042: Gathering Quality Data w/Bethany Bielecki

collecting quality data

This week on the Premier Podcast, we are talking with Bethany Bielecki from Greene Crop Consulting. We discuss the situations she’s experienced while getting Greene Crop’s Pay Dirt program off the ground.

Renee: Hi, Matt, Matt and Bethany. Welcome to the Premier Podcast today. Excited to have you both. Bethany is with Greene crop consulting and Matt Bowers is with Premier Crop and I’ll have you both introduce yourself.

Matt: Good morning, Renee. Thanks for having me on, like Renee said, my name is Matt Bowers and I’m the Strategic Account Manager for our Eastern Business Unit. I cover east of the Mississippi River for Premier Crop Systems and work with our partners throughout my region. 

Bethany: My name is Bethany, and like Matt said I’m with Greene Crop Consulting. So Greene Crop Consulting is a partner organization of Premier Crop and within Greene Crop Consulting, I run the Pay Dirt program as we call it. 

Renee: Awesome. Well, I appreciate you both getting back on and doing another podcast with us as we continue to bring content to our listeners that they find valuable and be able to help their operations. So thank you for joining us today. 

Bethany: Thank you guys for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Matt: We’ve got a few questions today. I know that we’ve been working with you and the Pay Dirt program and Greene Crop here for just over a year getting the program up and running. Bethany, you’ve had an opportunity to walk a grower through a year with Pay Dirt and using Premier Crop. How has that experience been and how have those conversations been going?

Bethany: I think the first thing that comes to mind is eye opening and gratifying. I think as an outsider, looking in, you look at a program like this and you start with thinking, well, why does a grower need a partnership like this and why do they need an in-depth management program? Can’t they do it themselves? And this is what the practice of the matter is. There’s plenty of people that can, but can a lot of them benefit from something that’s more in depth like this? So, in walking through the year and working with growers, I think that my eyes have been opened to how much there is to track and how much there is to manage. And that’s coming from someone with a decent agriculture background. And the same thing for the growers that are connecting all of these dots, is really a lot of data for one person to manage. They’re starting to see the benefit of having a partner and having someone that can walk with them through the year and through different pieces of the operation and help them connect the dots. They’re utilizing all of their various data inputs. For me, it’s been really gratifying to be able to gain that knowledge and work closely with those growers and be able to deliver them quality analytics at the end.

Matt: You covered the second question I had, which was about an eye opening process that you and your grower have found. I think that the grower is understanding that it’s not just a system or not just a program, but it’s a true partnership that you guys have together. You’re walking down this road together with them and, and learning as you go as a partnership. 

Renee: And Bethany, I have a question too. You mentioned eye opening and connecting the dots. What specific dots have you had to connect for the grower that they’ve, they felt has been eye-opening as well?

Bethany: Yeah, absolutely. I think the first thing that comes to mind is the data troubles and data management problems. I think of one specific example where there’s really been a lot of dots for me to connect. I think that the grower really saw the value in having me there and having this program there. And that was one grower who I brought on late in the season. Here we were in October trying to collect historic data, as well as planting data. Thankfully for me, we had a rainy October, so I was able to catch them here and there. But what we actually found was that they had problems with their mapping for this year’s yield data. We went looking for planting data, what we actually found was that the GPS wasn’t properly set up for the new combine.

They saw, they had one old monitor that was an Ag Leader monitor in there that they were using for guidance lines. And then they had the Pro 700 monitor that they weren’t thinking they were mapping on, and as it turns out, they weren’t. So we had to dig further into that. We had this mapping and monitor problem and, going through multiple different channels the team at Premier Crop was wonderful at trying to figure out what in the world went on, that we didn’t have yield maps and then piecing together how we were going to make this work. Even once we figured out that there were no yield maps and there was no way to get yield maps. But the silver lining in all of this was that we were able to connect those dots mid-season and get them prepared for the remainder of harvest and actually get the necessary people out there to get the technology set up correctly so that we could have yield maps for the remainder of the year. And the grower could still see and receive the value out of that.

Renee: That’s a huge problem to solve knowing that, thinking that you’re collecting all this data and can utilize it, or maybe that the numbers are right. And, in fact, the data wasn’t even there.

Bethany: Absolutely. And I actually have a friend who works at CNH in the engineering department. We even sent things off to them and we were troubleshooting left and right. I mean, we tried everything and, as it turns out, it was a GPS connection problem. It was a hard thing to have happen, but we were really happy that it happened really early to mid-harvest and we were able to have time to correct things before we continued on after the rain.

Renee: Yeah. And that’s a pretty unique case I would say too.

Matt: With every startup of a program we’re not going sit and say that everything always runs smooth and perfect. And that was one of your struggles that you mentioned, were there any other struggles as you’ve gotten started with other growers or setting the program up as you’ve worked your way through?

Bethany: I think you kind of touched on it there a little bit that starting a new program is really a feat all of its own. To provide a little bit of context and background, we started this program within Greene Crop Consulting in 2020, but it really didn’t hit the ground. Really wasn’t pushed to customers until 2021. So I  came on in March of 2021. And there were three month’s worth of laying the groundwork, putting together what, our branding, how exactly this was going to work in conjunction with our existing offerings and making sure that we had done all of our homework and had a quality offering to bring to our customers. And so that was a feat all in all on its own.

In addition to that, we were bringing customers on in June, July, August and September. That was a pretty heavy onboarding period for me. Then it was going back into the year trying to recreate what was done for the year to put the pieces together. I had one customer that I had just gotten through reconciling a whole bunch of their stuff for this year. We were dotting all of our I’s and crossing all of our T’s that we thought. When reconciling invoices with shareholder and entity reports, we had an entire hybrid that was missing. It was important for me to sit down with the customer and try to figure out, who planted what, what day was it planted? What day did we plant this field? Trying to piece together where that hybrid may have gone, making sure that all of the math added up and that we had the appropriate amount of units allocated and just trying to put  the puzzle together in December, rather than June or May when we actually should have been doing it.

So that’s definitely been a little bit of a struggle we’re recreating a lot of things at a time when we really should be finishing things, but that’s the nature of the beast when you, when you start a new program and you onboard mid-season. 

Matt: Leaning into that a little bit is the grower that I was working with. We sat down last week and we realized that all the soybeans that we brought in 50% of what we had brought in from the monitor were not the right soybeans that were planted in that field. And until we sat down in the truck and all went through it together with all the entities in the vehicle talking about it, did we realize where, where things should be.

So we’re adjusting those things so we can get the proper data back out to ’em. So I had the same experience that, that you have had with the new grower and within that, you know, I’ve got in my head plans of what my spring looks like with that particular or grower, do you have some things set out looking at 2022 now that you’ve met with these growers and, and have brought their data in, do you have some plans laid out for what, how it looks a little bit different for you in 2022?

Bethany: Absolutely. So I joke with one of my growers that I have a desk in their office now in their shop. I’m going to come set up there at least once a week to go through things. And I have one customer that I told them: “Okay. You know, when you start planting, I’m going to call you every day and ask you what you did that day.” My more personal goal on a more realistic note is to be in contact with each of my customers and each of my growers, at least once a month and some more frequently. During planting and harvest on a more frequent basis so we can troubleshoot as we go when it’s a little bit more fresh in their minds. I’m hopeful that constantly contacting them will help them remember, “Hey, I did this and I should let her know.”

Matt: How has that been received by the grower? I know there can be different reactions. 

Bethany: Most of them have really been very positive. They laugh and they chuckle with me, they find the humor in it. And I think too, that most of them see a lot of value in having me walk, hand in hand with them. I feel a lot more confident in the service that we’re providing and the product that we’re delivering to them, because they feel confident that I truly know what happened and that we’ll have an intelligent conversation about everything that’s happened on their farm that year. When we come to the end of the year and we’re really digging into those analytics and trying to figure out how we can improve that yield efficiency score, they’ll feel confident knowing that I’ve been there every step of the way.

Renee: What are some of the goals that the growers are asking you based on the data that you’re collecting?

Bethany: We have had such an array of different goals. And that’s been one of my favorite things about presenting this product to our customers. I feel like we haven’t really taken this product to anybody outside of our current customer base, but the reception of it has been so different in so many ways, just by different growers. I mean, I feel like we’ve got a fairly standard baseline with our customers. They’re all involved in our soil fertility program. They’re doing similar types of things in terms of their fertilizer management, but they’ve all come into the program or have learned about the program and had different goals. I know nitrogen has been a really, really big one and probably my most popular goal that growers have entered this program with is fine tuning their nitrogen rate and figuring out how they can be more efficient, both agronomically and economically.

I have one grower that came to me saying, “Okay, I know I could do this agronomically and it would probably, really boost things, but I also need to know the economics behind it too. I need to make sure that it’s going to pay off. That’s where this program really stood out in comparison to other options that he was looking at. I had another grower that specifically wants to know whether one farm, one entire farm is worth him continuing to pay cash rent on because he says, it’s their cheapest cash rent, but it also always brings down their yield average. So how can we make sure that that farm is consistently producing  quality revenue for them and make sure that that yield efficiency score is leveled closer to the remainder of his operation.

Renee: Yeah. I love that. Especially the owned versus rented. I think it really helps the grower understand if they need to continue renting that land based on the Yield Efficiency Score, if they’re profiting off of that. You had mentioned nitrogen efficiency, in your area, there’s a lot more regulation isn’t there when it comes to nitrogen or any kind of regulatory needs?

Bethany: Currently we have mostly stated the nitrogen regulation piece of it, but there’s a lot of concern and there’s a lot of chatter about that. There may be some regulation at some point in the future.

Renee: Yeah. When we were out in that area, this fall, there were a lot of growers we met with we’re talking about how they really want to optimize their nitrogen and they’re also utilizing more cover crops.

