032: Tractor Talks with Jason Thomann

tractor talk jason thomann

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 implementing 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.

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 nitrogen management, technology and precision ag.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Tell me your name. 

JASON: Jason. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay, so how long have you been farming? 

JASON: 27 years. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay. So, as far as precision capabilities, when did you start implementing precision ag? 

JASON: 20 years ago. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And why? What made you decide? 

JASON: Save on inputs and expenses. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay, so what was the first thing that you used or switched to or tried out? 

JASON: Well, grid sampling and variable-rate fertilizer and also probably sprayer shut-offs would have been the first things.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Were you skeptical? 

JASON: I guess it worried me. The shut-offs scared me at first because I was afraid we would miss something, but they’re way smarter than we are. And it works much better. Computers are way smarter than we are, way more accurate. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, then where did you evolve to? 

JASON: So, row shut-offs were probably next, and then probably auto-steer after that. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, what benefits did you see from those?

JASON: Well, we used to always use too much seed corn because our fields have a lot of point rows. And as soon as we started using row shut-offs, if you needed 17 bags of corn for a field, that’s what you use. You didn’t use 18 or 19 or whatever else. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, what are you currently doing? All those things. Anything else?

JASON: Yeah, variable-rate planting.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay, and what benefits have you seen from that? 

JASON: A lot of seed savings. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay. Corn? Soybeans? Both? 

JASON: Both. I would say our seeding rate is down probably 2500 seeds an acre from what we would have planted when we were flat-rating everything. And our beans are probably down 40,000.


JASON: And we keep dropping that. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, you keep dropping it because you’re not giving up yield? Or you’re looking at yield? Or you’re looking at profitability as far as the measurement of success? 

JASON: We can’t see that we’re dropping off any yield by lowering our rate as long as we get them spaced right. Get them in the ground right. We went back to a planter instead of a drill. Better placement and spacing.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay. All right, and what are you running on half your planter? What are you testing out now? 

JASON: FurrowJets. Precision Planting’s FurrowJets. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And what are they supposed to do? 

JASON: It’s dividing fertilizer up into three spots instead of just one in-furrow spot. We’re hoping it’s going to help break up sidewall compaction. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, what’s the next thing for you? Technology or precision? What’s next?

JASON: Well, we’re looking at some other planter attachments. Other than planter attachments, I don’t know that we’re going to buy anything else. Right now, we just probably tweak what we’re doing.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay, would you say that you go into the season with a pretty definite plan of what you’re going to do on each field? 

JASON: Well, we always plan for a big crop. 


JASON: We don’t plan for failure ever. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. So, what makes you decide to alter from your plan, if you alter? Maybe you don’t.

JASON: I guess if we need something in season, we’ll do it. We use fungicide on all of our corn. Whether they say we need it or not, we’ve been doing it all because we think it pays. And last year, actually, we did fungicide and foliar fed all of our beans. Probably continue doing that. That one’s a questionable one probably on the year.


JASON: I mean, we don’t side-dress as a rule, but if we need to, we will. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And what makes that determination? 

JASON: Weather, probably. We have enough out here already, unless we need to supplement it later.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, do you test to know that you’re going to need more, that you should side-dress? Or what?

JASON: If they regulate it, they say it would be too low of rates. My dad loves the anhydrous, and he loves to pour it on.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Nitrogen’s sexy, right? So, you like a generous estimate.

JASON: Right. Yeah, it is. And I was trying to spread my hog manure out and just putting out what I needed, but I got tired of him out-yielding me. So, now I’m pouring it on too. Are you going to go cheat the poor part of the field because it doesn’t have a history of yielding as well as the rest? You’re going to not feed it as well? 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: No, but do you actually need more in those areas because your nitrogen efficiency is going to be better in your higher organic matter areas?

JASON: Well, so, shouldn’t it compensate? It’s probably not going to yield as much, so it probably doesn’t need quite as much in the poorer yield. So, you already kind of are, right? 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Or is it a matter of timing? Right? I mean, so, essentially, you need to come back with extra in those areas. It’s a good conversation. 

JASON: It is. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: This is going to make a wonderful podcast. 

JASON: It is. So, you’ve seen our fields. They’re up and down and around. 


JASON: The logistics of that are sort of difficult. You’re going to have to drive the whole field to get a certain spot, you know what I mean? To get the right spots, you’re basically going to have to go over the whole field. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, you typically wouldn’t come back and side dress?

JASON: We don’t, typically.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay. Both of my other recordings have said they think the next thing for them or the next big thing, not necessarily for them but eventually, is autonomous. So, what are your thoughts on that? Your face got funny on that. So, two different trains of thought on that. The one I rode with yesterday talked about ‘autonomous’ for him because as far as, from an operation standpoint and workforce, he just can’t get labor to assist. I mean, I think about it, and your dad’s just pulling in. We should be recording this with video. I mean, your dad’s 70. Your son’s 13, so it’s going to be a little while, right? So, how do you fill that need for labor? And does autonomous capture that? Or does it assist with that? 

JASON: I mean, autonomous sounds great. I guess it’s no different than me planting corn when I’m sleeping. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. Or you just let it drive itself, right? 

JASON: Right. I mean, when I’m sitting in here, and I’m sleeping anyway. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: What’s scary about that? 

JASON: If something breaks on the planter, how’s it going to know that? If a wheel falls off, how does it know all the things that are going on? I mean, I know it’s going to be good, but can it sense? How are they going to sense all those little things? So, like you were riding with me the other day when that wheel came off, and I saw that darker streak in the ground. Would it have known that? 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Where do you feel is your biggest struggle today? 

JASON: I guess labor. Well, we really only need labor in the fall. We have enough help most all the rest of the time. It’s actually not crops that’s the issue. It’s livestock. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, you’re in growth mode. 

JASON: Yes. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay. So, do you think that technology and all this technology has made your life easier? Enabled you to do more? Be more efficient?

JASON: Yeah, it definitely has. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, I mean, I know you watch Netflix.

JASON: As long as it’s all working, it’s great. 


JASON: When it’s not working, it’s really not great. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: How willing was your dad? Your dad’s older, and we think of that generation as not being tech savvy or wanting to adapt to technology. And change is hard. So, how willing has your dad been to adapt? Or you really didn’t have a choice?

JASON: Actually, he’s really open to new things. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Why do you think that is? 

JASON: I don’t know. He just always has been. I know I talked to some people, that their dads don’t want to do that. They don’t want to do that, but he’s always been open to trying new things, as long as I get it to work for him. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, it’s got to be easy. 

JASON: For him. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: For him, yeah. 

JASON: Yeah, I mean he wants to do it, as long as I can make it work for him.

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:

031: Tractor Talks With Mike Berdo: Part 2

tractor talks podcast

Tractor Talks is a mini series here on the Premier Podcast where we join growers in their tractor cabs during the spring and hear their honest opinion on 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 at @PremierPodcast.

mike berdo

RENEE HANSEN: Welcome to the Premier Podcast, where everything agronomic is economic, and welcome to the series of our ‘Tractor Talks.’ This is part two of the series of Katie and Mike talking in the tractor as they are planting this spring. Follow along, and if you haven’t, check out episode one.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, it sounds like you trust it. You have very good, obviously, relationships with your agronomy team. 

MIKE: Oh, yeah. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: That is important in any sort of business, to have teamwork. 

MIKE: Totally. I think there are several people that you should have on your team that are a big asset to your success and your farm. I think, number one, is — well, I think there are several number ones — but that is your banker. Whether good or bad times, he needs to know what’s going on and vice versa. He needs to tell you what’s going on, whether you need to refinance something. Just have a good banker. I’ve been through several bankers in my lifetime, and my banker right now is roughly my age — two years older — and he’s awesome. He didn’t come from a real farming background. He’s more of a business banker, but he’s awesome. He is money smart where I am not.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. That’s why you have him on your team. Because you’re not an expert in that. 

MIKE: Correct. And he’s not an expert, in farming, on what I need to buy or what I need for a line of credit or something. And I think another person on your team you need to have is, unfortunately, a good lawyer. 


MIKE: Insert curse words there, but I think that is important to make sure you’ve got your rear covered in case something would happen.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I’m looking right to the north here. And I just think: we sit in a pretty good county but between two counties that don’t necessarily like farming or aren’t educated enough.

MIKE: Correct. Farming’s evil. We dump everything in the river.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. But we look at how close we are to town, and you’re right. There could always be that threat, legal-wise, and that sort of thing.

MIKE: Yes. Yes. And I don’t know — it’s not a list, but I think another number one is, of course, your family. 


MIKE: Communicate with your family. Hash everything out.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Mike, I was riding with somebody this week, and he was telling me that he and his brother haven’t always gotten along. And they finally just had to have a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting and be like: ‘Listen, if we’re going to make this work, we have to put aside our differences and learn how to live together.’ It seems like you and your brother have a very good relationship.

MIKE: We do. We do.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And I’m sure you have your ‘times.’

MIKE: Oh, yeah. We have our times. If you don’t, let me know. If your family is all hunky-dory, unicorns and rainbows — really? No, it’s not. No, it’s not!

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. Nope. That’s good because, from a longevity standpoint…

MIKE: Right. Right. I mean, I’ve been here 20 years. I’ll be here in another 20. 


MIKE: Hopefully, maybe 20 after that. I don’t know. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, what do you feel is your biggest struggle within your operation? Or a struggle? Maybe I shouldn’t say the biggest, but what’s a struggle? 

MIKE: Good question. I don’t know. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay. I just kind of threw this at you, so I realize…

MIKE: No, that’s a very good question. I don’t know. The ability to — and it comes back to having somebody on your team that helps you with this — but to decipher information. Speak English to me. I don’t need a bunch of fluff. X equals Y on the radius of the…what? Tell me what it means in English. That’s my biggest struggle, to decipher information to — sometimes — to get this technology to work. Like last year, I was applying liquid manure through this monitor, the Pro 700, thinking I was making as-applied maps. Spent several thousand dollars for this equipment, and our tech guy at Case IH said: ‘Are you sure you were making maps last fall?’


MIKE: I go: ‘Well, it was doing the color code on the Pro 700.’ Yeah, I can’t find your maps. Like, where’d they go? I don’t know. I’m like: ‘Oh, shit!’ So, we got just a few numbers, and that was it, over like 200-300 acres of liquid hog manure. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: You’ve come a long way, though, to map your manure. 

MIKE: Totally! 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I mean, I’m thinking back…

MIKE: But I didn’t get information into here. Thought I was doing it on this little screen here, but — so, there again, try again next fall. So, okay, I’ll always sit down with it. I’m not going to be calling him every five minutes — I need you to come out, and they come to see if I got a map. So, I need to know: ‘Okay, I did this field. How do I know it made the map on the cloud, on a flash drive?’ Tell me how to do it, so I’m not bothering you when you’re knee deep in another guy’s project, and you get frustrated. And I get frustrated because we supposedly have this information, but nobody really knows if it’s there. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And you’re right about the cloud, and that’s probably why, with your iPad and FieldView — I mean, you could see the map right away or in the Ops Center. Yep. And I know that Case has got a new program out. I don’t have a lot of experience with it, so I don’t know. But you’re right. It’d be nice if they all talk together. 

MIKE: Right, right. But I need to know how to see if that information’s there, if that makes sense.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: No, it does completely. I think, from a couple standpoints, if you’re doing any sort of manure trials or leaving strips or anything of that — and I’m sorry. Again, back to ‘environmental’ and that sort of thing, to be able to prove what you put out and where you put it, I mean…

MIKE: Totally! Yeah, because we’ve got manure management plans for our hog buildings, and the DNR gives you no notice, basically. ‘Oh, hey, we want to come see your records.’ How soon? ‘Oh, within a couple days.’ Oh, really? Okay. But I always have a backup. I free-hand it, okay? We spread 200 acres here in town from a site. So, we have that information. We paid for that equipment. We paid for that equipment, and what’d we get right? Zero.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. But you’re so different because I think there are a lot of people out there that they paid for this stuff. I mean, they bought it, don’t utilize it and it’s like: ‘Why?’ Why wouldn’t you use something you bought? Like, let’s buy groceries and just let them rot in the fridge.

MIKE: Right. Would you buy a pizza and not pick it up from the carryout? Just saying. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Pizza does sound kind of good right now.

MIKE: I’d be there five minutes early, banging on the window. There again, it’s not hard labor. And another thing about that: you have to be here every day, whether it’s livestock, corn, soybeans, sunflowers, goats, whatever. Shit doesn’t get done if you’re not here.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, it’s a business. 

MIKE: It’s a business. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And it’s no different than it is very hard to manage a business when you’re not there. I mean, yes, you can do some things from a distance, but as hands-on as farming is, you’ve got to be present. So, if you wouldn’t have become a farmer — this is one of my questions that I think is great. If you wouldn’t have become a farmer — come back to farm — what do you think you’d do? 

MIKE: Shit hauler. Hands down!


MIKE: A shit pumper. Yes. I absolutely love hauling shit. Absolutely love it.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Which is funny because I love to do it too, but it was not the spreader that you have. So, why do you love to do it? 

MIKE: Love my brother dearly. Love my family, but nobody bothers me. Put the pit in the pump, put the load stand up to the tank and haul shit. I’ll call you when I’m done and need help. And everybody just leaves me alone.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, it’s just your alone time. 

MIKE: It’s just my alone time. I love doing it. I’ll run — not to blow my own horn — but I’ll do it all night. All day, all night. Give me a 12 pack, a 5-hour Energy and a drink. I’m good to go, and I love it. But looking back, here we are 40 years old. I would’ve done that, hands down. Hands down. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: It’s funny — and I’m looking out. We’re so close to town. What this will look like 20 years from now?

MIKE: Right. There’s the old calendar factory, where the Playboy calendars were made back in the day. What’s that? Changed hands three times probably? 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And that expansion — and there’s another one: the Dirtworks.

MIKE: Yup. You’ve got Walmart. The airport’s expanded like a family practice here.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, you’re going to have to be more efficient, raise more. I mean, raise more on less.

MIKE: Correct! Everybody’s going to have to.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Do you use your data with livestock? I mean, the dairy industry is so good about data and technology, and I feel like pigs are so far — not so far behind, but…

MIKE: The dairy industry, you’ve got to remember, produces. Yeah, everybody out here produces a food product, but they are producing a very consumable product, if you will. I mean, everything’s got to be spotless. I mean, we don’t sanitize hog buildings after every pig eats the feed.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. Nope. Nope, you’re right. 

MIKE: I mean, I’ve been to a couple of dairies, and you talk about hard work. Those people — there is no rest. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Yeah. I’ve never complained — okay, maybe a couple times complained about a gallon of milk, but I buy it, right? You don’t complain because these people work…

MIKE: Chocolate milk’s my best friend. My best friend! But those people, they get no rest. Back to their record-keeping technology, they’ve really evolved, in my mind. The hog industry has really evolved, in the last 20 years or more, with the advent of sow units. The consolidation. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Yep. Well, they can sort pigs by weight now. I mean, there are those that are a little further along than others. I get that. Yeah. So, I shouldn’t have said that.

MIKE: But the days of having hogs outside are over. I got on the end of that when I came home from school 20 years ago.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Oh, but geez — and those that still do it, more power to them for the niche markets, and that’s great. But, I mean, cold nights, rainy times, those pigs in the field, right? I mean, so that’s brought about good change. Good change.

MIKE: Correct. For labor, the environment, for everything.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. But even this morning, when I was riding with you, I mean that’s technology, to have that cool bale unwinder.

MIKE: Bale processor, yeah.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: There we go. I mean, before, how would you have done it? 

