carrying some of the lower areas, so we could figure out how to improve those lower-yielding areas a little bit quicker too.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, because they didn’t go from year one, from — what’d you say it was? — 30-bushel beans to 60. They probably went from 30 to 40 or 30 to 35, and so it was just incremental.

KEVIN KRUIZE: Yeah, it took about four to five years, and they had doubled it. Yep, consistently. Now, just looking back here, in the last five years, they’ve held those yields, and now they do a lot of crop removal maintenance and still try to push some of these really high-yielding areas even farther. Their yields will still continue to rise on average because they’re really focusing their input on the right areas of the field and not just trying to blanket everything.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so I’m curious: what has their reaction been when you showed them where they were five years ago?

KEVIN KRUIZE: They’re pretty happy. Very happy. They were able to upgrade some equipment. They’re doing variable-rate planting. They have a bunch of different things that they were able to do because of this. Very happy. Very positive.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and it just started with their soil fertility, which is awesome. 

KEVIN KRUIZE: Yep.

RENEE HANSEN: Great. Yeah, and I can say that we see that time over time. We can prove that it pays, and it does pay for the grower. But how does a customer — like how would a grower — get started with Premier Crop to do a variable-rate fertilizer plan?

KEVIN KRUIZE: It’s pretty easy. We have quite a few agronomy information advisors throughout some of our territory. You can easily log into our website — www.premiercrop.com — and send us a message if you’re curious. Or we also have lots of partners, with all our Premier Partners across most of our states in the Midwest here, and they’re fantastic. They have great staff that can help you out, as well. So, wherever you’re at, we can help you get connected with one of our partners or work directly with one of our AIAs if you’re in one of those regions.

RENEE HANSEN: Walk me through some of the agronomics that a grower would talk about. Let’s say it’s the first time they’re writing a prescription. They really want to be more involved. So what are some of the questions that you would ask them to get started?

KEVIN KRUIZE: It’s really simple, really. A lot of the things whenever I go on to talking about fertility programs and training our partner staff, or even talking with growers through it, are two things. One: what’s your yield goal? Where do you really want to see your farm at, right? And two: what are your soil test goals? Where do you want to end up being? Is it 25 parts-per-million phosphorus? 30 parts-per-million phosphorus? And just kind of get a basic understanding of teaching them what it means to raise your soil test fertility. And what does it mean when you actually say: ‘Well, I want to shoot for 240-bushel corn.’ Do they know how much 240-bushel corn removes from the soil? Because that’s a huge number. I was doing some basic figures.

A lot of guys talk about 200-bushel corn and 50-bushel soybeans, which might be, actually, a little bit low with some of the average yields that we’re seeing nowadays. But if you just looked at 200-bushel corn and 50-bushel soybean, that’s roughly 225 pounds of MAP and 200 pounds of potash that are removed from your soil with just those two years of crop removal. So, if you’re not spreading that much on an every-other-year basis, you’re mining out your fertility, right? So, obviously, if you have parts of your field that you know are lower yielding than that, yeah, you’re probably building those areas up a little bit. But those areas that you know are running 250 or maybe 70 to 80-bushel beans? You’re really mining those nutrients out.

So it’s just trying to help them understand the different aspects of how fertility works in your field. How soil samples can help you get a better understanding of what that looks like. Then taking it back to yield and profitability at the end.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, really marrying those agronomics and economics. Well, great. Thanks, Kevin. Really appreciate you talking about this today, and they can get a hold of Premier Crop, like you said, at www.premiercrop.com if they want to start working with somebody. Is there anything else you want to add?

KEVIN KRUIZE: No, I just hope everybody’s having a safe fall and hope everybody has started working on their plans for 2022. And yeah, we’re here to help, and give us a shout if you need a hand.

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