Bethany: Yeah, absolutely. And we’ve definitely seen the cover crop piece of it. We actually have a cover crop program within Greene Crop Consulting. So to kind of back up and show you the umbrella piece of it, Greene Crop Consulting is the main business and then within Greene Crop Consulting, we have the soil fertility program, which is our soil sampling and recommendations program. We also have two individuals in the office of crop insurance agents. And then we’ve got me over here doing Pay Dirt. Within the soil fertility program, actually we have a partnership with Owen and Morgan counties and their soil and water conservation district. In addition to offering these single and multi-year sampling programs and crop specific fertility recommendations, we also through this partnership are utilizing the Haney test to measure nitrogen and carbon relationships within the soils. And then these test results are utilized to make appropriate cover crop recommendations. This has been a new program for us. This is the first year that we’ve had it and it’s something that we’ve then hoped to parlay into Pay Dirt and analyze the cover crops to economics and agronomics and tie all of it together in the future.

Renee: Yeah. That’s excellent information to note. And just within Premier Crop, you guys are able to analyze that through queries that we’ve set up for you guys too. Yeah. I knew there was a lot more going on in that, in that particular area. 

Matt: The carbon market has been something that has gotten a lot more public discussion in your area. The carbon market companies have offered more and more programs for different larger companies. Has that got any traction with the growers? Is that something that they’re thinking about discussing or at least exploring?

Bethany: We really haven’t heard too much talk about it within our current customers. I mean, most of them, it’s still very preliminary. They’re just hearing talks about it in the news and things like that. So I anticipate it’s going be something over the next couple of years. I think looking five years down the road, it’s going be something that we’re going to have established programs for and things like that. But as of right now, shockingly, we don’t really have a ton of customers that are interested or involved in those types of programs.

Matt: Bethany, what successes have you seen in this first year, so far as you’ve brought a number of growers into our system?

Bethany: Well, I think the first success is just being able to get quality data in. It’s really rewarding to see all of that time spent putting the puzzle together, come into play when you get things actually into Premier Crop Systems and are able to deliver quality analytics to customers. I mean, that’s been a big win for me. There’s been a learning curve with me, with the growers. Gathering that quality data is a huge win. We were also able to execute a nitrogen trial with one of my customers this year with two enhanced learning blocks. That was really exciting for me. When I first came on in March, the Enhanced Learning Blocks were a little terrifying. I was a little scared of them, but Matt and my boss, Danny, very much pushed me to just do it. So I’m excited that we were able to execute and it went over well, we’re able to get some really usable data out of that trial.

Renee: Tell me a little bit more about the learning blocks that you tried. You know, it’s sometimes just trying that one thing for the first time can be such a hurdle, but then it turns out to be a success. What were some of the enhanced learning blocks that Danny and PayDirt really wanted to get some data for in your area?

Bethany: Definitely nitrogen is huge. We have already talked to some of our growers next year about wanting to put out some Enhanced Learning Blocks. Population trials is another one that I think we’re going to see a lot of next year. I mean, just continuing to progress agronomically and economically everybody seems to want to really fine tune as much as they possibly can. The growers with the equipment to execute those trials have really shown a lot of interest in placing one in a very substantial amount of their fields, just so they can learn and gather as much information on their farm as possible.

Renee: So have most of your growers already been using variable rate or are they flat rating?

Matt: A fair amount of my customers have the capability, but actually we haven’t been variable rating. I was really surprised in the onboarding processes and sitting down doing discovery and figuring out what does this operation look like for these growers? I had three or four people say, well, I have the equipment to variable rate plant, but I haven’t yet. They were really excited to find out that was a piece of the Pay Dirt program that I could do and be able to, not only write the prescriptions, but provide them analytics at the end of the year to check and see what actually works for their farm and their operation. I also have a fair amount that are currently flat rating their planting population. And then I have a couple that have come to me and said, Hey, I don’t have this capability yet, but I want to put out a couple of trials and I see if we changed the planting population in a few different areas strategically, let’s see if we can find out if this upgrade is going to be worth the investment for me.

Renee: Oh, I’m so excited to see some of the data that you’re going to be able to pull for some of these growers too. Cause I think just comparing the variable rate data against some of the flat rate might show them a huge difference in their yield efficiency, or maybe not, and that they need to change some other metrics, right? It’s not only about nitrogen. Dan Frieberg, our founder, always talks about how agronomy is actually more complex than rocket science. So there’s so many, many pieces that fall into a farmer making decisions.

Bethany: Absolutely. I think that’s definitely the benefit of what we’re hoping our Pay Dirt program is, and the Premier Crop Systems platform is just the ability to take a look at all of those different factors and be able to query out individually and really try to, as finite as we possibly can make a determination. What is truly impacting that yield, and that yield efficiency and all of those metrics that they track by.

Matt: I think with your studies of the plant population, as well as your nitrogen studies that you’re putting through the enhanced learning blocks and other trials out there that are starting to tie those two things together and bring that synergistic effect of having the seed population match what we’re doing on the nitrogen and match what we’re doing with our other fertility in the program will really start to drive those efficiencies to where we’re producing more where we’re putting more out and we’re regulating and understanding that we might be limited in other areas in our field. I think that’s great that you’re working with the growers in that capacity.

Renee: Well, and had to start somewhere too, right? I mean, that’s the majority of what the conversation has been out about today. How you guys have just had your first full crop year under your belt with Pay Dirt while utilizing Premier Crop Systems. What are you looking forward to, or what are you most excited about for 2022 for your growers?

Bethany: We are all super excited about the sheer magnitude of trials that we have planned. We’ve got a lot of people interested in doing nitrogen trials. We’ve got a lot of interest in planting population trials. We’ve got a lot of interest in doing some other trials with sulfur plus and different products, Pivot Bio products, things like that, that are just those smaller micro pieces of it, but wanting to see what type of an impact they have on the planting or on the year in general.

Renee: Right? Because there’s so many things that Pay Dirt can help showcase your customers when it comes to querying some of the results, whether it’s hybrids, varieties, like you said, some of the sulfur, the nitrogen, seeding populations, once you get all that data put into your system, you’re going to have such robust information to share with those growers that are in the Pay Dirt program.

Bethany: Absolutely. And it’s all going to be practical for them. It’s going to be things that they will be able to utilize because it’s true on farm agronomic knowledge. Most of them are really, really excited about the fact that they’re no longer going to have to rely exclusively on Beck’s Practical Farm Research guide or Purdue’s numbers. They will actually know, affirmatively, what’s working on their farm and what’s not.

Renee: That’s great to hear. That’s a huge success. That’s all the questions that I have for today. Matt and Bethany. Matt, do you have anything to follow up with?

Matt: I was just thinking about pulling the wrap of 2021 together. I’m looking forward to the results, but I don’t know if we’re quite there yet. Pulling together the growers that you are getting in Bethany and what we’re finishing up with, and being able to have some benchmarking and group data and some queries through the growers that are already in the system and providing value immediately on the 2021 data. 

Renee: I think there’s a huge steep curve to learn from these growers who have been in the system year one, because it’ll be interesting to compare them to county averages and then see that in the next two, three years and see how they start outpacing. We’ve seen within Premier Crop, some of our growers that have been in the system for 20 years and all of a sudden, they’re starting to see a 20% gap outpacing the county averages in their area just because they’ve used the system for so long and been able to optimize and change things. So I’m excited for the growers that are in Pay Dirt and the direction that you guys are headed. 

Bethany: We’re excited. We’re excited for sure. It’s, you know, like I said, it’s been a little overwhelming at times. But, I’m incredibly thankful for the team at Premier Crop Systems and the sheer support that I’ve had there. I know that I for a little while was worried, Matt was going to block my number because I was calling him every single day with an hour-long question each time. But no, he’s always been super happy to help and has connected me with other individuals when and where necessary. It’s been wonderful.

Renee: Well, good. I think that’s great to hear because I, I mean, when people jump on board, it’s good to know that there is a huge lift in the beginning. Even for the grower to figure out everything that they need to find and miss and get it in the system, there is work to be done. But once that’s done, to hear your excitement of where you’ve come and overcome that mountain and you feel like you’re kind of coasting now. I mean, I just think you guys are going to get some great data to share with your growers and ultimately it comes down to that excitement of finding success for the grower in their field. And it’s not just about Pay Dirt. It’s really about how you can make your growers shine and be more successful. So I think that’s awesome. It’s a great success story.

Bethany: We’re doing it. We’re doing it. 

Renee: That’s right. The podcast listeners can’t hear you but you’ve got your, raising the roof with your hands. Well, thank you guys so much for joining us today. Really appreciate it. And we’d love to have a follow up call just to see some of the successes from some of the growers and what you guys found out. 

Bethany: Certainly, certainly. Thank you guys for having me. 


Free Resources:

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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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.


Free Resources:

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. 


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.


Free Resources:

038: Variable Rate Seeding Pays w/Matt Bowers

variable rate seeding

Today we will be discussing variable rate seeding pays to get growers better results and return in their operation. We are joined by Matt Bowers, Strategic Account Manger for Premier Crop Systems in Ohio. Matt has been with PCS for the past year and previously worked in the seeding industry.

RENEE HANSEN: All right, welcome to the Premier Podcast, Matt. Thanks for joining us today. Today, we’re going to talk about different seed options and how Premier Crop helps with different seed selection. So can you even just start by talking about what Premier Crop can do to help a grower with their seed selection?

MATT BOWERS: Yeah, so when you’re working with Premier Crop, we have the ability to work with your own data on your own farm and look at hybrids across your own operation. But we also have the opportunity to look at group data and look at hybrids in your area and how they’re performing across different soil types or across different regions. But we can also look at other operations across our group and in our anonymous group data, where we look at what hybrids are doing well in your region or in your area. And we can start to dial in the direction of where you want to go with your seed selections.

RENEE HANSEN: Why is it so important that they can be able to see group data and what other people in their area are planting and the data from that? What makes that so important from Premier Crop’s standpoint?