MIKE: Just take a bale out to the field, tip it on in, take the mail wrap off, go get another one, do the same thing. I think, back to the hog thing, the technology with — we’ve got alarms that’ll call your cell phone.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: For those that don’t know, why do they call your cell phone?

MIKE: In case the power goes out, high temp, water pressure goes down. Mainly if the power goes out because if the curtains are up, those pigs have minutes to live because it’s so airtight, they’ll suffocate. But then again, we got backup generators, which are pretty much mandatory for insurance reasons now. But the beef industry, I think, has — the technology is not there with confinement. I think they’re still trying to figure that out with air quality issues. Some people think they’re the greatest thing on God’s green earth. Some people build them, and they curse them because, in the winter time, it’s humid, and you can’t keep everything dry. It’s not a nightmare, but it’s a struggle. And I think — give it time, and people will have more of a refined building for beef production. But it’s come a long way, having calves in a 1912 barn that grandpa built. Hopefully, they do okay. So, yeah. That’s my two cents on it.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And yeah, probably raised them that way. As you’re talking, I’m thinking — and they have, as far as genetics, embryos…

MIKE: That’s another thing. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Those sorts of things, hands down they’ve done. Yeah, you’re right, and it’s an evolvement, right? I mean, the dairy industry didn’t magically overnight become what they are, and they were able to track each cow and how much milk and how much feed, right? But it’s so cool, though. And as I’ve ridden with some older farmers, one yesterday morning or two mornings ago, he was 70. I forget how many years — so, it was his 52nd crop he put in, and I’m like: ‘Think about how things have changed in 50 years.’ So, think about this, Mike. 20 years in. Go down the road another 30.

MIKE: Right. Crazy. I don’t know. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I don’t know. I don’t know.

MIKE: I don’t know either.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: But exciting, right? 

MIKE: Totally! Oh, yeah. You’ve got to stay on top of it. That’s another one of my struggles. We’re not going to use the latest and greatest technology for 1000 acres. I guarantee it. I mean, this is all used equipment we bought on AgTalk, that my brother bought on AgTalk.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: But you’re proof that you don’t have to have the latest and greatest too. I think part of it is I want to do a little bit better. We don’t have a bottomless wallet. So, how do we make the small changes to make the largest effect or have the largest impact on our own operations?

MIKE: And stay competitive. That’s what expansion is all about. It’s not, pardon my language, but having a big Peter contest of building hog buildings and renting ground. No, you’ve got to stay competitive, or you know what? You’re going to go to the end of the line. So, I don’t know. My brother probably sells around 30,000 head of hogs a year. When I came home 20 years ago, I don’t know if we’d sell maybe 5,000 a year. So, yeah, he’s put up hog buildings and expanded. And he’s got a family of five too. So, there are more mouths to feed. So, there again, everything’s relative. You’re not going to feed a family of seven on 5,000 head of hogs a year and expect things to work.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I think that’s what people don’t understand. I think back 10 years ago, and they’re like: ‘Oh, they’re farming so many thousand acres.’ Well, right, but there are two brothers and a dad. That’s three families. 

MIKE: Right, and we have neighbors west of town, in our neighborhood. I don’t know. There are dozens of mouths to feed there. And they farm 10,000-plus acres. It’s not because: ‘Oh, look at me. Look at me.’ Because they’ve got to support themselves. They’ve got to make a living. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. I agree.

MIKE: So, everything’s relative.

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:

030: Tractor Talks with Mike Berdo: Part 1

tractor talks podcast

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 precision ag thoughts.

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

If you are enjoying the show, tweet us at @PremierPodcast.

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 in the field this spring. Listen to what their real, honest precision ag thoughts are when it comes to nitrogen management, technology and precision ag.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: All right, tell me your name. 

MIKE: Mike.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: All right. So, Mike, how long have you been farming? 

MIKE: So, I graduated high school in 1999 and went to Kirkwood in Cedar Rapids for two years, majoring in diesel mechanics. I came home in 2001, 20 years ago, about this time and came home to a wet spring. We planted like 10 acres in the month of April. And I came home, end of April, first part of May, and helped my brother put the whole crop in that year. I’ve been here ever since. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Wow. So, why diesel mechanics? 

MIKE: It was something new, something that intrigued me other than farming. Just something different. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Interesting. So, 20 years of farming? Things have probably changed quite a bit. 

MIKE: Totally. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay, so what would you say are some of the biggest highlights of what’s changed since you’ve come home? 

MIKE: The technology, I think, number one, with the auto-steer, data recording, data record-keeping and also the amount of management that is required to run a farm. I’ll stick by this comment till the day I die, but farming, anymore, is not hard work. It’s more management. That’s the hard work. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I’ve heard that. I have heard that. 

MIKE: The hardest work I do all week is load hogs. And that’s anywhere from three to four, maybe five, times a week. And that lasts an hour. The rest of it is choring, which is all mechanized, pretty much pushing buttons, running a skid loader, driving a tractor. But the days of baling hay, walking beans, manual labor? Those days are not gone by no means but rapidly disappearing, in my mind. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, they’ve made you more efficient?

MIKE: Totally. Yes, yes. Like I said, I’ll stick by that comment for a long time.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And I laugh. Go back 20-30 years ago — I know how old we are. 

MIKE: Yes. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: The whole ‘dumb farmer’ of the eighties, right? I mean, if you weren’t going to do anything in life, just go back and farm.

MIKE: Right. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Don’t you think that is just completely the opposite anymore? You have to be business-oriented. 

MIKE: Correct. Totally. When your dad, my dad, was farming — when they were our age and younger — it seemed like no matter what they did, they made money. I mean, if they had a few sows, a few cows, they made money. Yeah, corn is what? $6, whatever. Yeah, times are good right now, but how are you going to manage that to get the most profit potential per animal per head per acre bushel? That’s where the management comes in. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I remember talking with a large livestock guy, and he said, when he was losing $3,000 a load on hogs, he goes: ‘We try, during those good times, how much can we bank up? Because when those valleys of despair come into play, we’ve got to be able to roll through it.’ Right? Because you’re going to have ups and downs. It’s interesting. So, obviously, the technology piece of it, I’m just curious as I look at your monitor, which is a Pro 700?

MIKE: Pro 700. Yep.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Excellent. So, you are not driving the tractor. 

MIKE: No. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, how has auto-steer and — I mean, we’re out, field cultivating?

MIKE: Soil finishing. Yep.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Soil finishing. Thank you. All right. So, we’re soil finishing. How has auto-steer made you more efficient with doing soil finishing? 

MIKE: So, this is, basically, our first year with auto-steer, fully.


MIKE: Automation. We’re running off WAAS. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, why’d you do it? 

MIKE: Just because all we had to do was buy the hardware. This tractor was wired for it. We had to buy the monitor, some hydraulic equipment to get this tractor on auto-steer. But right now, as we’re doing this, I can look back and make sure everything’s working, watch my gauges, do whatever. And this thing stays on course. We’re doing a simple operation right now. I can’t imagine. My brother’s planting a field clear across the town. He’s running the planter. He can make sure, watch his monitors, make sure the dry chain’s not popped off. Do whatever. I’m doing one thing. He’s doing multiple things at one time. We had auto-steer on the liquid shit tank last year, and that was huge. 


MIKE: I could make sure the plow’s not plugged up. It just relieves a lot of stress. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Mike, as I’ve ridden with farmers this week, I would say — and at first I was questioning, like, are they acting this calm just because I’m in there? But it was like they really were relaxed, and it’s the end of April. I mean, normally it’s like April 11th? Oh my goodness. We’ve got to go. 

MIKE: ‘Oh my God, the sky’s falling!’ 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right! And here we are, the 27th of April, and everybody’s just calm, and we’re going.

MIKE: Yeah, this week, a lot of units basically started this week. 


MIKE: But, in my opinion, there are a lot of people: ‘Oh, I don’t need that automation. Oh, God, that stuff costs money. Blah, blah, blah.’ Yeah, everything costs money, but we’re not overlapping. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I was just going to ask.

MIKE: We’re being more efficient with our time, fuel, money. And auto-steer? Automations? This sort of stuff does have value. We only farm 1000 acres. I’ve got friends who farm tens of thousands of acres, and they’re RTK, RTX. And they’re right on the money. Yeah, we’re maybe going over six H’s or something, but it’s the real deal.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, you said it best. I mean, you’re saving time and so much before. I don’t mean to laugh at our father’s generation, but I don’t think that they really took into account how much value their time had.

MIKE: No, not at all. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And I think that’s a big thing.

MIKE: Time is a commodity. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. 

MIKE: How you use it is up to you, but wow. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, and it’s funny if you go through the ISU custom map survey. Like, what would be the average, with labor? Right? If you had to pay for this to be done and pay somebody for their time? But farmers are like: ‘No, I own the equipment. It doesn’t cost me anything.’ And we’re like: ‘No, it’s fuel. It’s tractor. It’s wear and tear.’ It’s their time, and you’ve got a bunch of livestock. I mean, there are other things you could be doing at that time. 

MIKE: Right. Right. I don’t know. My brother bought all the equipment for this automation, and I was like: ‘No. It’s your money. You can spend it on what. I don’t care.’ We don’t tell each other how to spend each other’s money. But it’s the real deal. I highly recommend it. I think anybody else would. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, your brother’s off planting. You guys have been doing precision for quite awhile. Soil sampling, that sort of thing. Okay. So, what do you feel has been the most beneficial for you? Has it been grid sampling? Is it this sort of thing? I know you went to Precision Planting a few years ago, and you were pretty excited about it. I mean, you went from…

MIKE: From nothing to we’re mapping our fields now. We’re not doing any prescription planting yet. But yeah, we went from the Kinze monitor to an iPad to the 20/20 so we can see our simulation population. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And why is that important to you? 

MIKE: Just, there again, I mean, nothing’s cheap. With our inputs, we need to know what we’re doing per acre. And some people are probably doing it knowing what they’re doing per seed. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: No, we laugh at that, but it’s probably coming, right?

MIKE: Oh, totally. Yeah. What’s next? 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. Oh, and that’s one of my questions. As I’ve ridden with farmers, like what is the next thing? What’s next? Okay, so let’s start with that. What’s next for your operation? What do you think? I mean, and maybe not this year. Maybe it’s two years down the road.

MIKE: We’re going to have to upgrade planters, whether new, used. It doesn’t matter. But to do multi-hybrid prescription planting on a farm like this? We’re south of town right now, Washington. This farm is probably one of our best farms. It’s flat black, and why wouldn’t we take advantage of that? We’re set up with the auto-steer. If that technology is there, it’s going to save seed. The neighbor who farms a lot of ground, a lot of rough ground, has a multi-hybrid planter. And he’s set. He’s doing a version of Premier’s record-keeping, grid sampling. The whole envelope. His rough ground out-produced some of his better ground by just doing the prescription planting with a multi-hybrid planter.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And knowing how to do it. I mean, you can’t just go out and throw two hybrids in and pick some rates. There has got to be some data analysis. I give you and your brother props just because you knew you weren’t going to variable-rate seeding. Previously, when we worked together, we wanted to keep all this together because when we do make that switch, we want to be really confident in what we do.

MIKE: Yes.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: You don’t want to start with nothing in year one. You want a little bit of confidence.

MIKE: And with Chase Gingrich and yourself, we have that confidence to make that next step. And with the support of technologically savvy people, we have that luxury of making those steps with those people on our teams. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And isn’t it funny? I mean, you talked about the rougher ground out-producing or maybe being more profitable than the better. This makes me think back to group data and some of the analytics that we did. I remember a set of two brothers that was like: ‘So, what you mean is I should go to the auction and buy the CSR ground that’s like sixties.’ I was like: ‘No, no, no. I’m not telling you to go buy that.’ But it’s about management. 

MIKE: Yeah!

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And, really, there are things you can change and fix but those that you can’t manage differently so that you’re not treating every field the same in order to be more profitable.

MIKE: Isn’t that what Premier’s doing right now?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, that’s true. I know that!

MIKE: I know. I know!

KATIE MCWHIRTER: But you know me. I mean, I’m passionate about it because…

MIKE: Right!

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I laugh. I’ve been to Oklahoma and Kansas. And, I mean, there are guys being more profitable with 80 bushel corn on dry land than somebody who’s producing 150 bushel here in Iowa. And I’ll guarantee you their land rent…

MIKE: Yeah, everything’s relative. 


MIKE: And they’re not — down in Oklahoma, what are they dropping for population? 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: 14 to 17. I mean, depending. 

MIKE: Half as much as we are.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right! So, it is. It’s about management. So, for you guys, it’s going to be that. What else do you think is on the horizon? 

MIKE: That’ll be our next big step. What do I think the next big step will be? There will be — I don’t know when. I’m a conspiracy theorist, but there will be some sort of a ‘microchip’ in these seeds to give us — if somebody was out there in the middle of the night, cutting cookies in the field — to give us moisture, weather conditions. I don’t know.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And not only that. From traceability, sustainability, this stuff is not going away, as far as having to prove that food is safe and that sort of thing. 

MIKE: Yes. It’s, like, cool with livestock. Harvested in the USA. 


MIKE: I don’t know. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Isn’t it funny? Because we could have — back when we were kids, I watched ‘The Jetsons.’ I don’t know if you did.

MIKE: Oh, yeah!

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay. So, you think about it, like: ‘Rosie, clean.’ 

MIKE: ‘Hey, George!’

KATIE MCWHIRTER: ‘Rosie, clean.’ And I’m like: ‘I have a Roomba.’ I have a robotic vacuum. And they used to call up on the screen, and we were like: ‘Oh my goodness. They’re making phone calls while looking at people.’ 

MIKE: FaceTime.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. FaceTime. And, my goodness, COVID brought us Zoom. And everybody’s so Zoomed out. We thought it was so cool on ‘The Jetsons.’ 

MIKE: Right! And here we are.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: But it’s reality, right? I mean, cars drive themselves, and tractors drive themselves. So, that’s interesting. We talked a little bit yesterday. You said you changed up some of your practices. So, you’re going to come back on some corn on corn and do some side-dress that you haven’t done before. 

MIKE: Correct. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, you’re using the data that you and Chase have been collecting and analyzing. 

MIKE: Yes, yes. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: That’s awesome because, to me, data’s data. But if you don’t do anything with it…

MIKE: It’s useless.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: It’s useless! 

MIKE: Right. What are we doing this for? Why are we paying Premier per acre if we’re not going to…


MIKE: Okay. Chase, Katie. Yeah, we better be doing this. Okay. Let’s give it a whirl.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. So, that’s exciting. Are you excited? Nervous? Both? 

MIKE: I don’t know.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Because you primarily have a lot of hog manure. 

MIKE: Yes, yes. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And that’s where a lot of people are like: ‘Oh, but I got hog manure. I got manure.’

MIKE: There have been mixed thoughts. I don’t know. Some people are: ‘Oh, yeah. It’s there.’ No, you’re good to go for the year. And other people are: ‘Oh God, you jackwagon. You better be putting something else on.’ Which we put — I don’t know — 40 to 50 units, all with the planter, of liquid off the back. And we’ve done that for almost 10 years and — I don’t know. I think some of this hog manure does get away on some of these hills. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Or is it available? Yeah. 

MIKE: Is it available? Did it get away? We used to put Instinct on. That was kind of a pain in the butt with the equipment in the fall. Sometimes it wouldn’t work. Sometimes it would. So, how much did it get on? Nobody knows. So, we went away from that last year, and we got a toolbar from a neighbor who wasn’t using it anymore. He said: ‘Use it. Tell me what you think. Whatever.’ Okay. So, we’re not going to do it on all our corn-on-corn acres, I don’t think, but we’re going to give it a try. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And I think — which is awesome to split up nitrogen like that. I think, as we read more and — again, I’m not going to get into politics or anything of that. I mean, regulations have been on the horizon for years, right?