MATT BOWERS: I think it just opens a little bit of a bigger spectrum from what we’re able to see on your own operation and starting to look at trends and trend lines of how different hybrids or different varieties are doing in the area. I do feel, as an ex seed salesman, that it is important to verify those things out on your own operation because it has to work on your farm. But the data set that we have and the amount of growers and the information that we have in our system that can anonymously be looked at across hybrids and varieties is, I think, a big benefit to the Premier Crop system because there’s so much data on so many acres and so many attributes that go into that. We can really start dialing in a little bit better, rather than some of the research that comes out at a higher level from the seed companies themselves.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, you bet because they’re looking at a much broader scale, while we can dial it down to their local area. So let’s dive a little bit deeper. So, once they find their hybrid selection, and they know what field they’re going to put it on, let’s dive into talking about variable-rate seeding. How does it work, and why is that beneficial to a grower?

MATT BOWERS: Yeah, so I think one of the questions that I hear a lot, especially towards the area that I cover in the Eastern Corn Belt, is: does VR seeding work? And my answer to that is it does work, but I think there are some key variables that go into helping that variable seed population work for each operation. So the key is how variable-rate seeding success is being evaluated, in my mind. So it can’t be just evaluated by seed savings or an overall yield increase across that field because, then, it’s a tougher measure of success. But we need to build a comprehensive plan, and we can do that in Premier Crop. That includes tying together our VR fertility with our VR seeding. So that VR fertility can be P, K, nitrogen, and tying that with our seeding program. Then, we tie it with the economics so that what we’re looking at in our measure of success is actually on the economics and not on rates or savings. It’s actually looking at: ‘Okay, what is our profitability across these areas when we do our VR seeding?’

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like it really goes into our yield efficiency score too because growers can then see and compare anonymously by benchmarking against other growers’ fields in the area to see: where do they fall? Where do they match up when it comes to profitability? Because I’m going down that road of profitability, how do you know that VR seeding will pay in the long run?

MATT BOWERS: I mentioned it before. It has to be a comprehensive plan. I think that’s the key to VR seeding, to paying in the long run. So, as growers, we all know that our field yields differently across that field. So, as we watch the yield monitor, it shows us every year that there’s variability across that field. And we need to tap into that data and build out our production zones — our management zones — as a base layer for the rest of the programs, then, that we add on top of that. And we do that at Premier Crop where that is our base start, and that’s where we get started. And from there, we can start with variable-rate phosphorus and potassium applications, to apply the fertilizer to those production zones based on soil test values. The growers build goals and actual yield removal values from that field. And we then tie our variable-rate seeding into those same zones so that we’re feeding the plants that we’re putting out there. Then, lastly, we can add variable-rate nitrogen rates to properly feed those plant populations and those yield goals that we have for those different production zones. And it’s this synergistic effect of all of those operations working together that will increase the ROI across the entire field as we improve the economic efficiencies at that sub-field level.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, I think you made a really great point of just talking about so many different layers. It’s not just about VR seeding. You have to make sure you’re feeding the plants in the areas that you’re putting more in and maybe taking away some of the inputs in the areas that you’re not putting as much seed in. I think layering all those layers, like you said, is really beneficial to the whole program of what we’re trying to do. It’s not about saving money. It’s more about finding the most profit in the field. And let’s just talk a little bit more about population. How do you select the right hybrid population for VR seeding? How do you get it to be the right rate?

MATT BOWERS: So that’s a great question. We have a good starting point. Most seed companies have population recommendations for different field productivity levels with each hybrid. And rather than applying these recommendations across an entire field based on a field’s average productivity level, let’s apply these recommendations from the seed companies to those production zones that I was speaking of earlier as a hybrid jumping-off point. So we’ll have the ability to look at what yield range those areas have. We can dial that in from their recommendations to start. And from there, we have our learning blocks and, then, our enhanced learning block tools within Premier Crop Systems to test out multiple rates in each of these zones to improve upon the recommendations. So, being able to put those things to the test in your own field, to turn your own field into a research farm, I think, is a very key point that Premier Crop Systems brings along with it. And I know there’s hesitancy out there to put the trust in hybrid availability, as well, from the seed supplier, from a year-to-year perspective. And I would ask, though, with that challenge of a question: how often do the main hybrids of your operation change over time? For most seed companies, when a hybrid performs well and in a large geographical area, that hybrid will stay in the lineup until it can be beat. So, if it’s not getting beat, and it’s still performing, then, typically, it’ll stay in the lineup. So your most successful hybrids, typically, are available for four-plus years from any given company. As well, if you’re bringing in a new hybrid into the operation and wanting to try it out, we make a return on investment in the economic decisions on the hybrid or its variable-rate seeding quicker with our tools in Premier Crop, to turn your farm into your own research location. And we can dial those things in faster than even looking at local plot areas that the seed company might have out in your geography or in your location.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and you mentioned a local research trial in your own field. I just want to be clear that the equipment does it all. It’s just a prescription in the equipment when we’re talking about populations, rather than making it really complicated and having to — whether it’s multiple-hybrid or whatever we are — the equipment, the technology, does it itself. And it can be really — and can sound really — complex. So how do we simplify it?

MATT BOWERS: Variable-rate seeding can look intimidating or complex, and I think the beauty of Premier Crop Systems is Premier Crop ties together all of the variable-rate applications into one system based on the same production zones. That’s a key jumping-off point there, and you don’t have to jump from one system to another system and to yet a different system to look for results. Like you were saying, with our learning blocks or our enhanced learning blocks, it’s built into the prescriptions. And we put it right into the machine, into the equipment, and the equipment does the work. It’s based on the equipment’s capabilities, whether that’s the planter or the harvester. It’s based on their capabilities and what they’re able to do. So it’s not trying to fit a square into a round hole. We start with the round hole, and we find the round peg that’ll fit into that. And that works right into our enhanced learning blocks and how they’re set up and put into the monitors. And those results, at the end of the day, are still based on profitability and ROI. They’re not based on yield or seed savings alone. And to me, that’s the important thing. We want to be successful in profitability and ROI because that’s going to keep us on the farm. That’s going to keep us farming. That’s going to keep us expanding or being better at producing on the ground that we currently have because maybe our ground is shrinking. I’m just outside of Columbus. And I know ground here disappears every day, and we have to be more profitable on the ground that we have.

RENEE HANSEN: Sure. Going back to these research trials that we offer, what information comes out of that, and then how do you make a decision from it?

MATT BOWERS: So that’s a great question. I think, when we look at the results that are coming out, it is based on that field’s production zone and that production area. So we’re getting multiple rates across that area and dialing it in so that we know: did we shoot too high on this seed population with this hybrid? Did we shoot too low? Where’s our win rate on that?

RENEE HANSEN: Does Premier Crop show the data of how a grower can select the best hybrid for their field?

MATT BOWERS: So the short answer is yes. The long answer is that Premier Crop’s analytics capabilities allow a grower to evaluate hybrids across their operation by each hybrid’s yield efficiency score, which is each hybrid’s dollar-per-acre return back to land and management costs. So those hybrid results can be taken out even further if desired, and then analyze those hybrids’ yield efficiency scores across anonymous grower data from that grower’s local area. So, having the opportunity to not only do research on your own farm, but also step out, look a little bit further in that geographical area, into our anonymous data group, and start to look at it overall: ROI of certain hybrids and how they’re performing. Now, we always want to take that back to our own farm. So, if we see a hybrid that piques our interest, we want to try out and look at our own operation the next year, we want to bring those hybrids in and make sure that they’re still proving out in our own data on our own farm. That way, we’re controlling the results because it is our operation, and not everything’s going to always translate. That’s the beauty of Premier Crop Systems. It’s that we analyze at a group level, but we really key in on when we look at what we’re doing within our own operation and how those things are being successful and proven out on our own ground.

RENEE HANSEN: If a grower was not working with anybody in some kind of the precision space when it came to seed, whether it be hybrid selection or variable-rate seeding, what would you say to them? What is something that would really benefit them?

MATT BOWERS: For somebody that’s not into this space yet but has the desire to explore and take a look at it, I think working with the Premier Crop system allows them to take those steps into it. It doesn’t have to be everything at once. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but we have the opportunity to meet the grower where they’re at — and their operation where it’s at — and start taking the steps now that will lead down to the opportunities to apply variable-rate seeding or going back to variable-rate nutrients. It’s taking those necessary steps to get started, evaluate it, see how it’s going, see how it improves their ROI and then prove out maybe the next equipment purchase, maybe the next upgrade that they’re looking at. Maybe it’s the next decision, then, to put in the next layer and say: ‘I’m seeing the benefits of what I’ve started, from where I was to the one change that I made, and now I see that benefit. I want the next, and I want to see how much more I can improve my ground and my operation and my ROI.’

RENEE HANSEN: All right, great. Thanks, Matt, for joining us today, helping us talk about seed and hybrid selections within Premier Crop Systems, but also talking about variable-rate seeding and how we can make that a little bit more easy and not as complex for the grower in the future.

MATT BOWERS: Yeah, thanks for having me.

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.


Free Resources:

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.


Free Resources:

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.

035: Using Data as a Solution to Help Growers Be More Profitable

MATT BOWERS: Hello listeners, and welcome back to the Premier Podcast, where everything agronomic is economic. This is your host for today, Matt Bowers, the Strategic Account Manager in the east for Premier Crop. And today, on the podcast, we’ll be joined by Danny Greene and Bethany Bielecki, members of the team at Greene Crop Consulting in southern Indiana. Good morning, Danny. Good morning, Bethany. Thanks for joining us today. 


DANNY GREENE: Good morning. 


BETHANY BIELECKI: Thanks for having us. 


MATT BOWERS: So I just want to start off our conversation today and just get a little bit of background information from both of you guys.


DANNY GREENE: Okay. In 1985, I took a job with Purdue University. I was a research agronomist for 12-and-a-half years and got to work all across the state with corn production, as well as with forage production primarily, and enjoyed that. Pioneer asked me if I would work with them as a technical information manager. And I did that for eight-and-a-half years as a technical information manager in Indiana and Illinois, working with the agronomists and sales reps across those areas. After being in Illinois for a few years, thinking I’d like to get back to Indiana where I grew up, that general area. I decided to carve out my own path and start a crop consulting and crop insurance business, and I’ve been doing this since 2006.