MIKE: Oh, yeah!

KATIE MCWHIRTER: And, eventually, right? Everything that happens on the coast moves its way in. So, I mean, for you, I would think that you’d feel a little better, if/when regulations happen, that you’ve got a better handle on…

MIKE: Right. We’ve been doing this for X years.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. So, all of a sudden, if you’re told an amount, it’s like: ‘Okay, we’ve fine-tuned. We’ve done a lot of data analysis on our own fields.’ Not in Crawfordsville. Not in Wyman or wherever the research farms are. 

MIKE: Right. On an ISU research farm.


MIKE: No, we’ve been doing it here, on our operation. Oh, you want records? Oh, here you go. But we did, in turn, give up spraying on our own. We’re going to have that all hired out this year just because we probably can’t do everything.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: But, again, part of your team, right? I mean, it’s a trade off.

MIKE: Yeah, totally. Totally.

RENEE HANSEN: Thank you for listening to the Premier Podcast and our series of ‘Tractor Talks.’ This conversation with Mike and Katie was so great that it extended, and we’d like you to stay tuned for part two, coming soon.


Free Resources:

029: Tractor Talks in the Cab w/ Noah Coppess

tractor talks episode 1

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 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.

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 nitrogen management, technology and precision ag.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Okay, Noah, so you just said it’s crazy where this technology is going. Elaborate on that.

NOAH: Our planter is from 2009, and it’ll tell you all these things, down to a tenth of a percent for simulation, downforce and all the stuff you want to know while you’re doing it. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, why do you want to know that?

NOAH: It gives me an idea of how fast I can go in the field. It helps me be efficient with the equipment from field condition to field condition because our down pressure and ground contact relate to seed depth. The seed spacing relates to seed spacing, and all those things relate to yield. If I’m in a nice, smooth field, I can cruise. If I’m in a rough field, I can slow down, and I can see the difference.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: What’d you do before? 

NOAH: Just went slow. You had to go a certain speed because that’s how you were trained, or that’s what somebody told you was the right speed. Now, with being able to see what the planter’s doing, as far as staying in contact with the ground, being able to see what speed does to accuracy. I can vary that from field to field and be a lot more efficient. I would’ve never guessed I could plant 6-7 miles an hour with a planter that’s 10 years old and doing a good job. There are a few conditions when it’s just right. You could do that. Then there are times where you’ve got to go four miles an hour.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: So, what made you decide to use all this technology?

NOAH: When I started farming full time, when I left the dealership, I was pretty aware of it, just from selling it at the dealership. After using it day in and day out, you really start to understand the value of it.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: What struggles have you had?

NOAH: Generations. So, your account rep at the co-op, if they embrace it, can be really helpful. If they don’t embrace it, that becomes a challenge. Or seed rep, the same type of deal. 

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Why do you think they don’t embrace it? 

NOAH: I think it’s a generational thing. The younger people or middle-aged people probably do more than most of the traditional retirement-age guys, but I say that tongue in cheek. My uncle is a retirement-age kind of guy and really appreciates the return that you see on knowing what you’re doing and the ease of operation with auto-steer and things like that. So, that’s a challenge. It’s also an asset when you find somebody that does embrace it. It’s tough when I park the planter, when a seed tube sensor isn’t quite reading right or something, but you still want accurate data. So, it’s like, I know I can plant. I know the planter is doing a good job, but the information it’s recording isn’t accurate right now, and so those are tough days. I’m more or less disciplined based on what the weather’s doing on most things.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I had a grower yesterday tell me, he said: ‘Technology is great when it’s working. When it doesn’t work, and I have to stop just to fix the technology, when I know I could be planting, and I could have 10 more acres done, that’s the hard part. To be disciplined.’

NOAH: It’s not a flat tire, right? You can keep going. 


NOAH: For me, it’s just recognizing them. You don’t know what we don’t know, and so we’ve got to report it and then try it.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Interesting. So, what are some of the things you’ve learned as you’ve used this technology and the data?

NOAH: We’ve changed our fertility programs based on analysis and realized that phosphorus doesn’t have a significant return at higher levels. Parts per million north of 40 or 30 are just a waste of effort, to a certain extent. Yeah, so like the soybean population thing, right? So, we’ve learned that we don’t have to be at 150,000 planted seeds to have 70-80 bushel beans.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Or where we started, oh my goodness, 2014-15? When did you and I start working together? 180,000? Right?

NOAH: So, even just in the last 12 months, we’ve realized that, in our C zones, we don’t need to be up in that 167.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, I think that’ll be even more interesting. Where we had pushed in those C zones for population on beans but not tying the economics to it, it was strictly yield. I think that, then, puts another layer of learning on top of it. Because all right, well, maybe we are yielding the same, but is the extra 40,000 seeds whatever we were pushing?

NOAH: A discussion Molly and I had this spring was in our A zones. Last year, we had 120,000 as our target. And we had high and low checks in our A zones of like 90,000 and 150,000, and they were all within a bushel of each other. So, there was really no rhyme or reason to the population piece of it. 


NOAH: And so, then, we said: ‘Why don’t we plant our A inside of 100,000?’ Then, we did the same in our C zones. I look at my B zone as kind of the field average. So, I don’t do a lot with the B zone. I try to do my learning in the A and the C. So, in the C zones, we had targets of 170-180,000, and we had some checks in there at 200 and some checks at 150, and same thing. I saw yield reduction at 200,000, and the same at 150 as we did at 180. Then, it was, well, maybe our C zones need to be lower. If you think about what you’re doing there agronomically, you’re asking a below-average piece of soil or area of the soil to produce seeds on 180,000 plants. 


NOAH: It kind of goes against what you’re asking. So, we back it off to try and get a little healthier plant or seed size. Bean size has been bigger in the lower populated areas, and they’ll tell you at your Pioneer meetings that corn yield comes from kernel size. So, the bigger the kernel, the bigger the corn yield. Then, the same would apply to beans to a certain extent. So, we’re kind of exploring that a little bit.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: That’s interesting. What’s the next thing in technology or precision ag?

NOAH: That’s always the big question. What’s next? For me, it’s updating, getting caught up, maybe doing the same thing we’re doing with a little newer equipment. So, my 20/20 SeedSense is Generation 1 stuff. 


NOAH: Whether I trade planters or upgrade this planter to some of the higher speed technology, with the hydraulic downforce and things, that’s kind of where I’m at. Getting a little more current. Autonomous equipment’s going to be a big deal. It is, but I don’t know if that’s a 20-foot planter holding a 100-horsepower unit or something, or if that’s great, big planters. I don’t know where that direction’s going, but it’s just so hard to come by it. I didn’t have seven kids. My grandpa was smarter than anybody gives him credit for. He had seven kids. Out of seven, only one stuck around to farm, so I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t do it all right, either. I don’t know.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: It’s interesting. I had yesterday’s grower say the same thing about autonomous. I asked if it was going to be big, like operations. Or if it’d be more of the in-between-the-row sprayer — smaller to be able to go through, work all night, identify pests, weeds, nutrient deficiencies, to be able to apply those.

NOAH: To a certain extent, the equipment precision industry threw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. So, we’re kind of at the mercy of what’s available to us. The other thing that we’re really working on, away from the equipment but in the agronomics of it, is just efficiency of fertilizer. If our yield target is 300 on a field, say today we’re averaging 270-80 on a farm, and our target’s 300, is that wiper nutrients that get us there? 


NOAH: We’ve got our macros, our N, P and K, at pretty high figures. So, what’s that next thing that consistently gets you there? If Mother Nature cooperates on an average year, and you’re at 270-80, what makes that 300 on an average year?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Look back 5-10 years ago. Sulfur wasn’t really anything. I mean, it was a micro. And now, I mean, sulfur is such an important part of most people’s fertility programs. They realize it. 

NOAH: We spray a lot of acres for higher feed co-ops, and every corn acre has got ATS on it. And now, on our farm, every bean acre has got some form of sulfur.


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:

028: Yield Efficiency in Your Operation

yield efficiency

Today we are talking with Dan and Renee about the significance of using yield efficiency in your operation.

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

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

DAN FRIEBERG: When we talk about yield efficiency, to me, it comes down to us being willing to track the economics of the decisions that we’re influencing with the grower and tie it out economically for the grower. In a lot of people’s minds, yield has theoretically represented higher profits, but we also know that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes higher yields come at so much higher costs that they aren’t more profitable. In general, that hasn’t been that wrong. If we can produce higher yields many times, it is more profitable because you’re spreading more units of production over the same fixed cost, and one of the big fixed costs is land cost. Whether you produce 100 bushel of something or 200 bushel of something, unless you have a flex lease, a lot of times your land cost doesn’t change. There are rental agreements where the land owner is sharing both in the upside and the downside associated with higher yields and all that. So, yield efficiency, for us, is the dollar-per-acre return to land and management, and the reason we define it that way is because we don’t influence what somebody pays for land. We don’t influence their land cost.

Don’t get me wrong. They can use data. They can use the analytics we provide to make land rent decisions, to make land purchase decisions. So, they always have. They use analytics to help them decide what to rent and what to buy and all that. On a yearly basis, we’re not impacting land cost, and management cost is another one where we probably don’t have as big an influence.

There’s a lot rolled into management. For a lot of operations, it includes family living and health insurance and a whole bunch of other things that are really a key part of the operation but not something that we advise on. But we do advise on nutrients. We spend a lot of time helping growers manage their nutrient investment. We help them a lot with the seed investment, both what they choose to buy and where they plant it and at what rates. And we also help on crop protection decisions.

Then, the fourth one is operations. We don’t advise on operations. We don’t get into what equipment they should buy. There are a lot of data analytics tied to operations. We can analyze no-till versus conventional till, and we can break down and analyze differences in cost associated with different tillage types. Yield efficiency, for us, is just about how do we drive higher return to land and management? We do that through how we advise growers, how we advise them to spend nutrients, seed and crop protection dollars.

RENEE HANSEN: So, why is that becoming so much more important now than it was 10 years ago?

DAN FRIEBERG: It has always been important.

RENEE HANSEN: But are margins getting tighter than they were 10 years ago?

DAN FRIEBERG: Not today. They just blew. Margins are record high. I mean, people’s optimism at the farm gate has bounced way back. We’ve had this dramatic uptick, so margins are stretching back out. So, opportunities for people to make money, but Renee, it doesn’t matter. In good times and bad, this message resonates. It makes sense no matter what. Spending your money wisely just makes sense. Are growers more aggressive when the commodity prices are high? Some of them are. Some of them are way more aggressive. Will more growers take a chance on fungicides because of high commodity prices? Absolutely. Commodity prices have increased more than fungicide prices. When commodity prices are high, it takes less bushels to pay for the fungicide. So, more growers will probably take a shot at fungicides this year than in past years.

RENEE HANSEN: We also talk about, sometimes, growers wanting to grow their operation. Tell me more about that.

DAN FRIEBERG: It’s really natural. It’s just the competitiveness of agriculture. There are a lot of growers who are adding to their operation. They’re wanting to add. It’s all about spreading yourself and your employees and your equipment over more acres. If you can add another thousand acres and still farm in a timely fashion, it makes it more economical. Combines are really expensive, so being able to spread that combine over another thousand acres drives your per-acre costs down, which is the same with your labor. There is additional labor cost to farm another thousand acres. But even labor — employees come with a benefit package. You have to pay benefits. There are a bunch of employee costs that, if you can spread it over another thousand acres, it helps pay the bills and helps you be more profitable.

RENEE HANSEN: So, can you explain the metric that we’re using? We’re using a gauge or a metric, or we’re giving a yield efficiency score. We’re using that per operation, and we’re also doing it per field because we can do it spatially. So, can you just tell me more about each of those?

DAN FRIEBERG: Sure. So, the gauge you’re referring to is what we call the Yield Efficiency Score. Really, it’s a fairly simple formula. It’s just a benchmark selling price that every user gets to set. We’re not benchmarking who sold the best, so it’s a benchmark selling price times your yield. So, Premier Crop, part of our analytics program is we’re using the yield file. So, we’re receiving all this yield data. It’s benchmark selling price times yield minus your investment in nutrients, seed, crop protection products and field operation. What’s left is return to land and management. How many dollars per acre do you have left to pay for your land cost and your management costs? So, what you referred to is part of what we’re able to do. Let growers benchmark themselves, their yield efficiency score versus other growers in their area anonymously. Growers like that. It’s just another way to make sure you’re on track or just see how you’re doing compared to others.

So, that comparison, people like. They like to be able to anonymously compare with really quality data. That attention to getting the data right is really a big deal and having good quality data. So, that’s a big piece of it, but then the other part you referred to is being able to take it down to a field level. It’s not just benchmarking outside your operation. How do you compare to others? It’s within your operation. If you’re farming 50 fields, just being able to rank order those 50 fields from a yield efficiency standpoint, return to land and management, that’s a significant piece of analysis.

Renee, as soon as growers see those scores, trust me, they do the math so fast on land costs. They know exactly what their land cost is for each field. It’s not something they have to go look for. Then, the last one that you talked about is being able to do it spatially within a field, which means we can do it by management zone within a field. Which is really, by far, the most important to me because what we consistently do for our customers is we spend more in certain parts of the field. We know there are a lot of times, if you’re following our recommendations, it could be a $50-or-$80-an-acre higher input spend. In some parts of the field, we’re spending significantly more on nutrients, and we’re increasing the seed population.

So, we could easily spend more in part of the field, and the reason it’s so important to be able to track yield efficiency spatially within the field is so that, at the end of the year, we can prove to the grower that extra $50 an acre in the best part of the field generated more, far more, than the $50 of additional input costs. For me, this is, just this yield efficiency thing, is what we should have done. 10 years ago, yeah, we probably should have pushed harder to do it then because I think growers always respond to anything if you can prove that something pays for a grower. They’ll respond to that.

For a lot of new growers — we’re really blessed with a lot of growers who have been with us for decades, and the reason they have is we’ve convinced them over the years that it pays. They wouldn’t keep buying our service if they weren’t sure it was paying. But for a lot of new growers, this ability to tie economics and just have a report card every year that shows: where we spent more, we made more, or where we spent less, we made more.

Throughout the entire field, being able to document that what we spent made them more in either higher input investment or lower input investment. Really, growers respond to profitability, but there are so many people who talk about it, and they have no way to prove it. Everybody that drives up the driveway talks that way, but they can’t prove it. They can’t. That’s kind of the magic of what we do. This is the grower’s data. We’re using all the grower’s data, and we’re proving it.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so tell me about using all the grower’s data. You say others are saying that they use profitability. So, what are we doing to prove it? You kind of gave a list of the seed, the nutrients, operations, crop protection, but can you go dive a little deeper?

DAN FRIEBERG: Sure. So, when we talk about all the grower’s data, it starts with just naming the field and getting a field boundary. Once you get the field boundary, you can go get the soil’s data, and now you can get LIDAR data, which is elevation data. So, you can kind of have an idea of how water moves within the field, but then we just keep adding to it. Soil sample information is a big part of it, whether it’s zone or grid sample. A lot of our customers are grid samples, which means we’re measuring organic matter and pH and soil test nutrient levels within the field in small increments, like couple-acre blocks.