MATT BOWERS: Great. And Bethany, how about you?


BETHANY BIELECKI: So I went to Purdue University, and I graduated with a degree in ag economics. I graduated in 2019. And throughout my time at Purdue, and then the first year after, I worked at a hog processing plant and did a lot of program management. I rebuilt some different things that we had going on in terms of some of the different micro-tracking stuff that we did and really cut my teeth there and got started in this whole career that I’m trying to pursue. It was through that time and through that job that I found out I actually maybe wanted to go to law school and wanted to be in ag law. And the goal and the plan is to eventually work with farmers and entities and their succession planning and their business strategies and things like that. I kind of decided that I wanted to work in ag and work more on the crop side of things throughout law school, though, and this opportunity came up with Danny. We kind of felt that maybe my experience with designing some programs would work with trying to get this Pay Dirt program off the ground. So I’ve been here since March now and loving every bit of it and really enjoying getting this program started and getting to work with growers. It’s been a fun and exciting experience and hugely beneficial.


MATT BOWERS: So, Danny, the one thing that we did miss there in your introduction is the position that you’re holding there with Greene Crop Consulting. If you could, both you and Bethany, if you could just explain that to our listeners, that would be great.


DANNY GREENE: Absolutely. In 2006, I started Greene Crop Consulting, and it was just me for a while, and now we’re up. I started the company, and so I guess I’m the owner, as well as an agronomist and crop insurance agent and whatever else — maintenance person — in the office. Now, we’ve grown to where we have eight full-time employees, and we’re servicing an area across the I-70 corridor and down and really been able to help a lot of people out with their crop consulting, as well as their crop insurance needs. Then, now, we’ve brought on this new program that we’re really excited about.


MATT BOWERS: Great. Bethany?


BETHANY BIELECKI: My role is Precision Crop Advisor. And the purpose of my role is, basically, to help launch and then, eventually, manage and work closely with the growers that are going to be involved in our Pay Dirt program.


MATT BOWERS: Okay, and that Pay Dirt program is the name of your precision program there with Greene Crop Consulting, correct? 




MATT BOWERS: The next question I have for you guys is: why do you guys feel that farm data is so important to a grower or your growers or any grower out there? 


DANNY GREENE: Well, I’ve seen, over the years — talked with many farmers — that even though they’re gathering some data, they’re not utilizing it. It’s just sitting there, or they’ve not put it to use to help them out in the long run. They might glance at it, look at a pretty map, but that’s all. And I think that we’ve got an opportunity to help them out. Not only that, but they don’t know their numbers. They’re just working with crop insurance. We’re working with crop budgets. It’s a lower percentage than you would expect, that owns a business and really don’t know their numbers: what causes them to be profitable. And we want to help them out with that. That’s an area that’s missing that we can really help them.


MATT BOWERS: So, Danny, when you were looking into a precision partner to work with, what were the top three factors that you looked into for a dependable data partner?


DANNY GREENE: We’ve been looking for years for something to come across — and there are different programs that come across — as someone to help us work with our customers’ data. What we were really looking for would be someone, or a group, that would help us — since we’re an independent crop consultant — help us maintain our integrity and what it is that we do and how we approach our customers. And we found that Premier Crop Systems is one of those companies or is the company that can do that for us. We’ve also dug into the platform since we’ve been associated with Premier Crop, and what we found is that there are plenty of very good tools that we can help to identify areas where a farmer might need to make some changes or alterations. We can help them just be at their best, understand their own numbers. And they have very good, clear summaries of the results. Also, I guess we appreciate the team approach to helping us get this right, that Premier Crop is with us in this process.


MATT BOWERS: Great, great. So why was it important to invest in a precision ag service to help your growers manage their data for Greene Crop Consulting?


DANNY GREENE: Well, definitely, as we worked with crop insurance and were asking people about their budgets, very few had a clear idea of where they stood. We know that this is an area that is important to invest in, in ways that we can help the customer move the needle in their operation. With our Pay Dirt program, we found that this is something that will fill that missing link that we had in our operation, that will help tie the economics to the agronomics.


MATT BOWERS: So, Bethany, what would you tell a farmer who is resistant to work with a precision ag service company?


BETHANY BIELECKI: Well, I think my first question would be: why? Why the hesitation? What’s the root cause of the hesitation? With our Pay Dirt program, you’re getting unbiased recommendations. We take out that element of potentially being sold and being manipulated, for lack of better terms, with your data. We’re not doing that. We’re giving you unbiased recommendations. Second, your data’s protected. We’re the ones that are managing it. We’re the ones that are housing it, and we’re working closely with the people at Premier Crop Systems that are housing it. So it’s always protected. That data integrity is always there. Then, third, I would tell them that most of these individuals have already invested in precision equipment. They’ve already got it, so why don’t we utilize that to unlock the potential within their operation? That’s one of the easiest ways that we can, as Danny likes to say, move the needle. It’s because you’ve already got those pieces. Let’s break it open. Let’s take a look at what we can do to improve your current operations and your current programs and systems and things like that with what you are already paying for with this program.


MATT BOWERS: So what are you most excited about to use a service like Premier Crop for your farmers? Danny, let’s start with you.


DANNY GREENE: Okay. Well, I’ve got a background in research, and I understand the value of looking at compiled data and being able to take that and then apply it. And that’s one thing that this program, I think, does a very good job of. It helps us to look at data — actually, even insert some learning blocks — in such a way that we’re able to move the needle with the customer. We’re able to help them understand whether their nitrogen rate or their planting population or whatever it is they want to test, if that’s going to work for them. Or, over time, as we compile that across customers, really have a good feel for giving recommendations, we’re verifying what it is that we’re recommending. And, to me, that’s very important.


MATT BOWERS: Great. Bethany, I’ll turn to you. What excites you about the service for your growers?


BETHANY BIELECKI: Well, the first thing that comes to mind that really excites me is the ability to unlock the economic pieces of it. Like Danny said, we’re coming across a lot of individuals who just don’t know the exact dollars when it comes to their operation. And I think that’s really exciting. I’m a bit of a finance nerd. I enjoy it. I always have. So this is really fun to me, to be able to identify where each of those dollars are coming from and also where they’re going back, in terms of their cost. And it helps me provide guidance to farmers. And I think that that’s also a really crucial piece, that I’m able to be their guide and help them make the best decisions. And that’s really rewarding on a personal level. Then the last piece that I’m really excited about is the practical R&D that’s going to be available to these growers. In my background at IPC, I spent a lot of time doing research and development work, and what we found is that there are multiple ways of going about it. There’s more of the textbook university way, and then there’s actually what’s going to work in practice and on and in an operation. And I think that that’s really exciting, that we can provide growers with usable data from their own farms that they can use across different fields, across different avenues of their business and allow them to make, again, the most informed decisions, which is very gratifying.


MATT BOWERS: So getting that opportunity to turn that farmer’s fields into their own research farm, right?


BETHANY BIELECKI: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s fun. Most of them, I feel like, are really excited about it. That’s not something that they’re used to, being able to control their own research, I feel like. So, when we present that piece of this program to them, most of them get really excited.


MATT BOWERS: Great. Yeah, agronomy is very much local, and that helps.




MATT BOWERS: What challenges, as you’ve been talking with your growers and the farmers that you’re working with, what challenges do your customers face with their current data situation?


BETHANY BIELECKI: Most of the guys that I’m coming across have all of this data, but the first thing that they struggle with is organization of the data. Most of them don’t really know where to put it. Some of them are really hesitant to put it in the cloud. Some of them don’t really know how to organize it on a computer. So, first and foremost, I think that having a clean organizational structure for their data is their first hurdle. Then, from there, kind of tying in with that, because they don’t have a good organization structure for it, they don’t have the ability to interpret it and really use it. Some of them may take a look at their yield maps, but they’re not able to really break apart those yield maps and identify what’s going on. And they certainly don’t have the ability to layer all of their data together. Then, coupling even with that, because they’re wanting to keep it to themselves, there’s always that fear of data privacy, as well. They worry about their data being sold, about it being used in a more sinister way, about it being shared with somebody that they don’t want it to be shared with. So I think that it all comes back to: they don’t have that good piece and that good partner that they can work with, that they have trust and security in, and that they have the ability to work with to be able to interpret it and organize it for most efficient use.


MATT BOWERS: So the Pay Dirt program, then, fits in and fills some of those holes, then, as you move forward with your growers.


BETHANY BIELECKI: Absolutely. And I think, for a lot of them, one of their first responses is: ‘Oh, really? So you’re going to be able to not only help me house it, but then help me interpret it, and you’re going to keep it safe too?’ A lot of them are really surprised that we have the ability to deliver all of those things to them.


MATT BOWERS: That’s great to hear. So where do you see precision ag going in the future from here?


BETHANY BIELECKI: Well, I think, personally, precision ag is going to be the future of farming because we don’t have the ability to make more land. And frankly, every single day, we lose land to warehouses, to subdivisions, and so we’ve got to be more efficient with what we’ve got. And I think that precision ag is the way that we’re really going to be able to break that apart, and we’re really going to be able to get the most return off of the current resources that we have available to us. And I think that, as farming consistently becomes more technological — we’ve got all of those pieces — precision ag is going to be the way that we’re going to bust all of that open, and we’re going to be able to pinpoint as much as we possibly can. It’s farming. It’s never going to be perfect, and it’s never going to be predictable either. But precision ag is going to be the transparency piece that we need to be able to get the most out of what we’ve got available to us.


MATT BOWERS: Great. Danny, I’d like to turn to you and ask what benefits can this program provide your customers and the growers that you’re working with, in your mind?