So, we’re measuring all those layers of data, and then, when the planter makes a pass across the field, we’re grabbing planting date. We have row spacing and population and the hybrid and variety that got planted. And that hybrid and variety is not just the company and the number, but it’s also the trait package. We’re able to sort SmartStax versus VT PRO versus some other traits. When it comes to nutrients, we’re grabbing the soil sample data. For us, it’s about what we add, whether we’re making the addition of nutrients through manure, or whether it’s with commercial fertilizer. We’re tracking the rate, cost, timing, and if it’s fall versus spring versus side dress. We can track all those details. If the nutrient had an additive, we’re tracking that, and then you step into crop protection.

Now, because of weed resistance, crop protection is, again, becoming much more complicated than it was for a decade when it was just how many ounces of Roundup people were using. Now, it’s a lot more. There are a lot more products being used. It could be 40 different combinations of additives and crop protection products. Each time, it’s the product, the rate, the source, timing, costs, so just terrific detail. Tillage, field operations, how many passes, what the passes were. Just try to incorporate as much detail as we can about what’s happening within the field so that we can do the best possible job of managing all those inputs.

RENEE HANSEN: So, how do we compare this anonymously with another grower, apples to apples? Because you just listed a ton of data layers, a ton of cost information, and let’s say somebody else doesn’t have all that information in the system. How can you compare that apples to apples and get a benchmarking yield efficiency score?

DAN FRIEBERG: We can walk people through this really quick. Renee, there are a lot of growers who have data. They just don’t — it’s scattered. I mean, they have data in the Ops Center. They have it in Climate. They have it in some retailer’s software. I mean, it could be a retailer’s software. It could be on their own. I mean, it’s all over the place. Sometimes it’s not in a digital format. Sometimes it’s written down. It’s just all over the place.

But a lot of growers have data, and part of it is how we pass down farm equipment. Every time somebody buys a new piece of equipment, they trade. So, it’s like existing farming operations. They trade, and as they trade, somebody else trades. And when they trade, they trade the technology with it.  They’re not stripping the monitors out of the cab each time they trade. A lot of times, they’re not. So, that technology is being passed down, meaning there are a whole bunch of growers who don’t operate new farm equipment, and they have the technology in the cab. There are just a lot of growers who have the capability. They have the capability of collecting data and capturing data, and they have a lot of variable-rate capability of which a lot of them aren’t using.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, I was just going to ask you that too. Can you elaborate? The growers have so much that they can do with their data. Do you feel that they don’t even know what they’re capable of getting and gaining with the technology they already have?

DAN FRIEBERG: I think, a lot of times, with a lot of people — a lot of growers and a lot of people — it’s finding somebody you trust. If the person you trust for advice doesn’t talk to you about this or doesn’t have a solution, you might not ever pursue it. You might not pursue it on your own because, in your circle, nobody’s championing why you should be using the technology in the cab or your data to make better decisions.

RENEE HANSEN: Well, if somebody doesn’t mention it to you, you don’t know what you don’t know.

DAN FRIEBERG: Yeah, you don’t. You literally don’t. So, I think that’s part of what happens. Another place I wanted to go, Renee, was people talk — I mean, when I talk about everybody that drives down the farmer’s driveway has a profitability message, a lot of times, they say return on investment. They wrap everything. So, the number of times people say ROI or return, it becomes a buzzword that nobody backs up. Nobody has. When they talk about backing up their ROI, they pull out some plot book. It’s some trial that happened someplace else.

You can’t really tell somebody the ROI unless you do an experiment in the field, and that’s really what we do all the time. We do experiment after experiment, in volumes, in growers fields. It’s all in pursuit of having better recommendations so we can calculate ROI. It’s so that we do know whether that input paid or not. If I go out to a grower and I talk to them about nitrogen rate, and their total N rate is 200 pounds of actual N, and I think that they’re over-applying, the best possible way for me to have that discussion is just to suggest that we put a lower-rate experiment in their field. It doesn’t have to be a lot of acres, but if that works, then the grower saves money and gets higher yields or same yield. That’s a starting place and a discussion.

Same with everything. Every input decision can become an experiment. So, to me, the best way to get an ROI is to simply do a trial. And we’re not talking about — when I got in the business, a trial meant flags. It meant field flags, and it meant a ‘weigh wagon.’ That’s how you did trials. You just spent all your — like I spent all fall running around with a ‘weigh wagon.’ Literally, just day and night, running around with a ‘weigh wagon’ because that’s the only way you could do a field trial. And now, everybody’s got the ability to measure. The monitor in the cab is measuring.

So, a little bit of help on calibration, making sure you’re calibrated, and you’re off and running. We can use the technology to execute field trials, and it’s just so much easier than it was years ago. And it really just opens the door. It opens the door to back up the ROI message over and over again. It doesn’t have to be results from somewhere else. We say growers love local data, and you can’t get more local than my fields. That’s who we are. It’s not: ‘How did it do somewhere? How did it do for your neighbor?’ It’s: ‘How did it do for you?’ And doing trials is a big piece of what we do.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and you’re talking about the buzzword of ROI, and I feel like Premier Crop has coined the buzzword of yield efficiency. I’m starting to see yield deficiency pop up in other places, people talking more and more about yield efficiency rather than using ROI. And why is yield efficiency a more important message than ROI?

DAN FRIEBERG: So, for me, they can be really similar. I mean, they can be part of the same discussion. So, for me, yield efficiency is just combining economics and agronomics, and it’s at every level. It’s sub-field, in a trial and management zones in a field. It’s this field compared to another field. Across your whole operation, how do my fields compare?

Then, it’s being able to go beyond your own operation to: ‘How do I compare to peers in my neighborhood or my region?’ A lot of times, when I think of ROI, I tend to think of it as — so, yield efficiency is this all encompassing bucket of nutrients and seed and crop protection and field operations. But, for me, ROI is more about individual components that make up those buckets.

If I’m a grower, it’s like: ‘What’s my ROI if I put 50 pounds of Y-DROP nitrogen on?’ So, later nitrogen. What’s my ROI if I do a fungicide? What’s my ROI if I do a biological? All those things, all those decisions roll up into yield efficiency because they’re all input costs. And, hopefully, they impact yield. So, all those things roll up into yield efficiency. But when I think of ROI, I’m thinking of individual decisions. I mean, decisions I’m making about input components of what goes into yield efficiency.

RENEE HANSEN: Well, and I think it’s important to note, also, it doesn’t have to be with a variable-rate application of anything. You can still get a yield efficiency score with flat rate.

DAN FRIEBERG: Sure. As we onboard new growers, that’s a big deal, just to capture where they are. Before you started doing anything, what was your yield efficiency?

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so if somebody is coming on board and is not doing any variable-rate nutrients or seed, they can still get a yield efficiency score in a benchmarking setting.

DAN FRIEBERG: Yep. Renee, earlier on, I just remembered what it was I wanted to talk about. Earlier on, you kind of said or you asked something like: ‘Why don’t more growers, or why do I think more growers don’t do this or think like this?’ I think that a lot of growers have the attitude of: ‘Been there, done that. Got the T-shirt.’ They think they tried it. Somebody pitched them an idea, and told them about precision ag or whatever buzzword they used at the time. Then they created this expectation and didn’t deliver.

RENEE HANSEN: There’s no follow through.

DAN FRIEBERG: Yeah, so there are a lot of growers who, you meet with them, and they say: ‘Tried that 15 years ago. Didn’t work here. Doesn’t work here. Maybe it works where you’re at. It doesn’t work here.’ Then, you really start asking questions about: ‘What do you mean it didn’t work?’ And what you find out is they never compared. They never looked at the relationship of yield and the prescription, whatever it was. Nobody did the basic analytics for them.

The classic one, 20 years ago, was people would say: ‘I’m going to grid-sample your field. We’re going to variable-rate apply nutrients. And all these multi-colors, from high to low, on the map, we’re going to even all those out. We’re going to build up the low areas pull down the high areas. Your map will all be green. We’re going to make your field uniform.’ And 12 years later, the field is no more uniform than it was to start with. And my point is that should never have been the goal. You get paid on yield efficiency and on generating more return for every dollar you invest. You don’t get paid for making your fields uniform.

The reason it didn’t work, Renee, is because the high-yielding areas tend to pull down nutrients because you’re consistently removing more nutrients from those areas. And even though the equation, the variable-rate equation, was supposed to be dealing with that, it never caught up. Those high-yield areas just kept producing more and more, removing more and more, and the reason the field wasn’t more uniform at the end of four years or 12 years was just they never kept up with that additional crop removal associated with really high yields.

RENEE HANSEN: So, the way I see it, utilizing a yield efficiency score, the way that we are calculating it, can potentially help a grower to grow their operation in a multitude of ways. Not only by gaining more acres, but they can also, potentially, gain more profits with what they already have by optimizing and utilizing some variable rate to see where their yield efficiency score is. They should be able to see what fields really aren’t producing as high, so they shouldn’t be spending as much in that field, in certain parts of the field.

DAN FRIEBERG: I think the whole yield efficiency message is just, I think, it helps growers know their costs. It helps them know. I mean, it’s just putting data to work for you. Really, like you say, you can drill down on which fields are most profitable, which aren’t. You can drill down on which parts of fields are most profitable. I think the more you help growers know their costs, the better managers they are.

RENEE HANSEN: But I feel like they already know their costs. I feel like most of them are like: ‘Oh, no, I got that. I got it on a spreadsheet, have my tally and  know exactly what I’m going to be spending on my inputs.’

DAN FRIEBERG: And you’re right. They know their costs across the whole operation, probably. I think the difference is just knowing it within field by field and within fields. So, it’s probably just the nature of being able to break it down into finer resolution. Renee, what we don’t do is take university-average cost associated with farming and divide it by their yield. This is not pretend economics. This is tracking. Like I say, we track if that part of the field is getting 10,000 more seeds than the other part. We’re tracking the cost associated with that 10,000 more seeds in the best part of the field.

RENEE HANSEN: We talk about plans, like having a plan and then pushing that to ‘actual.’ This is the ‘actual.’ I mean, we’re talking about what actually happened.

DAN FRIEBERG: Growing your operation is a tough one, Renee, because there are so many pieces to it.


DAN FRIEBERG: One thing that stands out to me is — it was from a winter grower meeting. And these growers were talking about how there was an area where there’s a lot of livestock also, and they were talking about how every pen of pigs or cattle that they sold, they knew the economics associated with that pen, meaning they tied it out economically. In livestock, it’s just such a part of the culture. Every unit of production gets tied out economically.

So, sometimes, I’m so jealous of the livestock industry because I feel like: ‘Okay, you guys are way ahead, like we’re playing catch up.’ But that’s really what we’re trying to do. Tie out every unit of production economically. It’s not enough to know just what the total weight was. It’s converting the weight and the input cost into dollar returns. And that’s kind of what we’re focusing on.

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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027: Nitrogen Strategies for your Fields

Today we are joined by Mike Manning (aka @datamanning on Twitter) and Renee Hansen as they discuss nitrogen strategies for your fields.

Mike is an agronomic information advisor in the state of Nebraska. He’s a western Nebraska farm kid from the panhandle. Mike has been working closely with growers throughout most of Nebraska for the last eight years, with a wide range of precision and agronomic experience.

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

RENEE HANSEN: Hey, Mike, welcome to the Premier Podcast. Today, we’re going to talk about helping a grower have a nitrogen strategy. So, first, I know you’ve been on the podcast before, but can you just quickly introduce yourself and tell us what you do at Premier Crop?

MIKE MANNING: Hi, Renee. Good to catch up again. Mike Manning, Premier Crop Systems. I’m our Nebraska Account Manager and Agronomic Information Advisor. I support some of our retail partners in a few different areas and work directly with a good set of growers across the state of Nebraska.

RENEE HANSEN: Thanks for that intro, Mike. Also, I know there are a lot of people who follow you out on the Twitter world, and you’re known as who on Twitter?

MIKE MANNING: DataManning. You can find me on Twitter @DataManning.

RENEE HANSEN: Perfect. Great. Well, thanks for that introduction. So, let’s go into this nitrogen strategy and why we believe that a grower and why you believe and work with growers who should have a nitrogen strategy. Let’s just take it from the first step of planning and having a plan and a strategy when it comes to nitrogen.

MIKE MANNING: Well, you hit it right on the head. First, we have to have a plan about how we’re going to go about applying our nitrogen or what our season-long plan is for nitrogen management. The simple answer is there is no one-size-fits-all solution, especially when it comes to nitrogen management. It needs to fit into your rotation. It needs to fit into your logistics, your available labor, how you’re going to manage different cultural practices and other tools that you have at your disposal, whether that’s equipment limitations, irritation or rainfall limitations, yield potential. All these dynamics play together.

One I’ve left out there would be topography and soil types. Also very important. A lot of nitrogen plans probably have fallen under that cultural practice of what a specific area has been accustomed to doing. Some examples of that might be 100% of total expected nitrogen needs applied in the fall with anhydrous ammonia or spring-applied anhydrous ammonia. I’d say, really over the last 20 years, you’ve seen more of a move towards split application of nitrogen. There’s a fair amount of research that’s come behind that’s, I would say, pretty widely accepted in the industry now that split application of nitrogen is much more common than it ever used to be.

With what I work with in Nebraska, it’s almost universal. I know that’s not the case in some of the rainfed states and different management systems and on different soil types. I wouldn’t even say growers that are limited to owning their own equipment. Even one split application, maybe anywhere from 50 to 75% of their nitrogen upfront in the spring pre-plant or early post-plant and, then, a single side-dress application.

Probably, more commonly, what I see for that nitrogen delivery method is some form of upfront pre-plant. Pretty common to come back with a weed and feed pass, where we have 32 or 28% nitrogen, potentially some Thio-Sul mixed in with an early post-planter, early post-emergence application. Then, perhaps another trip back across the field with a coulter bar at about V5. In the great state of Nebraska, with our irrigation, we tend to put it on season-long. We’d like to fertilize through our pivots, generally, at about 50% of our total N needs.

RENEE HANSEN: So, Mike, you’re talking, I mean, you’re going right into application timing. How does somebody plan for their application timing? Obviously, in Nebraska, they do have the capability to do that because they are working with a pivot, but for the rest of those who don’t have some kind of irrigation system, how do you plan for those different application timings? What are you looking at to make that plan? Are you using data from the past? Can you do it year one after you use the data, or do you need to be in a system for numerous years to develop a bigger plan, a bigger strategy?

MIKE MANNING: You’ve asked some multifaceted questions there. So, let’s kind of break that down one by one. Let’s just go. Let’s say we’re making the decision to go between a single application, like we historically have, and two applications. We’re going to split some portion of our total nitrogen pounds. The best way I explain it to growers is that our corn crop has a season-long nitrogen requirement. The closer that we can supply our synthetic nitrogen to that growing crop, or to the crop as it’s growing through the course of the season, the better efficiency we’re going to have.

There are definitely places in Iowa and Illinois with very high organic matter. Very strong holding capacity and some very nice flat-level fields. Dan Frieberg shared it many times in the past. Well, we kind of call it our surrogate data. Why are we seeing, in the group data, these 100% nitrogen fall-applied ammonia always showing up as the highest yielding in the database? Well, we were making those applications to some of our best fields. We could go place all that nitrogen at that time, in the fall, how to be available. And there are prime acres to begin with. The acres that were receiving a split application, or had some other balance of nitrogen pounds throughout the season, were those rolling hills mixtures of sand and clay and just more marginal acres that needed to be managed with a different stroke anyway.

Probably one of the biggest things I see, as it convinces growers to spread those nitrogen pounds out over the course of the season or minimally making more than one application, they see improved efficiency. And by improved efficiency, talking about pounds of nitrogen to produce a bushel of corn. We generally see higher yields at the same time. So, it becomes a win-win. To what I think was one of your second questions: how many years of data do we need to have, or how do we arrive at our total nitrogen requirement? Again, we can kind of break that apart in a couple of different pieces. For somebody that is making a single application, I would say just take a couple of fields and plant a split application. Again, how does that fit into your labor and logistics workflow?

For growers that own their own equipment with the sprayer, it’s pretty easy to convert. Not too much more difficult to incorporate a weed and feed side-dress nitrogen going on with your post herbicide. For guys that hire their spraying out, it might make sense for them to acquire a coulter bar and go make an application in season. Or at least go rent one and try it. Take a handful of fields and just try it for a couple of years. Now, if you have 6% organic matter on perfectly flat earth, you’ll probably completely disagree with me. If you farm anything other than that, I would put my money on split applications just about every time.

RENEE HANSEN: The split application is really becoming more popular. You mentioned that in the beginning of this podcast, that you’ve definitely seen the trend move the line more towards split applications. So, you did mention this also about nitrogen efficiency based off of the field. So, can you talk about why having a plan, a nitrogen strategy, how that makes you more efficient with your nitrogen to gain more yield?

MIKE MANNING: Combination of factors. I’d say, bottom line, it does. A split application helps us be more efficient. If we’re measuring the results off of our farm, we can actually see what those real efficiency values are. With Premier Crop, we talk about zone management a lot, managing fields by zones. Zone management makes sense. Just for my standard disclaimer on that, we’re not talking about zone soil sampling. We still have a grid soil sample underneath of that. One of our favorite methods for arriving at Management Zones is principally looking at historic yield data. For the most part, the best area of the field has always been the best area of the field. The poorest area of the field has always been the poorest area of the field. Using other pieces of spatial data to maybe augment that, whether that’s grid sample data, EC, EM data, soil survey maps, where applicable. We can use that to help augment and guide zones.

So, now we think of our traditional Premier Crop ABC management zone approach. We start seeing efficiencies. You start breaking that out year over year, especially in those corn years. If I see consistent efficiency of, say, 0.75-0.8 pounds of synthetic nitrogen per bushel produced in my A zone, maybe 0.9 or 1.0 in my B zone and maybe anywhere from 1 to 1.2 pounds of nitrogen in my C zone, I see that consistency. We can confirm our zones. A, we know our zones are behaving how we believe they ought to be behaving. B, we’ve dialed in management, probably with a variable-rate seeding approach, as well. And C, now we can start incorporating these nitrogen efficiencies that we’re observing within the field. That becomes an efficiency driver.

If I’m producing 280 bushels in my A zone, but my efficiency is at 0.7 pounds of nitrogen, I really only needed 196-200 pounds of synthetic nitrogen in that A zone. In that C zone, that’s at 1.1, and it’s producing 225. I probably needed 240-250 pounds of nitrogen in that C zone. At the end of the day, it’s spatial management. As things change in the field, we’re adapting our management to it and, then, marrying economics and efficiency back to it. Now, it also ties right into sustainability. We’re being a lot more — we’re just being smarter with how we’re applying fertilizers on our fields.

RENEE HANSEN: Mike, that was going to be my next question to you, and I think you already answered it. When it comes to nitrogen and efficiency, it couples the economics, so profitability for the farm and sustainability to the land.

MIKE MANNING: Absolutely. It’s agronomics, economics and the sustainability piece. Agronomically, we’re producing good bushels. Economically, we’re doing it very efficiently. Sustainability-wise, we are being good stewards of the land and being good stewards of our fertilizer resources.

RENEE HANSEN: Lastly, can you talk a little bit about what Premier Crop is doing with what we call Enhanced Learning Blocks and possibly what you can do with a nitrogen strategy?

MIKE MANNING: Sure. So, Enhanced Learning Blocks, I’m pretty passionate about Enhanced Learning Blocks. I’ve been using them widely since 2016. I haven’t done a ton with nitrogen, but there’s certainly an opportunity to do that. So, an Enhanced Learning Block we’re taking builds off the traditional Learning Block concept.

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Let’s take a two or three-acre block in a known area of the field, and let’s change our rate. Let’s go up or down. Well, Enhanced Learning Blocks enabled us to introduce both randomization and replication. So, instead of testing a single rate in a two or three-acre block, let’s test three or four different rates and then replicate it five times. So, now, in the case of nitrogen, if I was, say, on a side-dress application, I was coming in with 30 gallons of 32%. Let’s pull up 28.005. So, if I was at 30 gallons there, I’m looking at about 90 pounds of nitrogen.

Within that Enhanced Learning Block, maybe it’s about four acres in size now. Let’s test rates at 20 gallons, 25, 30 and 35. Or 25, 30, 35 and 40. This system — we build it into the prescription system — enables that application to execute in the field. Then, we can have statistically valid nitrogen response results to review at the end of the season. That becomes very powerful. What is the right rate? Obviously, one trial one year from one field is not going to answer the question for your entire farm. It starts you down that path of learning.

In many cases where I use Enhanced Learning Blocks with my growers, we have multiple blocks where you have anywhere from one to five blocks per field, and we replicate that on just about every field they farm. So, they’re building a research quality data set off of their own farm with their precision equipment. I’ll leave it at that. Nitrogen management and how nitrogen behaves in the soil, in the environment, and how it performs agriculturally, agronomically for us, is probably one of the most complex aspects of agronomy. Again, just to reiterate, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but it is about tailoring and optimizing things that best suit your farm.

RENEE HANSEN: And that’s why having a nitrogen strategy and building that with an agronomic information advisor like you, Mike, is really helpful. You have the knowledge. You see the data, and you can help the grower learn, year over year, how to best get the best profitability and sustainability on their land.

MIKE MANNING: Absolutely.

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/blog.


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026: Unlock Insights of your Farming Operation

Today, we are talking with T.J. Masker, Senior Product Manager at Tractor Zoom, headquartered in Urbandale, Iowa. They are focused on helping bring price transparency to farm equipment and valuations for farmers, bankers, equipment dealers and insurance companies. T.J. has a lot of experience and knowledge in the precision ag space. Today, I asked him questions on how to unlock new insights to your farming operation using precision ag.

RENEE HANSEN: You are listening to the Premier Podcast, where everything agronomic is economic. Today, we are talking with T.J. Masker, Senior Product Manager at Tractor Zoom, headquartered in Urbandale, Iowa. They are focused on helping bring price transparency to farm equipment, and valuations for farmers, bankers, equipment dealers and insurance companies. T.J. has a lot of experience and knowledge in the precision ag space. Today, I asked him questions on how to unlock new insights to your farming operation using precision ag. Hey, T.J., welcome to the Premier Podcast. Just wanted to talk to you a little bit about unlocking some of the new insights to a farming operation. I know you have a lot of experience. So, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

T.J. MASKER: Yeah, I grew up on a small family farm in southwest Iowa and did the traditional thing. Went to Iowa State, got an ag business degree. For the last 11 years of my career, I’ve been working directly with farmers, helping them manage and understand their data better. So, whether that be agronomic data like soil tests, machine data that we get around like fuel usage or, in my current role helping farmers really value farm equipment, as that’s becoming the second highest cost on the balance sheet. What we’re really trying to understand is how we can make better decisions from that data. But the common theme is that ever since I went to Iowa State and graduated college, I’ve been passionate about helping farmers with data to make better decisions.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, you’ve had a lot of experience with data since you’ve been working in the field. So, can you tell me that? What is your experience with other precision ag systems, and what makes data so important?

T.J. MASKER: Yeah, I remember this, probably, like it was yesterday. I was covering a territory in south-central Iowa for one of the major seed brands. And I had farmers who kept asking me, like: ‘What can we do with this data? How do we start to think about how we utilize it more?’ This was almost eight years ago, and I literally Googled, like, ‘farm data’ something or another, and it led me, ironically enough, to Premier Crop and filled out the ‘contact us’ button. Then, I think it was Tony or Ben or somebody who reached out to me about: ‘Hey, we’d love to talk to you, understand where you’re coming from.’ And that ultimately led me to working with Premier Crop about seven-and-a-half years ago and doing direct advising with farmers in central Iowa.

Many of those farms that I worked with back in the day, I’m still really close with today as I’m trying to solve new and unique problems. I think, at that time, I had zero experience with precision ag. So, I had to learn how to set up the monitors, what Ag Leader SMS was, what software was to make better decisions. It was also my job to go out and recruit farms and help their operation. So, over that time, I had to learn a tremendous amount about precision ag. I had to learn what it was capable of. Ultimately for me, it came down to that there’s so much value in this data and what we can get out of it if we’re measuring things correctly.

I think one of the things I experienced, even with the farms that have been collecting data for 15 years, was that, man, if we get this data structured in a way, it’s going to allow us to unlock so much potential. And whether that be if you’re using Climate FieldView or using John Deere Ops Center or using Granular, where I was at. It doesn’t matter unless the data is structured in a way that you can get the results out of it. And that, to me, was always the biggest ‘light bulb moment’ for a lot of the farmers.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so since you’ve had the experience working with multiple different systems, what makes a specific platform better than another?

T.J. MASKER: When I talk to farmers about it, it’s really measuring the ROI, I think. Dan, I probably coined his phrase too, but if every agronomic decision is an economic decision, and we think about things that way, it fundamentally changes why we might do something. So, I think about systems that are able to actually provide that value to you as a farmer, and there’s not a ton of them out there. But we also need those systems that allow us to move data more easily. So, that’s why Climate, John Deere Ops Center, Ag Leader AgFiniti is another great example.

Those tools help us get the data from the farm into the trusted advisor or the partner’s hands really quickly to make better decisions. That is valuable. I can tell you that there’s a reason why those tools are so heavily used because it solves a pain point. What I like to think about is: that’s one step. The next step is taking all this data and turning it into a better plan for next year. So, if I was at Granular, the way I described this problem is like: ‘I need to understand what we did and then how we did to understand what we need to do differently next year.’ So, if you focus on farmers collecting all this data on what they did, let’s get the scorecard for how they did at the end of the year.

So, tools like Premier Crop. You think about all the things you can do with the query tool to answer questions from your data. Then, the real power is like: ‘All right. Using all this data, I now know with a high level of confidence going into next year that I’m going to have the best possible plan I can have.’ Mother Nature and God willing, things are going to fall into place. Well, let’s use everything we’ve learned to come up with the best possible plan, and we’ll adjust in season, right?

Planting could get delayed by two weeks, so we might have to adjust seeding rates. All those things come into play, but let’s start with the best possible plan. And I think that starts with collecting and analyzing really great data throughout the previous growing season or previous seasons if you will, if you think about how many years of data a farm might have.


RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, I think you said something in there, like competence. Where a grower just really needs to have that competence within the data. They’re collecting so much of it anyway. So, getting a grower started, it seems really overwhelming sometimes. Just getting started with data because of the systems you mentioned. They have Climate. They’re using John Deere Ops. Then, to add another system to their whole platform can seem really overwhelming.

T.J. MASKER: I’ve done customer discovery the last seven-plus years in my different product roles. If you talk to every farmer, they’ll tell you they just want one system to manage everything. The reality is, that’s not possible. We as an industry need to do better to make things connect more easily. You’re starting to see that. The easier we can make it to connect different parts of the puzzle to the key people that need it, that is where you really drive value for the farmer.

If you think about all the trusted people that the farmer is working for, you’ve got agronomists, an equipment dealer, a seed rep, and a banker. You’ve got probably a commodity broker advisor. You start to see all of these people that are helping the farmer with all the information they have. It becomes really powerful if you can connect all those dots. I think, for a while, we as an ag industry or a tech industry didn’t do a good job of this. I think everyone was trying to build a complete way to solve every problem. And now you’re starting to see that change quite a bit, and I believe it’s for the better because the more connected these things are, and the less you can alleviate a lot of the pain of getting data from one spot to another, the better off everyone’s going to be.

RENEE HANSEN: In one of our previous podcasts, we talked about how you need to connect all the pieces of the puzzle, and it sounds exactly what you’re talking about. You just need to connect everything together. It’s one big puzzle, and when you finally get it together, it starts to work like it’s more of a system. Growers have all this information. They have these systems and monitors. They have the tractors, like you said, that they’re heavily invested in. So, why would they invest in a service that helps them manage their data, that helps them make better decisions? Why should they do that?

T.J. MASKER: Yeah, I think this is really important, and I think understanding who you’re partnering with is really important too, from a farmer perspective. So, I think you’re going to see a lot of the bigger ag companies continue to invest in this space for good reason, right? They know there’s a tremendous amount of value in this data. What I also think is extremely valuable is what that independent advisor can mean to your farm.

For example, I was out at one of the farms I used to work with on Friday, and we talked a lot about this. If you think about 7-8 years ago, where they were at, they were trying to manage it in house. They were writing their own fertilizer recommendations. They were collecting all their data. And now, fundamentally, they’re approaching things differently, and every year they’re trying to chip away at this thing. So, a great example is when I started working with them 7½-8 years ago. We talked a lot about: ‘Wow, you guys can grow really great soybeans. What if we grew more soybeans, for example?’

As they approach planting season this year, they’re going to start one planter on corn and one planter on soybeans at the same time because the data has shown them that if they get in earlier on soybeans and get those soybeans in, there is X-yield gain from that. And that wouldn’t have been the case seven-and-a-half years ago. What data allows us to do is to test little things. The way I always approached it with farmers was like: ‘Give it three years.’ We have the data that tells us that this decision is likely to produce a positive outcome. If we try it, we can’t just try it for one year. We have to commit to trying it for three because odds are, over those three years, we’re going to see that return.

So, I think that’s where the power of having a system or a service to manage that is critically important. And I think you’re starting to see a few others come up in this space, as well. They probably realize a little bit of the model of that trusted advisor is the most powerful model. And it’s because, fundamentally — again, I think Dan will probably laugh — but agronomy is local. What works for the Des Moines Lobe might not work as well where I’m from in southwest Iowa. It might not work as well for my buddy that farms in eastern Iowa.

Data’s valuable, but data in the hands of the right people with the right context is really, really valuable. I think a lot of farmers are frustrated with managing that data. So, how do you find somebody that can help you and kind of provide that ROI? And, at the end of the day, they have to prove their worth, right? Fundamentally, they have to prove their worth, but I think they’d be surprised what they would see from partnering with somebody like that.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, definitely. Like what you said, there is definitely a shift that you’re starting to see with farmers. They are wanting to see more of their data and utilize more of their data. In the past, there was a lot of resistance and maybe because the market was too flooded. So, what would you tell a farmer who has resistance to working with a precision ag service?

T.J. MASKER: Once, I think I called on a farm for three straight months that was resistant to this. It wasn’t because they didn’t see the value. It was that this was a piece of their operation that was so important to them that they’d been trying to figure out. One of the things is when you have a group that’s been around for, let’s say, 15-20 years, there’s a lot of value in that. I might be a little bit more skeptical of somebody that’s only been around a year or two. There’s that track record there.

So, what I would think about looking at is who has a track record? Do they have farmers that are willing to talk to them about why they decided to partner with this person? Because, at the end of the day, we know there’s value in the data. But, maybe there’s an opportunity for a farmer to share their story with another farmer that’s a little bit resistant and tell them: ‘Hey, I was exactly where you were at seven years ago, and now the way we do things seven years later is fundamentally different.’ So, I would just be open to having that conversation with others that are finding success in this area and help them along in their journey.

RENEE HANSEN: Well, sometimes, you get in a pattern where you are very comfortable with what you’ve been doing the past years, and you’ve been successful. You’ve been profitable, but there comes a point where there’s a tipping point where your margins are starting to get a lot thinner, and a grower needs to maybe change some practices. And that data can tell you exactly what practices to change.