DANNY GREENE: Oh, there are several, and we’ve thought about this a lot. And as we’ve started to roll this out, we realized that with different people, there are different parts of this that are really attractive to them. For some, it might be the planning feature, being able to plan ahead, talk with their banker. Understand what their numbers are ahead of time. That piece alone has been a big advantage to some people already. On-farm research and development, as we’ve talked about, doing the learning blocks: that’s an appeal to many. Economic analysis, yield efficiency score: trying to understand, just get it down to a number that you can compare across the board and make it work. Personal and group benchmarking: that’s another piece that we see that is going to definitely appeal to a different group of farmers. All the prescriptions, coming from one place: in other words, we’ve been working with prescriptions for soil fertility. But now, we’re able to also inlay into that the learning blocks that we’re working with. As we take farmers’ data from their combines, from their tractor monitors, from their controllers, that we can have one place that we are holding all of that for them, as well. So, if they lose something, we’ve got it. Potential for increased yield: we’re able to help them move the needle in the operation because they see that there’s an advantage to what it is — through this program, through this Pay Dirt program — that they’re going to get. And, also, understanding their numbers: where does their profit come from? For them to be able to realize that if I do this, then this is going to be the result or, more likely, to be the result. Farming is full of risk, and so it’s not always that way. But understanding that they can gain, definitely, from using a program like this, that will help them plan, help them understand, help them make data-driven decisions that are going to help them in the future.


MATT BOWERS: If there’s a listener out there that would like to get in touch with Greene Crop Consulting and learn more about the Pay Dirt program, where can they do that and how? And Bethany or Danny, you can both chime in there.


BETHANY BIELECKI: Well, I would say, first and foremost, I would direct you to our website, which is www.greenecrop.com. Then, actually, on there, we have a tab and a page for our Pay Dirt program, and there’s a contact information box. That’s not going to anybody other than me, myself and I. So I get those emails. If you fill that out, you’ll be hearing from me, and we can get in contact from there.


DANNY GREENE: And www.greenecrop.com


MATT BOWERS: Well, I’d like to thank both of you for joining us today and telling us about your Pay Dirt program and your partnership with Premier Crop and what you’re excited about offering out to your growers and other potential growers in the southern Indiana market. And I’d like to thank all of our listeners for joining us today on the Premier Podcast, and be safe out there. And we’ll see you again. 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.


034: Make Fungicide Decisions Using Data: With InSite CDM

grid soil sampling

Today on the Premier Podcast we are talking about making fungicide decisions using data with one of our Partners, InSite CDM. We are joined by Clint Sires and Pat Mai. If you are enjoying the show, tweet us using #PremierPodcast.

CLINT SIRES: Yep. So Clint Sires. I’ve been with Ag Partners now for — it’ll actually be 12 years in October. I have been the lead for the InSite CDM program for the past, I’m going to say, six or seven years, something like that. Then, more recently, I’m kind of in charge of all the different data systems that we offer, whether it’s WinField R7 Field Forecasting Tool or Climate FieldView, just kind of in charge of making sure those things are getting done and getting utilized. But then, with InSite CDM, I coordinate the selling and delivering of the program through our sales agronomists and our InSite CDM account managers. Then, I take an active role in putting our agenda together for our customer forum, our big grower meeting at the end of the year, and putting out a newsletter and things like that.


PAT MAI: I’m Pat Mai. I’ve been with the company for two years. I’m an account manager with Ag Partners. In September, it’ll be two years. My role is to take the data out to the farmer and collect it and show him what he’s collected and how useful it is to him.


RENEE HANSEN: Great. Thanks guys. Thanks for coming on the podcast today. We were talking a while back, about two weeks ago, about how a grower had approached you, Pat, in regards to a question on fungicide. So it’s that time of year when growers aren’t even thinking about fungicide and whether or not they should spray it. How do you walk them through that conversation?


PAT MAI: Well, first of all, we kind of start with yield goals. Are they shooting for 180-bushel corn or 210 or 250? What’s realistic at this point? So that kind of starts it off. Usually from there, they talk about their insurance levels. Clint created a nice calculator to show where your APH is, and if you’re at 80%, what your break-even will be. So that’s just a nice visual to prove to them if their break-even is 170 bushels. Well, they think they can do better than that. So, then, we kind of go on from there. Big point we throw around is crop rotation. The data has always shown that corn-on-corn pays to put a fungicide on. So that’s kind of an easy conversation to have. Those are kind of the four or five big points. Row spacing: 20-inch rows or 30-inch or 15-inch. Just from there, we talk it over and go from there.


CLINT SIRES: Yeah, and I guess I would just echo what Pat is saying, what the grower always is trying to do. I mean, if they’re just trying to be efficient and scout for disease and spray when needed, I guess, in my opinion, that’s what you should be doing. You should be out there scouting varieties and seeing what kind of disease you’ve got. But, then, we’ve got the other spectrum of grower, where they’re always trying to push the needle and push the envelope and trying to get the biggest yields possible. We have some growers that they probably only select varieties that respond to a fungicide. They’ve got high scores for not only fungicide but nitrogen, those kinds of things, the higher-managed varieties, I guess you could say. And it seems like the ones that have a hole in them, meaning they’re susceptible either to disease or they don’t emerge well or something like that, those are usually the ones that are super offensive. And if you get the right year, if you hit the right growing season, they produce really well. So, if you’re on that side of the spectrum, it’s easier to just say: ‘Well, you should be applying the fungicide because you’re probably pushing population rates.’ Like Pat said with row spacing, management zones, you’re probably right on that line of keeping everything going and healthy as it is. And fungicide not only eliminates the disease, but there’s that plant health benefit to it. 


So that makes that much easier to add to the conversation, then. I’ve always tried to look at the data and prove at what yield environment you should be applying a fungicide, and I’ve always found that a little bit tricky. As we get over a large database — a lot of acres, a lot of geographic area — there’s a lot of, I don’t want to say noise in the data, but it just brings in a lot more variability. So it’s not always a clear-cut thing. But within the program, we’ve identified yield ranges that you want to be in. If you’re within that certain top-level yield range, even in first-year corn, fungicides should probably just be an automatic for you because, again, you’re pushing nitrogen. You’re pushing populations and so forth. But if you’ve got a field that, realistically, you’re happy with 180 bushel or something sub-200-bushel corn, then it’s probably more of: ‘Well, does that variety respond to fungicide? Do I have disease pressure in that field? What are the conditions? Has it been hot and wet? That really favors disease. Or has it been hot and dry? Or cool and dry, where maybe diseases aren’t going to be that big of a deal.’ So, then, it’s not quite as easy of a slam dunk, that you’re going to get your investment back out of that.


RENEE HANSEN: So we’re in a drought year. It was pretty dry up by where your area is. Hopefully, you guys did get some rain last night maybe. So what do you say? They’re shaking their heads. No, that’s not good. What do you say in a drought year? What does your data show? Do you show if it is a wet year versus a dry year? What’s the data show with fungicide in regard to that? 


CLINT SIRES: I’ll take this one, Pat. Back in 2012, it was the first time in my career where we hit a major drought, and there were a lot of growers at that time calling us and saying: ‘Hey, what’s the data show?’ And at that time at Ag Partners, we had a growing database, but it’s nowhere near as large as it is now. And through that time, where we had a significant number of acres, we didn’t have a pool, where we could go in and say: ‘Okay, this is an absolute dry year, dry conditions, and how did the fungicide do?’ And it was really cool at that time because, working with our Premier Crop advisor, they said: ‘Well, hey, let’s look at not necessarily the north group data, which is what we had access to, but more of our east region data, which was Illinois and Indiana, and some of that kind of information, where they had just gone through a drought, I think, like three or four years earlier.’ So we did a lot of querying of that database and showed growers at the time that, hey, just because it’s dry, if you think you’re going to have a crop out there, you should be applying the fungicide because, with the plant health benefits and stuff, we saw a really significant response in those areas. But you can also see in that data, too, where, if your crop is burning up, and you’re not going to have a crop or anywhere near what you normally do, it’s probably prudent to save that money and not spend it on a fungicide. So, then, it kind of goes back to what Pat was talking about before, what the grower’s yield expectation is. To answer your question, that’s where we have had success. But, now this year, running queries on the data, we have that 2012 data pool. So not only was it hot and dry for much of our territory that year, but we have a lot of acres to draw on locally from that year. So a lot of what we’re doing with newsletters and the videos and stuff that we’re sending out now is based off of that 2012 information.


RENEE HANSEN: Great. So Clint is basically saying if you want to get that information, you need to be in the InSite CDM program to get it.


CLINT SIRES: That’s correct.


RENEE HANSEN: That’s the benefit of being in the program. Nice pull there, Clint. But, also, you guys are not only dealing with data. You’re also dealing with agronomy, and you’re talking to growers about agronomy. So, Pat, can you share some of the conversations that you’ve had and how you’ve had to be that agronomist for them, as well? And you talked about it a little bit, but, I mean, you definitely go out to the field and look at it, as well.


PAT MAI: Yeah, I guess going out and looking at it right now, there are pockets that are starting to go the other way. So you kind of make a judgment call. Is 3% of your field, 5% of your field non-sandy spots? A lot of guys just kind of focus on those spots, and they forget about the rest of it that’s still doing okay. So do you make a judgment call on just 5-10% of your acres, or do you try to save what you got? Disease pressure, there isn’t a whole lot right now. So, typically, you want to wait a little longer. But through pollination, I guess, you want to protect that plant and extend that process as long as possible to get good grain fill. So, agronomy-wise, I guess that’s kind of where you go too.


RENEE HANSEN: Okay, great. Another thing would be planning and working with the grower from the plan from the beginning of the year. And can you talk about how you include that plan, that fungicide plan, at the beginning of the year and how it’s easier to have that conversation when it comes time to spray?


PAT MAI: Yeah, I guess, off of the past years of the data, it’s kind of showing that fungicides are paying. So a lot of guys are just prepaying for a lot of the fungicide and are planning on doing it no matter what. And with the prices the way they are, most guys still are going to do it. Some might hold their product back because they think it’s going to be more expensive next year. So they might keep it for next year. But all in all, off of the years and years of data we’ve collected, it shows for a fungicide. So, I mean, it’s pretty easy to put it in their plan now and just plan for it.