T.J. MASKER: Yeah, it definitely can. I mean, all these things come flooding back to my head. You think about some of the marginal areas of your farm that just don’t produce much.

We did the math 5-6 years ago, and it said: ‘Hey, if we don’t apply dry fertilizer on these spots, we can save an average of $5 an acre across all the acres.’ And the reason why we weren’t going to apply there is: one, we didn’t expect the return, and two, guess what? When we analyzed the soil test results by those areas, they were, a lot of times, the highest soil test values. If you back away from it, makes a ton of sense. If you’re applying the same rate of fertilizer across the field, and the good parts are taking off more, you’re going to see these lower-yielding spots, for example, have higher soil tests.

So, you start to tell that story, and all of a sudden, you’re like: ‘Wow, just by doing that one thing, I’ve saved $5 an acre across all my acres.’ I don’t know what fertilizer prices are at today. Normally, I’d have a better pulse on it, but it might be higher. It might be $6-$7. I don’t know. But you start to approach things from that standpoint and manage each field like it’s its own kind of factory. I know there’s that analogy out there, but it really does make sense when you start to look at it at that level.

RENEE HANSEN: And a lot of companies are talking about data science and machine learning, and they’re trendy words. I don’t want farmers to get afraid of companies starting to use this because if they are resistant to using precision ag, they’re going to think: ‘Oh, well, now they’re just turning this into something that’s more automated.’ So, what do you think companies mean, and what should a farmer know about data science and machine learning within the precision ag space?

T.J. MASKER: Yeah, so companies are investing a lot of money into data science, and it’s an ability to take a lot of the data we have and try to learn really quickly. Versus a traditional method would be: ‘I’m going to evaluate this year’s crop. Then, I’m going to go around and implement three practices that I learned from this year’s crop.’ Versus: ‘Hey, could we speed this up through data science and machine learning and try to learn from 15 crops and apply that knowledge to one year?’ Most farms I’ve worked with want to learn from the data on their own farm. That also means they can leverage data science on their own farm.

So, the way I would think about it is to think about trials that you’re running. How are you setting them up? Because that truly is data science in its very, very simplistic form, but that’s what it is. We’re trying to test and validate things and use the data. Another trend, like with machine learning, is you’re going to hear more and more about ‘combine automation,’ which is real.

I was listening to a podcast the other week about how they go out to a farm and demonstrate this to a farmer. Most people would say: ‘Hey, I know I can adjust the settings on my combine better than any computer can.’ One of the things they do is they completely purposely set the settings wrong on the combine for one pass, push the button and watch it adjust. They watch the farmers’ eyes light up with how quickly and how accurate those adjustments are.

As I’ve been talking to farmers specifically about equipment, the tech side of things is tying more and more into that equipment-buying decision. So, what technology are you using? Who’s the provider, whether it be John Deere or Case, or what’s the system that’s going to manage it? And they’re starting to talk more about making decisions for new combines based on automation. Machine learning taught that. I think you saw some announcements from John Deere in the last two weeks with the See & Spray technology with the acquisition of Blue River.

So, this stuff is going to keep coming, and it’s going to come pretty fast. But at the end of the day, it’s just like a trial on the farm, where seeing is believing. Once you see this technology in the hands of different people, you’re going to see people adopt it at different rates. I’m pretty bullish on the ‘combine automation’ stuff just because of what I’ve seen and what it can do. And I know, from direct feedback from 50-plus farmers over the last four weeks, that is something that they’re looking at.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, it’s pretty incredible, the advancements that they’re making within the technology, just with the tractors, the combines. But, then, also kind of going back to that data, too, and data science. If a grower is anywhat interested in their data, having to layer all of that in a spreadsheet of Excel and having your brain trying to figure it out, it’s just too difficult. Let the computer do the mathematics for you. I mean, that’s the whole purpose of the data science. It’s learning through your data. So, I’m just kind of reiterating what you were saying, T.J. You’ve shared a couple of stories. You shared that you talked with 50 farmers within the last four weeks. What are some of the most successful stories that you have from a farmer using precision ag?

T.J. MASKER: Yeah, I remember this was kind of the fun one and like the best case study that I have. It was that we started working on a problem, and the same thing applies to product management if I’m trying to solve a problem for a farmer. But it’s like: ‘What’s the goal here?’ And it’s like: ‘The goal was to increase soybean yields for this specific farm.’ They couldn’t get above 45 bushels. So, we started to break down the problem and study the group data that we had, to say, okay, well, we haven’t ‘limed’ in five years. Maybe that’s something we could do. Another thing that the farm hadn’t done in five years was try a different seed brand or variety. So, that’s another thing we could do.

Another thing they typically did was only fertilized ahead of the corn crop. Okay. So, let’s split up that application. So, we literally picked a field and said: ‘We’re going to kitchen sink it. We’re going to try everything we can. We’re going to make sure we have trials set up within the field.’ I think we ended up hitting 75 or 80 bushels per acre. That was almost double what their average was.

Now, granted, Mother Nature cooperated and rained when it needed to rain. But the point was we were able to say fungicide meant ‘this.’ A different variety meant ‘this.’ Using lime, dry fertilizer on this part of the field meant ‘this.’ And we literally laddered it up to that number. To me, we can spend a lot of money on inputs and resources. Just calling it the ‘kitchen sink’ but having our checks in place fundamentally changed how that farmer grew soybeans moving forward.

We were able to increase the average over a lot of acres, 15 bushels. But if we didn’t identify what the core issue was and start to think about how we strategically implement different tests, we would have never gotten there. And I laugh because the same thing exists in product development, where you’re trying to build things for farmers. It’s like: ‘What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? How do we prove value, and how do we incrementally get there?’ It’s all about how you break it down. Whether it’s agronomy, software development, or building the next widget for a John Deere tractor. It’s how you solve problems and measure it to make improvements.

RENEE HANSEN: Well, that’s a great success story, and the fact that, just in one year, how much they can learn and then take it to the rest of their operation over the next 3-5-10 years. And the profit that you’re getting out of that service is tremendous. I mean, it’s definitely worth the cost of the service.

T.J. MASKER: Absolutely.

RENEE HANSEN: You mentioned a little bit about where precision ag is going in the future, but where do you think precision ag is in the software space? So, we talked a little bit about automation with tractors and combines, but what about in the software space? Where do you think precision ag is going?

T.J. MASKER: I think it’s going to continue to get ‘smarter,’ which is kind of an annoying tagline, but it’s going to get smarter about how much you’re applying what rate on what date. A lot of this, we’re getting so good at understanding the impact, and we have enough data to understand it. I also think I’m pretty confident — we saw it in a past experience. I see it in the current one. The value of the mobile device is going to continue to dominate this space from a software perspective. You think about: ‘I can pull up Climate or the Ops Center on my phone and have an answer really quickly. I want to show my landlord how the field yielded in a second.’

Farmers are going to continue, in my opinion, to demand that the tools they’re using be accessible from anywhere. And so, precision ag, yes, there’s the technology in the cab. Yes, that’s important. But I would argue that this device — the phone, the tablet — probably more so the phone than anything is going to continue to be such a critical piece. It’s how farmers run their business, and they expect to have things on their phone. So, I would think if I’m working with a provider, that is going to be one of my number-one needs. It’s also going to drive a lot of engagement for that farm, as well. That is critical for any tool you’re trying to use because a farmer’s going to get value out of a lot of things. Having that answer really handy with them whenever they need it is very, very valuable.

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RENEE HANSEN: Getting your data any time, anywhere, is a tagline that we use. Even with one of our mobile apps that we have within Premier Crop. But I think I agree with you that farmers want it. They want to pull it up, and they want to see it. They need to show it, whether that be the banker or the landlord themselves. So, they’re looking at the field, getting ready to plant, getting ready to harvest. All of the above.

T.J. MASKER: Yeah, and it has to be easy to use, which is such a challenge, right? Because if you talk to the 50 farmers that I’ve talked to, you’re trying to pull out the nuggets that are similar between all of them. There are always unique use cases, though. As long as you’re solving for the 90%, you’re going to be well on your way to help the farm make better decisions. That is ultimately everything that we’re about and trying to do.

RENEE HANSEN: Great. Well, thanks, T.J. Thanks so much for joining us today. Really enjoyed all of your knowledge and your experience and sharing on the Premier Podcast.

T.J. MASKER: Awesome. 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/blog.


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025: Frustrations with Precision Ag

grower using data

Today on the Premier Podcast we are talking about common frustrations with precision ag. 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: Today, we’re talking with Katie McWhirter, our Manager of Training and Development. She is chatting with us about the frustrations with precision ag.  Katie, tell us a little bit about your background and a little more about you and your role at Premier Crop?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I was born on your typical farm in southeast Iowa, livestock and row crop. My father’s just now retiring, but funny as he is, he is in his late sixties, and in 2013, he invested in electric drives to be able to variable-rate seed. He variable-rates his fertilizer. He does all that, which is so not what people think of that generation, embracing technology like that, but he knew that, working with me, he’d be able to make use of that equipment that he was investing in.

Then, on the flip side, I have a brother who was, I guess for lack of better words, gifted or brought into the row crop world. He’s actually in the livestock industry and doesn’t have that technology, but we started talking one day, and he said: ‘I think I can use my data to do better. It’s not that good.’ So, talking with him, does he have the latest and greatest? No. But, again, his data is everywhere, and it’s just meeting him where he’s at to say, okay, I realize you don’t have this technology or this technology, but we can still use what you have to make a better decision.

Even as recent as about an hour ago, I’m entering in some of his costs and his inputs to really make him see that there is variability within his operation even at a field level, which means profitability is variable at that field level. So, I’m excited to watch his journey as he gets more into this space.



RENEE HANSEN: So, Katie, what would you say? We were talking before we hit record on this podcast, how do you come up with a list of five to 10 things that growers don’t like or are frustrated about with ag technology?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, those frustrations definitely vary in the different hats that I wear. Probably the biggest frustration is that these technologies, if you’re talking about in or on the equipment, would be that they don’t communicate together, especially if they’re not a solid color, meaning they’re not all the same brand of equipment. That is a frustration for growers.

I would say, also, a very big frustration, and funny as I’ve been out here in the last couple weeks, growers don’t think that they could, I wouldn’t say, benefit from our services, but they’re very worried because they don’t think their data is good. So, it’s two combines, it’s three combines, it’s not calibrated. How can you change some of these frustrations? What we can do, is take that data, and as long as it’s capturing that variability and we have an end measurement, whether that’s going to be bushels or yield, we can post-calibrate or make that data usable within our system. I think even the simplest technologies really can benefit from what we do.

I think one of the things I’ve learned is that we really have to ask questions to these growers to find out, when they talk about ag technology, no different than what I did with you, to find out what exactly they’re frustrated with. If they’re frustrated with data, what do they mean by that? I mean, is it they’re frustrated because they’ve got two or three combines or two or three planters and it’s not all brought together? Is it because they don’t feel like they’re getting a complete picture?

I met with a grower yesterday who said: ‘The soil sampling is here. We’ve got these spreadsheets on our computer. Their data’s all over the place.’ I smiled, and I said: ‘You just want to put the pieces of the puzzle together to see exactly what the picture is.’ They’re like: ‘Yes, that’s what we want because we’ve invested in it. We know that each of those separately has been bringing us value, but it’s also bringing us frustration as we know we should be bringing them all together to make an even better decision.’


RENEE HANSEN: What was some of his biggest hesitation? I know you mentioned that he felt his data wasn’t good enough but elaborate on that a little bit more. Tell me more about that.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Well, the yield monitor doesn’t have a card in it, so we haven’t been collecting yield data. So, I mean, the basics of what we’ve always said is a must. It’s really what we’re rooted in, but with our new planning tools, I immediately was like: ‘Okay, but there’s so much more we can do even by putting together, at the field level, his yield goals and his expected revenue and his variable-rated nutrients because he’s been grid sampling.’ Even though he doesn’t have what we, even a month ago, thought was an essential piece of what we had to have to be able to work with a grower, he’s going to test me on this one because he’ll get a yield monitor.

That’s the agreement by fall, but I believe we can still provide him value being early enough and being able to identify his yield efficiency scores, his planned yield efficiency scores in each field, to be able to potentially identify profit robbers and how we could try to lessen that on his operation as a whole. Yeah, he definitely was hesitant until I showed him. I’m like: ‘Here’s what I need.’ And he immediately says to me, he’s pointing at the paper, and he’s like: ‘I’ve got this. I’ve got this. I’ve got this.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, you’ve got the pieces. Let’s get them put together.’

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, putting it together all in one system, and you also mentioned connection and connectivity. I mean, that seems to be everything’s everywhere. So, you also tell me, what are you doing to help him solve that and get all the information into one spot? I mean, you are doing some of the work for him.

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Right. So, I get the pleasure of contacting the people on his agronomy team. I think, before, some people might’ve seen us as the competition or a threat, and what I’ve said to both his seed supplier and his crop protection and fertilizer salesperson is I’m not here to step on your toes. I don’t sell those things. What I’m doing is I’m trying to help him be more profitable. That’s been fun to talk with his team, and, in fact, as soon as I start putting these pieces together, I want to meet with his team and show them what we’re trying to do for him in order to make him a more profitable farmer.



RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and what about the color of equipment with numerous different colors of equipment? Or the farmer, the grower, isn’t applying some of their inputs. Somebody else is doing it for them. How do we go about getting some of that information?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Oh, definitely. Again, I met with another grower yesterday. As we’re talking, sometimes they think all this information has to be captured somewhere or captured on a monitor. It has to be captured somewhere, but there are so many different pieces of information that we keep track of. I think that is a really big misconception, what data is. Some people, I’ve laughed, they think it’s a singular thing. For us, it’s a plural. I mean, so much data can be collected not necessarily on a monitor. So, putting that all together in one system, be able to look at it, to get a clear picture as far as what’s correlating yield or, more importantly, what’s driving profitability or, better yet, holding the entire operation back from being more profitable.


RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, you’re talking about some of the things that they can start inputting and putting the pieces of the puzzle together. So, what’s the output? What do they get? What are we giving a grower? How is it going to benefit him?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: What it gives the grower is a clear picture of their operation as far as profitability, that return to land and management. The numbers don’t lie. I mean, I’ve always said the numbers do not lie. Take the emotion out of it, but that’s not where it stops. Essentially, it’s a continuous cycle. Don’t give me a pretty map, and that’s great, right? Don’t give me that. I need you to be able to, and our growers need us to be able to, without any bias, to say: ‘Here’s what we could do with it.’

Ultimately, it’s going to be the grower’s decision, and that’s what I was telling the grower yesterday. We’re never going to do anything that you don’t want to do. We will challenge you as far as this is what we’re seeing in the data. If you’re wanting to improve, it really looks like this is an area that we could focus on.


RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, something that you mentioned, Katie, was it’s a continuous cycle and how it’s never ending. You’re constantly learning. So, even at year one, there is so much that we can learn about. So, tell me, what does a grower learn at year one?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: Which is funny because, when I got back into working directly with growers, that was one of the questions that they asked me when we were first sitting down: ‘What do you think we’re going to learn this year?’ As I was getting all this data from him, and I’m like: ‘I don’t even want to take a guess.’ I have a suspicion, but I don’t want to say it out loud, but I think it was just their biggest ‘aha’ was I’ve never looked at my data like this before. I’ve seen it on the typical red, yellow, orange, three-shades-of-green map. Maybe I’ve done a little bit of comparison in some of these other platforms before, but never have I looked at it this way before.