RENEE HANSEN: And you alluded to this too, Pat, that you talked about their costs. How do you guys within InSite CDM help a grower, tracking their economics and their profitability within the field? Do you talk to them about yield efficiency?


PAT MAI: Yes, we do. With the cost tracking, there again, with Clint’s calculator, that’s pretty easy to do. With the cost tracking, just kind of show what your yield response is, if you need four or five bushels to make that fungicide treatment pay. Overall, if you show how many years of the last 5-10 years, the average is pretty high. With what the cost is nowadays, even as high as it is, it still shows that it’s paying.


RENEE HANSEN: Do you have anything to add there, Clint, in regards to planning and tracking with economics?


CLINT SIRES: Yeah, I mean, the things that we’re rolling out through InSite CDM, with the help of Premier Crop, with the cost tracking, and then now with the cost forecasting, I think that definitely gets growers thinking about it in terms of a business and income per acre, what the potential is. That’s one thing I really like about that calculator. It’s because it gets you thinking about what the potential income is based on the prices, of where they’re at and where they can go. Because, in my mind, it’s really easy for a grower to say: ‘Ah, I’m going to collect insurance on that anyway. I don’t want to just save the insurance company money.’ I get that argument, up to a point. I’ve seen that before too, where you know you’re going to get an insurance payment, and you do. But, then, the price of the crop goes up, and so you’ve still got those bushels sitting there. And the more you’ve got, obviously, the better off you’re going to be at that point. Now, I understand, too, you can choose to just sell it when you get your insurance payment. Maybe some guys do that too, but there’s definitely a lot to think about. I like having the new tools because it helps growers look at that and think about it, with a visual in front of them, rather than just me talking about: ‘Well, the price could do this, and the price could do that.’ They actually get to see it, either in a chart form or a table or something like that. I just think that helps make a lot more sense. A lot of our growers have been doing something with costs, one way or the other. The adoption of cost tracking through InSite CDM hasn’t been like 100% overnight or anything like that, but we have made some really good gains with the growers that are experiencing that over the last year-and-a-half or so. And what was more important to me is the number of growers that continued on with the cost tracking into 2021 because it’s not something today that we just give away and just do for free. 


Ag Partners has a lot more time and effort invested in that. We believe the grower’s getting more value out of it. So we charge for that service. That comes with some benefits, meaning, I think, the grower looks at that and says: ‘Okay, I’m paying for this. Now, I have to give you the best data possible to feed the, for lack of a better word, model, when you’re doing the forecasting part of it.’ Garbage in, garbage out, we always say. So, if they’re doing their part and getting accurate information, they have a vested interest in making sure that, when we show them their cost per bushel — whether it’s at the farm level, the field level or within the management zone — if it’s a number they’re going to believe, they’ve got to give us the right, accurate information going into it upfront. So that’s definitely the positive with charging. The drawback with charging, especially eight months ago, when we were talking about $3 whatever corn and $8 beans, another dollar an acre — whatever you charge for it — is really hard to get a grower to believe when they’re looking at losing money at the end of the year. So it’s just another dollar of cost. So it’s really on us to show them how they benefit and profit from that extra information. And that’s where we’re lucky to have account managers like Pat, to be able to dig into that and actually show them that, because otherwise you’re just recording data and not really doing anything with it. I’ve seen the benefit of where guys get to the point where nobody’s really showing them anything or talking about anything until Pat comes in and lays it all out and says: ‘Why wouldn’t you do this? Or do more of this? Or less of that?’ Or whatever. Then, it’s like a rebirth in the program. They’re bought in again. The program is only as good as somebody that’s explaining it to them, and we’re definitely seeing a lot of that with the direction we’re going. So we’re very happy about that.


RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, when you guys are providing a value service to the grower, where they are continuously learning and continuously improving, it’s something that is so valuable to their operation because it’s helping them win in the end, no matter what. And you guys continue to do that. And, also, we talked about how you have the data for fungicides and whether they should apply or they shouldn’t, but you also have that data for whether they’re picking their hybrid, their variety, when the best time is to put anhydrous on, your nitrogen rates. You guys have all of this valuable information that a grower can get once they’re in your system, and it’s something really valuable that you guys provide. I know you guys are passionate about what you do. So can you just explain to me what excites you the most about offering the InSite CDM program to your growers?


CLINT SIRES: Well, I’ll go first. Renee, you touched on it there a little bit, having the data to make that fungicide recommendation. But it’s so much more than that. I mean, when you get all the way into what I would call the depths of the program, where you’re utilizing the management zones and nitrogen rack and stuff like that, that we do, it really is a complete system. So, when you go back to the decision of whether or not to use fungicide, well, it really depends on what you’re doing as a system. Did you select that variety that’s going to respond to it? Are you pushing that population? Have you fed that variety the way it needs to be fed in the areas of the field that will respond to that? It’s really a whole system approach, and not all of our growers are to that level. I mean, some, depending on where they’re at when they get into the program, management zones might be a big deal. They don’t have a lot of yield data and haven’t variable-rate planted or anything like that before. That’s certainly somewhere where you start, and then variable-rate planting is kind of like the next piece of that. You see a lot of excitement with that, but it’s really not until you tie the food to the seed and are putting the seed in the right spot and doing all those things. 


To answer your question, what excites me is seeing those growers that think they’ve kind of got things figured out until they get in the room with Pat and start having that conversation and find out: ‘Whoa, there’s a lot more to this than I even thought you could do.’ I’ve been through some of those meetings before, in the past, where you’ve got a grower that’s maybe been in InSite CDM for awhile, and nobody’s really showing them anything. And it’s kind of like: ‘Well, what have you done for me lately?’ And we sit down and actually go through their zones and bring up each individual field and talk through why it was set up the way it was. Pretty soon, the grower’s getting up out of his chair — because we’re projecting his management zone on a screen, on a map on the wall or whatever, a larger screen — and he’s getting up out of his chair, going: ‘No.’ Pointing at this: ‘This area shouldn’t be this way because this always happens there. You need to change it to this, and we need to do this over here and change that.’ And it’s usually when me and the advisor — me and the salesperson or whatever — we just kind of have a look that: ‘Okay, this guy’s getting it now. He’s bought in.’ These are becoming his zones, not just something where we said it had to go there for this reason or whatever. I think that’s where I get some of my most enjoyment from the program.


PAT MAI: Yeah, I agree with Clint. That’s always pretty exciting, to see the guys up and even, not really arguing, but kind of arguing with you, saying: ‘Well, it should be like this.’ Then, you can pull up data, saying: ‘Well, your fields did this and this and this.’ And they’ll like: ‘Oh yeah, you’re right. It was like this.’ Then, you really prove it to them. A lot of what I hear back from guys is that you get to hear a lot of real-world results instead of like all the coffee shop talk you hear that kind of puts everybody in perspective. I don’t know. Guys like to see that instead of just everything they hear in town. That’s where I get a lot of common zones. Other things: I like to go out to the farm with real-world data. I can prove to them and show to them all your neighbors that are in the program and, in a 5-20 mile radius, how stuff yielded and with different soil types and show them the yields. And this is why we should be doing it this way, instead of just listening to the other three or four people in his ear. It’s just nice to have real-world data that’s not lying to you. So that’s the biggest thing. You’re not wrong. You can’t argue with the data. We know it’s good data, so here it is.


RENEE HANSEN: That’s excellent. So how can a grower in your area get a hold of you guys? How can they get a hold of InSite CDM?


CLINT SIRES: Well, they would just talk to either their Ag Partners sales agronomist or go to our Ag Partners website, where we’ve got a precision ag area. You can click on that and learn more about InSite CDM, and then there are links to click on to get a hold of somebody for more information.


RENEE HANSEN: Great. Well, thanks for coming on today, guys. So glad to have you, and we’ll catch you next time. 


CLINT SIRES: Sounds great. Thanks for having us.


PAT MAI: 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. If you want to learn more about InSite CDM, check out our show notes. And to learn more about Premier Crop, visit our blog at premiercrop.com.


033: Tractor Talks with Joe Elmquist

tractor talks

Tractor Talks is a mini series here on the Premier Podcast where we join growers in their tractor cabs during the spring and hear candid thoughts on technology and precision ag.

This series is hosted by Katie McWhirter, Manager of Training and Development at Premier Crop Systems.

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

JOE: It’ll work, plus it’ll give me more confidence and allow me to have a partner and make some of those decisions without worrying so much. The group I’m with is going — I’m going to do things a little different. I’m going to do some more future stuff, which I always did, but I’m going to do them differently. And I’ve learned a lot already just by working with them. So I’m excited about that. It’ll take some of the stress, and I can focus more on growing a crop instead of how I’m going to get rid of it.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Oh, I love it. One grower I was talking with last Friday — and his dad and my dad are about the same age — and it was: ‘We’re going to do it all ourselves.’ So it just sounds like this next generation is: ‘I’m going to find good partners, good people on my team, and I’m going to do what I’m good at.’ But I’m okay saying: ‘You know what? This would really help make my life easier and have somebody else on my team to be able to help market, or if it’s a spray or your agronomist or whatnot.’

JOE: To go off of that, a lot of the same thoughts went into when I decided to work with Premier Crop. It’s the same exact thing as my marketing is. I’ve got all these maps. I’ve been saving them. Don’t know what to do with them. I could work with a seed corn company, and they could make me maps, and they probably would work. I could work with another group that does similar things, but Premier is independent, and I know they’re not selling anything. I trust everybody I work with. It takes one more layer away from making some of those decisions. It’s just an independent, unbiased opinion. They don’t care how much seed I put in the ground. They don’t care how much fertilizer I buy. They just want me to be successful. I do like that. Like the marketing, it’s given me confidence that when I write a big check for fertilizer, it’s going where it needs to be, and I’m not spending more than what we talked about and what we think is necessary.

RENEE HANSEN: Welcome to the Premier Podcast miniseries ‘Tractor Talks.’ This is a series comprised of talks in the tractor cab with one of Premier Crop’s advisors, Katie McWhirter, and growers as they are planting this spring. Listen to what their real, honest thoughts are when it comes to nutrient management, technology and precision ag.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I’m talking to whom?

JOE: Joe. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Cool, Joe. So you’ve been farming for how long? 

JOE: Since 2003.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: 2003, and did you always want to be a farmer?

JOE: Yes, but not for sure when I was going to start. After college, I was planning to maybe do something else for five years. But the way things worked out, I jumped right in after college, and it was the best thing I ever did. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Why do you say that? 

JOE: Well, timing was big because it was just the right time to get in. Didn’t know it at the time, but if I would’ve waited five years, I would have missed a lot of opportunities. Then, I just made up my mind that I should go farm now. And if it doesn’t work out, I could always go do something else instead of reverse. So that’s just kind of how I ended up farming. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Cool. So you farm by yourself? With family?

JOE: Started out partnered up with my dad. We farmed together. Then, he slowly worked into retirement, and this is the first year he’s officially retired, as far as farm ground and stuff. I took over, rented from him what he farmed, and he did it gradual. Every year, one or two farms, he’d give up. This is the first year he didn’t plant a crop or didn’t — I guess, yeah. He said he wasn’t going to plant this year. And by God, he stuck to it. He didn’t get in the planter once.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Wow. So what’s that transition been like for you?

JOE: It’s been good because he’s been very helpful, and he still helps when we’re busy. Every fall, he’s there every day. In the spring, he’s running seed and getting parts and keeping everything moving. But it’s been a slow transition. So it’s not all at once. That would have been really tough, to just say: ‘Hey, I’m done. Have fun.’ I knew. You could see it coming. We had kind of a five-year plan, and it worked out really well. He still likes to be around and likes to help. But day to day, when we’re not in the field, I might see him. I might not.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: That’s awesome. So you’ve been farming. What’s changed in that timeframe for you? 

JOE: Mostly, probably, technology. A lot has changed, from how we map things to how we do seed recs to fertilizer. And we were kind of into that a little bit when we started. When I started, he was already doing yield maps. But at the time, we just had maps. Didn’t do anything with them. Now, we’re actually starting to use them and make some decisions with them. But it’s good that we’ve got all those because we can still go back and use them. And I knew that the whole time, but how we use technology has probably changed the most. Planters have really changed. We don’t variable-rate our beans yet. It’s on the list. It’s one of the next things I’ve got to do, get there. But the corn, I have been for a couple of years now. I haven’t done it long enough to know if it’s really being effective, but the way you think about it, it’s got to be. It’s just almost got to be effective because you’re putting the seed where it needs to be instead of just blanket-rating the whole farm.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, before, you were variable-rating your corn, and I love to ask growers this. Do you think that you were farming for average? Or seeding for average? Or seeding for…

JOE: Yes because I knew that some of my — 32-and-a-half. 32,500 across the board, every farm, every acre, unless my dealer would say: ‘No, this one needs 34.’ Then, I would. Or: ‘This one, it’s a flex. It doesn’t need it. You can plant 31-and-a-half on a tough farm.’ Okay, I’ll do that. But I hit the average. 32-and-a-half was enough, but I knew I wasn’t wasting that much on the poorer-side hills and the knobs. So it’s just a happy medium. And I was okay with it because sometimes we don’t know, when we plant, if it’s going to rain or if it’s going to be really wet. We thrive in the wet years in our hills because we have natural drainage, and we lose yield on some of the clay-side hills. But everywhere else, the ridges and the better ground, it makes up for it a long way.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So why do you think soybeans is next on your list? Some people stay away from that, but you’re saying it’s next on your list. So why do you think so?

JOE: I just think there’s enough yield data now that lower pops are better, and it may even be more than we think. And last year was probably an exception because it was dry, but everything I looked at last year, the lower pops won. It almost seemed like, even on the tougher ground, where you’re supposed to use higher pops, the lower pops were better. So I don’t know. Maybe I just lower my pop and don’t variable-rate. I’m not going to trade planters just to do it, but when I do trade, the next one will have it. That’s kind of where I’ve been with that, and that’s why I still don’t have it. My planter worked again this year, so I don’t know. Maybe I’ll run it again next year, but it just needs more and more off-season maintenance each year, it seems like.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: What made your decision to — I guess you said your dad was mapping already, and I don’t know. What was the first piece of technology that you brought in when you came back to farming? I don’t know if it was row shutoffs or what, but what made you decide to start making those changes? 

JOE: We could see the money was there. One of the easiest decisions to go to technology was row shutoffs on our planter. And it was just a no-brainer in our hills and our point rows and contouring and terraces. We could see the payback, just automatic: 10%, maybe more, of seed savings and, then, in corn. Plus you gain yield where you’re not overlapping, and we even did it the same year on our bean planter. And part of it was seed savings, but part of it was just the simplicity of planting. You don’t have to run the half switch all the time. You just can plant and focus on your job instead of running the half shutoff.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: It’s kind of funny. I was talking with a grower on Friday, and he said, with all the technology and the tractor’s driving itself, he’s got time to watch the monitors, make sure things aren’t plugging and that sort of thing. In turn, as I’ve ridden with farmers in the last week, they’re so calm. You’re smiling right now. But, really, it’s not as stressful, to just be able to watch things and not be so worried about what could be going wrong back, behind, because you have the technology that’s telling you if things are wrong. So I don’t know if you can elaborate on that.

JOE: Oh my gosh, you hit it right on the head. Before 2017, I had a 16-row Deere planter with airbags. In the years we had compaction from anhydrous in the fall, the planter, I just could not get the outside couple of rows in the ground. And I fought it, and I could have added weight. Should have. But then, the next year, the ground was softer, and I got away with it. But eventually, I went to a hydraulic downforce planter and ended up going to 24-row. And apparently, there’s more weight on that bar because I don’t have any trouble with it coming out of the ground. But those years, prior to hydraulic downforce, I had very little confidence in the job I was doing, planting corn. But it was all I had, and I was doing the best I could with what I had. But every time I’d fold up and leave a farm, I knew I left some on the table, and the monitor wasn’t as good. But now, the monitor tells me if I’m skipping. Or if I’ve got a bad downforce, I slow down a little bit. Or if there are any problems at all with a meter, you just know, and it’s beeping. And sure enough, there’s a problem. You can find it. And one of the neatest things is it’s got 27 holes in the disc, and I don’t know the exact percentage. But if you get, like, 96.3, or whatever the number is, consistently on one row, you just know what happened. You’ve got a piece of corn stuck in one of those. Every round it makes, that’s why your percentage is 1/27th  off. You can just tell, before you even get out of the planter, what happened.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: What do you think is next in the industry, as far as precision or technology? This one seems to stump people, and I know it.

JOE: Yeah, I think — well, what I did this year, I don’t know if it’s next for everybody, but it was a first for me this year. We variable-rated all of our anhydrous, and that’s really not anything new, but I’d never done it. And I think that’s along the same lines as variable-rating your corn. You put it where you need it. Or we use a stabilizer on our anhydrous but not on every acre. My agronomist, who I get this stuff from, he has, over the years, kind of figured out what soils are more prone to have leaching or problems where we maybe lose a little bit of anhydrous. So he, him and his son — his son does a lot of the mapping stuff — they will map out and make a variable-rate application for your stabilizer. So they’re variable-rating my nitrogen amount, plus they have an on-off switch that’s automatic while they’re putting anhydrous on. And it turns on and turns off where they think we need it. And that’s a variable rate also. So if they’re putting more on, then they’re putting a little more stabilizer on too. I think I was the guinea pig for that this year. Because, with Premier Crop and their system, they made it work together. I think it took a little doing, but they made it work. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: That’s awesome. That’s really awesome because you bring up a good point, just regulations and environmentally and getting a grasp on nitrogen. I mean, you say it’s not new to variable-rate nitrogen. I would say a lot of growers don’t tackle variable-rate nitrogen because it’s so uncertain, and they don’t want to. I always say nitrogen and seed are sexy to talk about. So we always think: ‘More nitrogen. More.’ But on the flip side, we don’t know what’s out there, and we don’t want to be short. But environmentally, we’re probably going to be regulated at some point. For somebody like you, to already start to collect that data and have, be trialing out to see what works, what doesn’t. Hopefully, you’re going to be ahead of the game when somebody tells you how much that you can use.

JOE: And we do get by. And right now, going to the regulations and stuff, I will probably have to make a change. Because I do 100 percent of my nitrogen with anhydrous. I get a little from my dry application, depending on what products we use. But for the most part, it’s all fall anhydrous unless, like a year or two ago, it was done in the spring because there just weren’t enough good days for the applicators to get it done. And we got along fine, but I prefer it in the fall. We tend to get away. I don’t know how or why, but we use less nitrogen than what Iowa State recommends, and it seems to be working. And I don’t know if that’s the case for everybody, but you hear some of these crazy corn-on-corn numbers where, yeah, I know you need more nitrogen. Or, even, you get into better ground where the yield potential is there. They’ll just pour it too, and I’m putting 150 pounds of nitrogen on. For the last, probably, five years, that’s my number. And now, of course, this year, it was variable-rated, so we went down to like 135 up to 170. We didn’t go crazy either side, but the average was still right in that 150 to 152. Couple of years ago — and I’m in some tougher ground. It will produce, but two-and-a-quarter is the best average I’ve ever had across the whole farm. So that’s kind of what we’re up against in a lot of years. I plan for 185-190 when I’m doing the budgets and things. If we get over 200, that’s great. But we’re not surprised in a year like last year. It was really dry, and we still had 160. I was okay with that. I was expecting worse. But 150 pounds is enough for two-and-a-quarter-bushel corn. Where’d it come from? So I’ll keep putting on less.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I love it because, to actually look at the data tag, to know your nitrogen efficiency, and you bring up a great point about planning. Do you have a plan in place for all of your inputs before going into the season, or what’s that look like? 