Whether that was in charts or in our data visualization tools and then, ultimately, to tie those costs back to it. Some of the things they thought, they were right, and some things they were kind of surprised, which has led to decisions. When I started with them in August, I mean, I told them I was not going to push them to anything that they didn’t want to do technology-wise. All of a sudden, we’re sitting down for our planning meeting in December. I’m like: ‘Oh my goodness. Four months ago, this is not where we were.’ I didn’t think this is where we were going, and now we’re jumping in the deep end of the pool. I don’t want you to do this and be uncomfortable. I want you very comfortable with the changes that you’re suggesting we make.

That’s been fun, though, to lead people through because we all know that change is hard, and it’s very hard to get outside of our comfort zone. So, I actually start my sales training, my leadership training course, with: ‘Here’s your comfort zone, and outside of it, that’s where the magic happens.’ That’s so, so true with farmers.



RENEE HANSEN: Just within our own family operation too, sometimes you can get so comfortable diving into something new. They want to, a grower wants to get into something new. But where do you start? How do you get started? It’s having a service, something that Premier Crop offers and you offer. It’s helping them and starting to input the information, contacting the people to get the information, knowing who to contact. So, right now in 2021, we’re at the beginning of March. Why would a grower need to get involved in something like this? Why should they wait?

KATIE MCWHIRTER: I don’t think they should wait. I think it could seem very overwhelming and don’t know where to start. It just takes that conversation to get them going. That’s why it’s so wonderful that we have the great group of advisors that we have to guide them through this process. We all like to be guided. We all like to know what’s next. I don’t care if it’s the program at church, the bulletin to what’s next. Or when you get on an airplane overseas, and it’s saying: ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. Then, this.’ That just puts everybody to ease and guide them along.

Our advisors, it’s like we farm with them. I know I wasn’t going to go back and farm. But that love of agriculture and helping farmers, that’s our group of advisers. That’s their characteristics, their qualities. They genuinely want to help because it’s like they’re farming.

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. To learn more about Premier Crop, visit our blog at premiercrop.com.


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024: Managing Profitability with Ag View Solutions


Hear our interview with Shay Foulk at Ag View Solutions. We talk about all things ag data. Premier Crop is uniquely positioned to help farmers collect and understand their data to drive decision making while managing profitability.

For this interview we have Dan Frieberg (Founder), Renee Hansen (Marketing Lead), and Brenton Rossman (Account Manager) as they field questions from Shay for his show.

Make sure to subscribe to his show, ‘The Ag View Pitch‘ wherever you listen to podcasts. Enjoy the show!

RENEE HANSEN: Welcome to the Premier Podcast, where everything agronomic is economic. Today, we’re talking with Shay Foulk with Ag View Solutions on his Ag View Pitch podcast. We recommend that you go listen to the Ag View Pitch podcast and subscribe. They have numerous podcasts out there with lots of valuable information. Today, Shay is talking with Dan Frieberg and Brenton Rossman about the value of Premier Crop.

SHAY FOULK: Welcome back, everyone, to another episode of the Ag View Pitch. Today, you have Shay Foulk with some special guests from Premier Crop Systems. I appreciate everybody taking a little bit of time to join in. We have Dan Frieberg and Brenton Rossman, as well as Renee Hansen, tuning in. Dan and Brenton, I’m hoping here that we can get a good introduction from both of you and learn a little bit more about what Premier Crop Systems is. I’ll preface this by saying we really enjoy having this perspective and different conversations on what organizations can provide and what value they can bring to the farmers that are listening to this podcast. So, if we could just start with a quick introduction from each of you and get going from there.

DAN FRIEBERG: Sure, I’ll go first. Dan Frieberg, and I started the company in 1999. Really, Shay, it was kind of the advent of a lot of spatial files, meaning georeferenced files. So, if you think of a yield file, we were starting to be able to tie the yield monitor out to a GPS receiver. Then, soil sampling and variable-rate nutrient activity was going on. So, it was just all this agronomic data that now could be georeferenced to a spot in the world. It was just kind of born out of that idea of being able to tie it all out and build a database file that is a georeference for each field each year and be able to analyze the results and provide insights and turn that into action the next year.

The company does just a lot of variable-rate activity. We just believe that the right rate changes within a field boundary. That’s how we got started, and I’ll let Brenton go from his perspective.

BRENTON ROSSMAN: Yeah, thanks. Brenton Rossman. I’ve been with Premier Crop Systems for five years now. Started with the company right after college. Primarily work with our retail partners in delivering our program through the retail channel. So, I live in northwest Iowa, which is where I grew up and have the opportunity to help on my family’s farm. I enjoy getting to utilize our tools and get firsthand use with them on our own operation, as well. Happy to be visiting with you today.

SHAY FOULK: Yeah, that’s great. When it comes to that georeferencing that you were talking about, Dan, I recently read a report that anywhere from 62 to 70% of farmers across the United States are utilizing some form of yield mapping systems or variable-rate applications. How have you seen the adoption of these technologies change over the last decade or so, in particular, I guess, through the Midwest here, where we’re generally located? What do you think that opportunity looks like in the future?

DAN FRIEBERG: I think we went through a period of high commodity prices the last time. The equipment companies, really, were one of the beneficiaries of high commodity prices. So, a whole bunch of people upgraded equipment, and every time that happens, they upgrade technology, as well. Then, that means that the technology they were using passes to the next buyer of that equipment.

So, there’s kind of this ripple effect of more and more technology. That’s why surveys come back like that, but what we find is a lot of people aren’t really utilizing the data the way we think it’s possible. So, a yield monitor can become “Harvest TV.” It’s almost like an expensive moisture sampler. It’s great because you’re able to direct grain to the right spot for drying and things like that. But we think there’s so much more possibility to use your yield file as a way to measure agronomic and economic success.

SHAY FOULK: You better be careful, Dan. I might steal that “Harvest TV” and make a YouTube channel out of it. I like that term. Brenton, from your perspective as the farmer and the background that you’ve had with your family operation there, how long have you had some of this technology in the farm operation, and where do you see advancements from the farmer perspective moving forward?

BRENTON ROSSMAN: I would say my dad has been a fairly early adopter to the hardware side of the technology. Variable-rate drives on our planter probably the last 12 years, at least, I would say. Collecting yield since the nineties. So, we’ve been early adopters on that stage of the conversation, but as far as taking that information that we’ve been collecting, if you go into my dad’s office, he’s got notebooks and binders full of maps, all of this information, but now we’ll be able to use the data behind that information. So, where I see it going is just the ability to collect, analyze more of this machine data and information, have it stored in one location and then utilize the power of computers and software to, then, look at it in different ways so we can make decisions going forward.

SHAY FOULK: I think how you phrase that is a great segue into the next question that I have. I know some of what you deal with, with Premier Crop Systems, is looking at yield efficiency and how are we taking these variables and making really good decisions with it? So, Dan, I was wondering if you can kind of talk on some more specific things that Premier Crop offers to the farm operations that they’re working with. What does that look like today if someone was interested in finding out more about what you all do?

DAN FRIEBERG: Gladly. Shay, a lot of times, we use the phrase “everything agronomic is economic.” We’re all about tying the economics to the agronomics, which just means when we’re adjusting nutrient rates and plant seeding rates and decisions about what we spend in different parts of the field, we’re tying that out at the end of the year. So, we’re capturing that spatially. That cost is tied to the file. If we recommend and encourage you to plant more seeds in what we think is the best part of the field, we’re capturing that additional seed cost as an input cost. We can map it all the way to breakeven cost per bushel, and that would include land and management costs, but we describe yield efficiency as return to land and management at a benchmark selling price.

The user interface lets the grower set their own selling price, so it’s calculating revenue minus what you invested in nutrients, crop protection, seed and field operations. Shay, we wanted a way to take land cost and management cost out of the benchmarking nature of it. We found that land cost can really be a real distortion when you’re trying to benchmark across operations. It’s really that same message. If we adjust inputs, we’re tracking the cost either up or down. So, we’re able, at the end of the year, to show whether that was the right decision or not.

SHAY FOULK: I was talking with a really good operation here in western Illinois, about 30 minutes before we were recording this podcast here. He made the comment that you kind of have to have three to four years of good information to make decisions off of it. And, of course, there’s low hanging fruit. Year one, you’re going to see some things that are pointed out: variable rates, quickly identify issues, particularly when it comes to soil sampling or plant tissue sampling, and learn more about your operation.

You use the term benchmark there, and, with some of what we do, we’re very careful with benchmarking from a standpoint of no two operations are the same. But I think what, sometimes, people get confused with is benchmarking doesn’t have to be against other farm operations. Benchmarking against your own operation, and, like you said, that land cost can throw such a wrench in understanding how that ties into an overall system and what management decisions you can be making out of that. But I’m sure that information is extremely powerful once you have two, three, four years worth of information at your own benchmark and then making decisions for your operation moving forward. Do you have any comments on that?

DAN FRIEBERG: I think, for me, the internal benchmark, like you say, is by far the most powerful. Amazingly, the growers love to benchmark against each other. Sometimes, I don’t understand why, but they love to be able to see beyond their own operation. So, whenever they look beyond their own operation, it’s anonymous, and they don’t know who they’re benchmarking against, and it can be extremely local or regional or a fairly good-sized group. So, benchmarking, growers love that piece of it, and they love the economic piece too.

Personally, I think the most powerful is within your own operation, just field by field and then drilling down within a field by management zones. Shay, the one thing I would tell you is we’ve come up with a way to start making decisions even quicker. In 2005, we started putting check blocks inside prescriptions, and we trademark that as learning blocks. A learning block is just a comparison area. It’s like introducing an experiment into the field, and we’ve just automated the process. That’s kind of what software is really good at, is automating processes. But what it does is it lets you, in a single year, it lets you go to school in areas of the field. It’s really, really popular. If I suggested you plant 39,000 in the best part of the field, you’d have anxiety about whether that was too much or not, or whether it was worth the seed investment. But you’d try an acre. You would try an acre of 39,000 in a heartbeat just to see if it worked or see if it paid.

So, Learning Blocks, now we’ve added more to that where you can do replicated trials. You can do multiple rates and have it be replicated, but it’s really opened the door to how do I get there quicker? How do I get on that journey of making decisions and getting this constant feedback? Every year is different. So, what you said a little bit ago is exactly right. Three or four years of data is way better than one year, but you can get started really quick. We’ve had people start where, like on variable-rate soybeans, they were so unsure of what to do that they just seeded the field at the normal rate, and they put a bunch of learning blocks in just to experiment with different rates.

Screen Shot 2021-03-25 at 8.25.01 AM

SHAY FOULK: That’s great. One thing I want to go back to on the benchmarking, too, is a reason why a lot of farm operations that we work with like that exterior benchmarking. I’m not saying benchmarking is bad, so I don’t want that to be misconstrued here. But the reason they like that additional benchmarking is, sometimes, as farmers, we are the CEOs and the shareholders and the managers and the laborers all in one. Not every operation is a collaborative opportunity amongst different farmers. Not everybody has a community infrastructure where they can ask questions and look at economics in comparison, or maybe they don’t even have a family member to rely on, anywhere from first-generation farmers to someone that has just had to take on a lot of responsibility.

I can see that benchmarking being a very valuable tool. Then taking that information, with these learning blocks and applying that as quickly as possible. Brenton and I were talking here offline. One of the challenges with the learning process with some of this data. It gets to variety or hybrid-specific crop analysis because in the industry, three to five years is about the lifetime that we’re seeing in these. You can’t always make good decisions. About the time you learn what a hybrid does or how it responds, aside from the information that you’re getting from the seed companies, right when you get comfortable with it, there’s something else new out. And you have to take advantage of that because of the genetics. Also, because of the advancements that we’re seeing in chemistry and herbicide resistance and things like that.

So, I guess, Brenton, can you talk about that a little bit from a farmer perspective? It sounds like there are other things that we can quickly learn. Then, as we learn these products, the variety and hybrid-specific products, we can continue to make good decisions off of that, correct?

BRENTON ROSSMAN: Yeah, and that’s one thing. A passion of mine is on farm trialing and learning as much as I can, trying to put data into practice on our own farm to make the next step faster with a hybrid in year two or year three if this was its first year in season. What can we learn about all the different agronomic situations or scenarios on our own farm? How do hybrids perform differently?

Lighter ground, heavier ground. High soil test P and K versus low soil test areas. We’ve done a lot of population trials on our farm, and it’s interesting. Definitely not bashing seed companies or anything, but we’ve done trials where we plant a certain hybrid at 35,000. That may be the suggested rate. On a certain soil type in a certain environment on my own fields, we see the highest return at 31,000 seeds per acre, so a lower seeding rate. Just having the ability to do some of this testing on our own farm, learning about the local environment, I’m going to trust the data from my own farm and use that for making decisions going forward.

SHAY FOULK: Well, and Dan, you said it really well at the beginning of this podcast. You have variability within your field boundaries. Whether it’s a 10-acre field, a 4,400-acre field, it doesn’t matter what size it is. There’s variability, and farmers know how to manage that instinctively, especially as you get time and experience in there. But if we can take that information from learning blocks or farm management zones and make better decisions off of it, hopefully we can learn quicker, and hopefully we can save money. Are you guys generating profit maps at this point?

DAN FRIEBERG: We do. Right now, it’s breakeven cost per bushel.


DAN FRIEBERG: So, we kind of focus that way. It goes back to that we want to deliver the map the second yield file hits versus when the crop is marketed. A lot of growers sell over a 12-month period. They don’t actually know their selling price, a lot of times, until months after harvest.

SHAY FOULK: That’s where the marketing decisions can be key. Knowing that cost of production and having it dialed in. Of course, that’s what we spend a lot of time working with growers on. Chris and I will be the first ones to tell anybody out there. We run a system called Profit Manager, and you don’t have to use Profit Manager. You can use university systems. You can use any number of programs that are out there, but knowing that cost of production, and then how it ties back into the whole operation, is key and, I think, looking at it at a breakeven cost.

If I know, as a farmer, instinctively, what my cost of production is, if I have that dialed into the penny, for me, let’s say it’s $3.72 or whatever it is on corn. If I’m looking at an area of the field that’s saying, hey, your breakeven is $5.43 here. That’s pretty eye-opening because we market in bushels. We’re not marketing off of dollars revenue per acre most of the time. Some operations do it that way. They are successful at that, but it can be a pretty easy way to look at that. So, I think that’s interesting from the profit mapping perspective. How long have you been doing that?

DAN FRIEBERG: We actually started doing that in the very beginning. Almost killed the company in 1999 by doing it. What we ran into when we rolled it out is, back then, there was a lot of disorganization among growers. So, you would ask a grower for the cost information. They would hand you a folder full of seed invoices and say, here, you sort it out. Back then, there were just a lot of growers who weren’t super organized. We’ve transitioned a lot in the last 20 years.

The second thing, Shay, is it really ratchets up the trust level between the grower. When you’re starting to track, when you really are getting to breakeven cost per bushel, that’s the most private information. If you put your actual land and management costs into it, too, that’s really private information. It’s the P and L for the field, so it’s super private. We kind of walked our way into it. Now, a lot of times, people start out, and it’s a faster transition now than it was back then. But they kind of have to get confidence before they’re really willing to share every detail about their operations.

SHAY FOULK: Yeah, and I understand that. I mean, farmers have a certain level of independence that they like, and there’s a reason, sometimes, that they’re in the industry because they’re their own boss. They can make the decisions. They can choose who they share the information with. So many operations we’ve seen have taken the understanding of, maybe, I can’t do all of this as effectively as someone else can by helping me. I talk with people all the time on that.

When it comes to the reservation of sharing numbers, folks like us with the consulting side, or you all with the data management, we don’t care personally what John Farmer’s numbers are in north central Iowa or southwest Indiana. I mean, we don’t have the capacity to do anything with that information nor would we want to. We keep that wholly private, and having conversations with you all offline, too, I think, is one of the reasons I wanted to conduct this podcast.

It’s just understanding that anytime you can get linked in with a company that really, truly values what the farmer is looking for and providing the value in that relationship and ensuring that they have that privacy and that the numbers aren’t going to be shared, and you’re just here as a provider to help them grow, that’s an excellent business model. I really appreciate it from that perspective. Go ahead, Dan.

DAN FRIEBERG: Shay, when you were talking about the high-cost areas of fields, you were talking about breakeven cost per bushel. You said, but what if I have an area that’s $5.42 or whatever. That happens. That’s real. We typically don’t tell any grower that we’re going to save them money. If we save money on one part of the field, we invest it in another part of the field.

There are parts of fields where not investing as much is the only way you can lower your breakeven cost per bushel. You just can’t continue to invest the same in those parts of the field. You still have to farm them. For us, it’s all about making sure that the investment in crop protection and nutrients and seed is right for that area of the field. Sometimes, those are the best success stories. Learning to manage your investment in those poor-producing areas. Again, on a per-acre basis, you’re going to spend that money on the best part. Investing less in the worst part of the field, sometimes, is the only way to lower your breakeven.

SHAY FOULK: Brenton, I’m going to pick on you for a couple of minutes here. Dan, having tons, decades of experience here and starting the company, for you, with the — and I’m not saying Dan doesn’t — but having the real boots on the ground and talking with farmers all the time and having these conversations, what would you say makes Premier Crop Systems different from others in the industry that are doing some of this? What do you think the future of this type of business is? How do you see it continuing to provide value to farmers?

BRENTON ROSSMAN: I think the first thing that partners I work with, or growers I come into contact with, is they appreciate our independence as a company not tied to any input sales. We sell our service and our solutions. So, that’s important to me, and I think that’s important to a lot of our customers, as well, and also having a system that is not a canned output. Output from our system changes based on the grower’s goals. Advisors have the ability to customize their delivery, maybe, as Farmer John, for example, has a real interest in dialing in his fertility rates and maximizing his efficiency with that aspect of his operation. But Farmer Tom down the road is much more interested in the seed side of things, so just the ability to have a holistic solution that is completely customizable.

I just think the business model, or that mentality, going forward will just continue to have success as the farmer of the future continues to evolve, and the younger generation, like myself, becomes more involved and wants to make decisions from data, has questions and really wants to dive into this information.

SHAY FOULK: Even though we’re moving towards making better management decisions, it doesn’t make things less complex necessarily. There are more and more high-management situations and high-management decisions to push the yield or to push the yield efficiency in some cases, too. As we start experimenting and working with more of these things, whether you’re putting liquid in your planter, or you’re having a multipass nitrogen system, or you’re trying any number of biological products or a lot of the great programs that are out there right now, I think it gets even more important at that level of managing that information because, not only on a cost of production side, but from an information overload side.

Is what I’m doing really working? Does it have the yield efficiency outlook that I want? Is it providing the revenue back based on the time, effort, money in management that I’m putting into it?

So, I think, as we gain the complexity in these operations, you have to have some sort of data management system that reports back to you or that you can take those numbers and do something with it because it has to be actionable. Dan, I think you hit on this early on. We’ve had this yield mapping information for 20 years or more at this point. We’ve had variable-rate planting information, and yet, today, I still get questions probably once a week on, well, where are your soybean planting rates at? Or what are other farm operations doing for nitrogen and fertility management? There’s nothing wrong with asking those questions, but in order to take that next step in the farming operation, we have to take actionable information and do something with it. So, Dan, I don’t know if you have any other comments on that.

DAN FRIEBERG: No, just everything you said is right on. It’s also like what you were talking about. Before the podcast, I was asking you about your experience with cover crops because that’s a big one we get. There are a lot of growers who have never done anything with cover crops, so they’re wanting insights or wanting to know the economics, and we’re constantly trying to figure out how we help prove it out quicker. That’s exactly why I was asking for your experience, because there’s just a lot of attention right now on cover crops.

SHAY FOULK: Absolutely. Is there anything that I’m not asking or anything that you’d want the listeners of this podcast to keep in mind as we move forward? The podcast is distributed all over the United States and Canada, farm operations of any shape and size. What message would you want to leave the listeners of this podcast with, as we wrap up here?

DAN FRIEBERG: Agronomy is local. What matters in one part of the country sure doesn’t in another part of the country, or it’s different. So, nitrogen management would be a great example, where what strategy you use really changes based on where you are. There are major east-west differences. There are big north-south differences. That agronomy local message is really a key.

We talked about benchmarking and sharing data. It’s one of the reasons growers love these aggregated data sets that we talk about. You’re anonymously comparing to other operations. It lets you see hybrids and varieties that you didn’t get to plant. You probably had 30 or 40 elite numbers pitched to you, and you might’ve planted 10 of them. But at the end of the year, you’d like to know how the other 30 that you passed on did. It’s just all part of that learning faster. How does everybody learn faster? Having a data platform to help growers learn faster is just a big piece of where our hearts are at. We believe that’s where our future’s at.

SHAY FOULK: I want to bring in a point from Brenton and I’s conversation, of that independence. You’re not tied to a seed company. You’re not tied to a chemical company. So, regardless of which of those top 40 hybrids did best or varieties, or maybe it wasn’t even one of those that was pitched to you, that just had a fantastic year. Being able to learn from that information, and understanding how it might fit into your management zones on the farm operation. It can make some of those decisions a little bit easier.

The other thing that’s really unique about this is when it comes to managing those decisions. If you have 40 products in front of you, it can be really overwhelming. Being able to take that and make those decisions faster. I really appreciate that perspective. I’m going to turn to you, Brenton, on this. If someone’s listening to this and wants to learn more about Premier Crop Systems, how do they get a hold of you guys? How do they ask some of these key questions and see what your services look like?

BRENTON ROSSMAN: I’d say the best way to get a hold of us would be to just visit our website. From the website premiercrop.com, there’ll be a link on there for contacting us. Then, we’ll get you in touch with the right person.

SHAY FOULK: Absolutely. Dan Frieberg and Brenton Rossman, I really appreciate the time today, guys. Hopefully, those listening to the podcast got some value out of this. Whether you choose to talk to someone at Premier Crop Systems, or just taking the information that you’ve learned here. Maybe you’ll think about it as a different way. We have an exciting, new 2021 season ahead of us. We all get opportunities to make good decisions. And the farmer is the eternal optimist. So, getting linked in with some of these people that can help your operation and take it to the next level, I think, is so important to hear more about those of you in the industry who are doing some of these things. So, Dan and Brenton, I really appreciate the time.

DAN FRIEBERG: Thank you, great to be with you.

SHAY FOULK: Thanks to Renee and Molly for getting us linked in. Really glad that we can do this. And, most importantly, thank you to everyone on the Ag View Pitch for tuning into another podcast. We will catch you next time.

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:

023: Expectations vs Reality in Farm Data


Today we are talking about the expectation vs reality in your farm data. We are joined by Aaron Seifert, Business Development Manager of Premier Crop Systems.

About Aaron: “I am a lifelong farm kid. I grew up in Southern Minnesota, and my family still farms up there. Livestock, as well as row crop operations. My in-laws farm here in central Iowa. And I have the great opportunity to be able to help out a bunch of different farming operations, which is really fun. And so it keeps me grounded in everything that I do. I have a history in the hardware side of precision ag. I dealt a lot with third-party hardware applications. And now I’ve shifted more to the software side and have a great opportunity to be a part of Premier Crop and spread the word, so to speak, out west as we expand our territory. ”

RENEE HANSEN: Today, I’m here with Aaron Seifert, one of our business development managers, and we’re talking about precision ag and “expectations versus reality.” What are some farmers’ expectations when it comes to precision ag?

AARON SEIFERT: Good question. I think precision ag expectations seem to be all over the board, and I think oftentimes that’s because every growers’ operation is a little bit different. There are growers who have expectations around time and data management. Some growers have expectations around better managing their input costs and fertility. There are growers who have expectations around greater visibility to their data and using that data to make better decisions.

I think expectations really vary. Every grower’s operation is a little bit different, and every grower is in a different place when it comes to precision. There are a lot of growers who are maybe just getting their feet wet, starting to figure out what the precision side of things mean. There are growers who are taking advantage of the equipment that they’ve purchased, or the technology that they’ve purchased on their equipment, to already do a bunch of variable-rate things but maybe don’t have the analytics. I think that really affects what expectations can be. A lot of times, I think expectations are set really high, maybe based on some marketing or advertising or things like that. In many cases, those can be ill-informed and maybe just not possible, but I think, in any case, the precision side of agriculture has grown because it does pay.

There is value and there is benefit to utilizing the technology that’s on these pieces of equipment and the technology that we at Premier Crop employ from a software side of things to help growers make better decisions. So, expectations can be all over the board. I think the good thing is that there are expectations because that’s what we need to do from a precision standpoint, to help meet those expectations and prove that managing our variability and using the technology does pay.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, so let’s say one of a growers’ expectation is that they have to do it on their own. Tell me a little bit about if a farmer thinks that, oh gosh, they have to do all this precision ag on their own. What is the reality when working with a service?

AARON SEIFERT: I mean, it does seem a little daunting when you think about it. Even me, I’ve been in precision. I started on the hardware side and am familiar with different monitors and all those kinds of things. Even for me, when you’re going from one piece of equipment to the next, and maybe you have different technologies in each tractor, I mean, it seems pretty daunting to be able to say: “Well, how do I manage all this stuff?” It’s coming from different places. I have it in different places, and some of it’s in this service on the cloud. Some of it’s on a thumb drive, and my fields don’t match in my monitors, and it just seems like it’s a mess. It can definitely seem daunting, but I think the good thing is how we go to business.

Being able to help a grower through our software platform is great, but I think, really, the other big benefit here is our advisors. The advisors that we work with, that we have at Premier Crop, help a grower on-farm be able to manage that data and manage all those precision pieces that kind of seem overwhelming and complex. I think there certainly is a myth of having to do everything on your own, and there are some services that you could potentially have that would like you to do it on your own. I think we’ve seen and have had a lot of success by being a partner with the grower and being there with them and helping them through the process, taking some of those complex pieces off their plate and putting it into a much easier-to-use system and helping the grower through every step of the way.


RENEE HANSEN: I think a lot of that reality is telling farmers that we can show up on your farm. The advisor helps export the data. You don’t have to do it on your own. You don’t have to send it to us. It can be all put into one place.

AARON SEIFERT: I was just going to say that’s just part of it. That’s just managing the data. The data management piece of it, is a huge help, to have our advisors there to help the grower. Even more important is getting decisions out of the data. That is the really difficult part that. We at Premier Crop try to make much easier. That’s what we do. Our goal is to have that data works for the grower and help them make better decisions with it.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, because you’re talking about that complexity of data. There are so many layers of data, and I know Dan Frieberg talks about all the layers of data. Just within the soil, there is the soil sample, the topography, the water distribution. Another expectation or myth that some farmers might have is that they have to spend a lot of time researching and studying the data. So, what’s the reality of precision ag when it comes to layering all of the data, and how does precision ag or a company like Premier Crop help?

AARON SEIFERT: You talked about the layers of data, and I like to say that every piece of data is important. Every piece of data has some value, but, really, it’s not until you bring them all together in one place and find the relationships between those layers of data that the value really shines. I think that’s really what we do. We bring all that data into one place, look through those different layers, find the relationships that are potentially profit-limiting or the “1+1=3” type things that are going on out there in the field and try to replicate those. That’s really the complex piece that we, as a company, have software that helps us do.

You could spend all your time researching. Looking through all those pieces of data and trying to make it make sense. Having somebody like Premier Crop on your team to go through that data for you, have software help, have conversations with the grower, help put those pieces together and then come up with an action plan. Really, we’re delivering insights. We talk through scenarios and trying to find the best way forward, based on what the data is telling us. We are able to look through the different layers, find the relationships, have conversations with the grower about things that the software can’t see. I think that personal piece is always important. That’s a great place where our advisors help growers understand what the data is saying. Then they can help come up with the best recommendation possible.


RENEE HANSEN: So, it’s not only the data. It’s the data coupled with the agronomy, with an advisor, coupled with economics. I think that was a really great point that I just wanted to pull out that you stated.

AARON SEIFERT: Absolutely. It’s those pieces, along with the experience of the grower. It’s hard to have software do it all right. Being able to tie it all together with an advisor, is really key.

RENEE HANSEN: As we talk about another expectation or maybe even a myth, it’s that some growers think that they have to have it figured out right away. Or, they have to have a variable-rate planter. That’s not the reality.

AARON SEIFERT: One of the things that we try to do is meet growers where they’re at. This depends on wherever they’re at in that precision ag timeframe or continuum. If they’re really early on, or if they’re experienced with precision ag, there’s something that our advisors in our program, our system, can have to offer them. You can do a lot with just variable-rate fertility. You can do a lot with just analyzing what’s going on out there to help you figure out what things you need to replicate, what things you need to focus on, what areas are potential profit-limiting areas for you and factors that influence those.

I think the important part is getting on the bus, like Dan always likes to say. Let’s get them on the bus. Let’s figure out where they’re at today. Figure out what the ways are forward. It doesn’t mean equipment upgrades. It doesn’t mean spending a ton of money on this or that. It’s really about figuring out where we’re at. We need to do what we can with what we have.

The biggest thing that I think about farming and precision ag is the insights. If you’re not learning, you’re not trying hard enough. There’s always something we can learn from every year. Every year is different, and it brings new challenges. Being able to pull out little nuggets of knowledge from every year that we get to do this is the important part. There’s always something we can do to get a little bit better.

It’s really helped growers continue to learn. We can take them where they’re at today and figure out what it takes to continue to improve. What it takes to get them to the next step. There’s no silver bullet anymore. Every grower is different, but the data tells a story. When we bring that all together and figure out what’s going on, then we have a lot of success managing the variables that are out there. We help growers both take advantage of those high-producing areas, as well as minimize their risk in those low-producing areas.

It’s a good thing to just keep learning. You don’t have to have it all figured out, but if I can learn a little bit faster, that’s a really big deal in today’s world. Hybrids don’t last that long. Rental contracts are often a year or two or three. We need to try to figure stuff out fast to take as much advantage of those inputs as we can. For instance, things like our Enhanced Learning Blocks really help growers do that at a quicker speed.


RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, let’s elaborate on that, too. A little bit more because another expectation is that you might have to have an agronomy degree to be successful with precision ag. The reality is you can learn faster. Talk a little bit more about how we can help a grower learn faster.

AARON SEIFERT: Our goal and our advisors’ goals are just to continue to learn. We want to share in the learning because we don’t have every answer, either. I think what we do have is the ability to work with a grower to figure out what’s going on out there, how we manage it, and how we do get better.

There are a lot of complexities that go into agriculture. Anything from equipment to agronomy to soils to weather. A lot of the things we can’t control. A lot of them we can. So, it’s about pulling out those pieces that we can control and really learning with the grower on what works, what doesn’t. We want to make sure that we prove it along the way. Maybe there was a yield increase, but it wasn’t profitable. Or maybe we’re growing super high-yielding crops. We figured out a way to do it sustainably, a way to do it profitably and economically. That’s really the ultimate goal. It’s about the amount of dollars you put back in your pocket. Not necessarily the bushels you put in the bin.

RENEE HANSEN: Yes, exactly. Well, thank you, Aaron. Really appreciate your time today on “expectations versus reality” with precision ag and with the Premier Podcast.


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