JOE: After a few years, you kind of get the calendar routine going, where, with my fall anhydrous, I know sometime in as early as June some years — but, a lot of times, it’s some time in July — he’ll call and say: ‘Hey, I got prices for anhydrous. This is what it is now. Whatever you think, if you want to book it, great. In 20 days, I’m going to have to order more, and it’s going to be higher. I know it’s going to be $25 a ton higher.’ Then, I’ll go ahead and usually book it. So that’s the first step, usually. Then, shortly after that, we start talking seed, corn and beans. And there for a while, like 15 years ago, we were buying corn in August. And I was a dealer at the time, and I didn’t even feel comfortable. But it was more of a thing. Go talk to them. Get some numbers down. If you want to switch out your hybrids, fine. But at least get them signed up so you kind of got it locked in. But now, it’s been late October — late November even — before I have to pay for the first discount. And that’s a lot more manageable because you can get at least part way through harvest and kind of see what you’re dealing with. But for the most part, I know what I’m going to do anyway. 

It’s just a matter of tweaking a few hybrids or maybe trying some new ones. Then, December timeframe, a lot of times, I’ll try to get my chemicals figured out and get the plan for that, which means you’ve got to decide if you’re going in list. If you’re going to dicamba, what you’re going to do. And these last couple of years, that’s been a big decision that we didn’t have to make before. But I went ahead and went with dicamba beans again 100 percent this year, and — knock on wood — haven’t had any troubles. So we’ll see. Hopefully, we get some good spray days, and I can have another good year of that. But I think a lot of it comes down to just being smart and not pushing it. And I spray my own. So it’s manageable. In four days, three to four days, I can spray all the beans, and maybe less if the weather’s right. But you could just pick your days a little better than maybe we used to with just straight Roundup, where you really weren’t going to hurt a lot unless the wind was really blowing. But now, you might have to spray half a farm and then go back three days later, or even two weeks later, if the wind doesn’t change and finish it up. But I think if you respect the wind and your neighbors a little bit, you can make it work.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Do you typically stick with your plan? Or, in season, how might plans change?

JOE: Typically, my plans stick pretty much true. This year, I was planning to plant my later corn first, right around home here, and just get it in the ground so it could mature and be dryer at harvest. But, then, we got a nice window, and I changed my mind there. I started away from home. Planted one farm at home to make sure everything worked. Then, I went south and made my way around and did some tougher farms that I didn’t want to get wet in case it did rain too much. Well, what’s too much this year? I didn’t want to plant in wet holes. So I planted at the tougher farms and the farms that I knew were going to ethanol or into an air bin first this year, which is usually not how I do it. So that was a change. Then, I’ve still got three farms left to go, but they’re later maturity, and they’ll go through the dryer. So if they’re a little wetter, we’ll just wait on them and throw some heat to it. But otherwise, I usually don’t make a lot of changes. I usually have a pretty good plan going in, but I don’t change a lot from year to year either. So I kind of find something I like and sort of stick with it. Yeah, it’s hard to say. Spraying is probably where I changed the most because I always plan and buy and try to schedule two passes on corn and two passes on beans. But last year was probably the first year that I sprayed both crops twice. Everything. 

A lot of years, I’ll get part of my corn sprayed the first time, and then the last third is coming up. It’s pretty clean. I’ll just wait another two weeks or three weeks. It’ll be V3 before — I was going to spray at V5 anyway. So I think I’ll just jump out there at V2 and hit it once. So far, that’s worked, but it’s not the plan. Long-term, you wouldn’t want to do every acre that way. But on certain farms, it does work. But you’ve got to have the right weather because, then again, if it rains for two weeks when you’re trying to spray that pass and you start getting too many weeds, you start having trouble killing stuff. And I’ve even done it with some dicamba beans. I try to spray them when they are an inch tall, or so. I wait until they grow because the fields are pretty clean. I’ve been waiting and kind of doing a different approach than a lot of people, but I’ll spray when the beans have emerged or leafed out a little bit. Then, I’ll come back with just some straight Roundup and residual and maybe some stuff for volunteer corn there in mid-June and hit them again. I get that dicamba out there when the beans are growing, and I feel like maybe there are more weeds exposed. And I’ll kill more of what’s going to be a problem down the road, rather than using that in my pre. Then, you don’t spray again until June, and you can’t use dicamba then. So that’s kind of how I’ve gone with it, and it keeps working. So I keep doing it.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Good. What would you say is your biggest struggle? 

JOE: Oh, hard to say. The biggest struggle? Marketing is hard. These last couple of years — and it’s this way always — but it’s hard to know. You never know when you’re doing the right thing. So my approach has been: sell to where you’re comfortable. You’re not going to be right all the time. You’re not going to be wrong all the time. You’ve got to just know that. And once you make a sale, move on and worry about the rest. Because if you don’t, it’s going to beat you up every single day, looking back. But if you look back, what I try to tell myself is that day, that was the right decision. That’s what I felt that day. A lot can change, and then how do you know? This year was a perfect example. Things changed marketing. A lot of people were wrong, and I was one of them. But I wasn’t wrong on everything. I did have some corn to sell, and so you space it out. But marketing is a challenge because it’s not black and white. You pick your corn. Yeah, you could pick the wrong hybrid, but it’s probably still going to work. Which day to plant? Who knows? But once you’re planting, you just keep planting, and away you go. You kind of take your mind off making the right decision there, but the marketing is a whole-year thing. You can’t forget about it because you can focus on planting. You can focus on harvest; you can focus on getting your fertilizer plan ready. 

But marketing is always one of those things that’s in the back of your mind or closer to the front some days. That’s probably the biggest challenge, and I’ve been doing it myself without an advisor. I get an email or two, but I make the decisions myself. Until about three months ago, two months ago, I signed on with an advisor. And I was hesitant because there is a sizable fee with it. But I was getting to the point where I wanted some help. So I thought: I’ll just try this. And if they’re as good as I think they can be, then it’ll work. Plus it’ll give me more confidence and allow me to have a partner and make some of those decisions without worrying so much. The group I’m with is going — I’m going to do things a little different. I’m going to do some more future stuff, which I always did, but I’m going to do them differently. And I’ve learned a lot already just by working with them. So I’m excited about that. It’ll take some of the stress, and I can focus more on growing a crop instead of how I’m going to get rid of it.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Oh, I love it. One grower I was talking with last Friday — and his dad and my dad are about the same age — and it was: ‘We’re going to do it all ourselves.’ So it just sounds like this next generation is: ‘I’m going to find good partners, good people on my team, and I’m going to do what I’m good at.’ But I’m okay saying: ‘You know what? This would really help make my life easier and have somebody else on my team to be able to help market, or if it’s a spray or your agronomist or whatnot.’

JOE: To go off of that, a lot of the same thoughts went into when I decided to work with Premier Crop. It’s the same exact thing as my marketing is. I’ve got all these maps. I’ve been saving them. Don’t know what to do with them. I could work with a seed corn company, and they could make me maps, and they probably would work. I could work with another group that does similar things, but Premier is independent, and I know they’re not selling anything. I trust everybody I work with. It takes one more layer away from making some of those decisions. It’s just an independent, unbiased opinion. They don’t care how much seed I put in the ground. They don’t care how much fertilizer I buy. They just want me to be successful. I do like that. Like the marketing, it’s given me confidence that when I write a big check for fertilizer, it’s going where it needs to be, and I’m not spending more than what we talked about and what we think is necessary.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: You’re not unnecessarily — that stress is off your plate. And the time and whatnot, obviously, with three active kids. Yeah, so it made your life a little easier.

JOE: Oh, yeah. And it is fun to sit down and look at the — oh, what’s it called when they compare the different farmers?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Your benchmark and your dashboards. Yep.

JOE: Benchmarking! That was really interesting to look at. In some places, there could be improvement. But in some places, it shows you: ‘Hey, this is actually working.’ So I was really curious to see where that would come in. Yeah, it’s neat to see. You kind of know the areas you need to focus on a little more than others, and then it reassures you. Yeah, you still pay the money to see it. But in some places, you don’t make any changes because you’re already doing things as good as you can or pretty close anyway.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Cool. Oh my goodness, Joe. What else? You thought this would be hard. I don’t know. I’m, like, out of questions. You just have been rambling. I love it.

JOE: There’s a lot of neat stuff, though, from technology, and I used to get nervous about it and not focus on it at all. And I still don’t have to that much because I got help, whether it’s Dakota now helping me or Ruth in the past. And it’s so simple. They say: ‘Hey, are you done with harvest?’ Yep, just got done yesterday. ‘Okay, I’ll be over tomorrow to get your maps. I’ll get them right off there. If you’re not home, where’s the combine sitting?’ Then, they take them and then email me back the yield maps, and boom. Then, they might say: ‘Hey, we’re going to come over and load up some planter maps for you.’ Okay. I don’t do anything. I just hit the right button when I’m planting, and I got my map. It’s just simple.


JOE: Simpler than I thought it would be. 


JOE: I didn’t know how much prep work and how much I’d have to be there and understand, but it hasn’t really changed anything that way. They make it simple so you can understand it. User-friendly. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Good. That’s what I love to hear because that technology does work. I always laugh, and I always throw my dad. I don’t want to throw him under the bus. If I get my dad to use this technology, I can get anybody to use it, right? He’s that older generation, but it does work. But there’s that hesitation. Is it going to work, or is it going to slow me down? I was riding with one 70-year-old grower last week, and he said: ‘I just know.’ He goes: ‘Technology’s great when it’s working. But when it doesn’t, and I’m not planting, I think about those 10 acres I could have planted.’ Yep, I get it. But, man, it does make things a lot easier.

JOE: Yeah, you fight it sometimes, where, like you said, you got a weigh pan on a row not working. Well, if I didn’t have this technology, I could be planting. But it’s not too hard for me to say: No, take 20 minutes, or even an hour, and go get the right part because that hour is nothing when you know you did it right because of technology.

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