Find Profit in Data

There is a popular reminder used in crop production to spur a sense of urgency. It goes something like this: “You only get to plant a field 40 times in your farming lifetime. If you rotate crops, you might only get 20 chances to get it right with soybeans or corn.”

I’ve always loved those motivational do-it-now, make-the-most-of-every-day, you-can-rest-when-you-get-to-heaven-type messages, although I suspect psychologists would argue they are responsible for many of our “unbalanced lifestyles.”

Let’s assume you are motivated to get started using your agronomic data to make decisions. What do you do next? Spring planting is hopefully only days or weeks away; what is possible?

A great place to start using data to make decisions for the future is to gather all GPS data in an electronic form. Whether you use the data this fall, next spring or a couple of years from now, whenever you are ready – it’s just a click away. Paper maps are a start, but you can’t put them into the computer. Yield, soil tests, boundaries, any planting data you have or are going to gather – put it on a USB stick in the “raw data” format.

“We have been using a yield monitor for a long time and have saved data on a USB drive since 2006,” says Jim Krug, a grower from east-central Iowa. “Until recently, it has just stayed there on the stick, since we hadn’t been able to figure out how to use the information. The technologies are here; we have to utilize them. We wanted someone we could trust to sit down with us and go through the data so we can make important management decisions. Our agronomic advisor helped store and clean up our data, and from there, we now have the ability to capitalize on our investment by making the data work for us.”

Krug expects to see an ROI by just storing the data electronically over the years and then taking it to an advisor to go through it and analyze the meaning behind it all. The process can be easy if you have the data – especially in an electronic format.

Another way to cover your bases is to take notes about each field. Not all data can be collected on a monitor. Sometimes it’s just as easy to make a note. Organize a notebook with a page for each field and re-examine it with every field visit. After harvest, each field will have its own diary, which might help answer some of your production or management questions, or remind you what to ask an advisor.

With every cop year, look back upon your successes and failures – always striving to become better, more profitable, more diversified. Using your data to make important agronomic decisions can be a great starting place to benchmark your own growth. So when your “40 chances,” are up, you can give yourself a big pat on the back.


1. Seek out a local advisor to help you. Most of us don’t really want to become the expert in all aspects of our business. Just as you hire legal, accounting and marketing expertise, look for an advisor who shares your desire to use your data in decision-making.

2. Start collecting more data with your planting operation by logging hybrid and variety locations. Pre-loading your monitor with purchased seed umbers can make the process easier and is a great way to become familiar with the monitor’s buttons and screens again.

3. Order grid or zone soil sampling on some of your fields. Target fields with obvious variability or where you instinctively know you have production issues. Ask your advisor to explain the results.

Surrogate Data

“But how do I know if what I am seeing in my data analysis is real?”

That’s a question that is not only appropriate but also healthy.

For the last 15 years, as I’ve presented agronomic decision data analytics to growers and their advisors, I’ve cautioned that “correlation doesn’t always equal cause and effect.” I share humorous examples – plotting my hair loss and my years of working with farmers – a perfect correlation, but not proof of cause and effect.

Premier Crop began analyzing the planting speed and yield relationship years ago, calculating planting speed using the time stamp column in the GPS planting files. I remember fields that showed a strong correlation between faster planting speeds and higher yields! This would lead to either father or son arguing that all the attention to slowing down the planter was literally a waste of time.


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However, further investigation would inevitably provide a different explanation. Pressed to get the crop planted and having to compromise what was “ideal”, spring tillage left part of the field with a rough seed bed. The operator planting the field, instinctively slowed down in those rough parts, returning to normal planting speed in the other parts of the field. But even with a slower planting speed, those rough areas didn’t yield as well – leading to a correlation showing faster planting equaling higher yields.

It’s an important lesson that many miss. Sometimes, a data layer is actually a “surrogate” for another layer that you may not have captured. Planting speed was a surrogate for the condition of the planting bed. High soil pH as a surrogate for an eroded area within a soil type or the best part of the field because excess water escaped in a wet year.

Premier Crop focuses on partnering with local agronomic advisors because we appreciate that agronomy is local, meaningful data analysis involves agronomic common sense and local expertise that in most cases includes the grower. Analysis can and does provide insights, creating new agronomic knowledge that allows growers and advisors to understand relationships that were impossible to see before. Yet big data analytics is not the crystal ball that removes local context. Rather, the power of big data analytics is handling the crystal ball to advisors that have local context.

Real world agronomy is complex – very complex. It’s where soil science, soil supplied and applied fertility, plant pathology, entomology, weed science, soil and water conservation, all collide with your technology allowing to measure, analyze and deliver site-specific solutions.

Originally published in Corn and Soybean Digest April 2014.

Data Builds Confidence

Are you confident? Where does that confidence come from? From your life experiences? From your successes? Even your failures? What about the decisions you make in your crop production business? Are you confident in the decisions you make?

I believe that many of the decisions we currently make in crop production are based on our observations from previous experiences. Almost subconsciously, we make observations as we go through each crop year and those observations are stored away in our mind and later retrieved as part of our process for future decisions-making.

We observe yellow corn where an applicator knife was plugged and that observation becomes part of our future decision making process. The importance of uniform emerging picket-fence-spaced cornfields largely started with growers and agronomists observing plants and ears as they walked their fields. We remember what it was like to observe six inches of early April snow on our planted fields, and we tend to store that emotion away.

The power of human observation can be incredible and lead to great innovation, but the downside is that each of us also bring our own biases. Our observations are tinted with the lens of our own life experiences.

One way to think of using your agronomic data to make better decisions is think of your yield monitor as an “unbiased observation monitor”! Every second, it allows you to observe yield results for that unique part of your field. You are collecting yield observations thousands and thousands of times across your operation. Technology allows you to “scale” the power of unbiased observation! The hybrid that looked so good to our human eyes can be eliminated from our portfolio if the data analysis from our unbiased observation monitor doesn’t prove it worthy. The more observations we have the more confidence we have in making decisions.

When we first started Premier Crop, I drew the comparison between what we’re doing with Premier Crop and the Dairy herd Improvement Association. DHIA is a record-keeping data-base system that documents production by the individual cow – same as we’re doing within tiny areas in fields. DHIA allowed dairy farmers to benchmark each cow’s performance, not just to the other cows in the herd but also to other cows in the database.

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Virtually every management decision that has been made in the dairy industry since has been based on data. Genetic selection, nutrition and herd management changed rapidly as the entire industry moved to data based decision-making. DHIA, once a management practice used by a few innovators, grew to become an entire industry’s standard operating procedure. The swine industry followed and now virtually all pork producers participate in some detailed database program.

Data driven decisions empower growers and will change crop production forever.

Data by the Bushel

A commercial partnership brings combined analysis of financial records and field productivity to Syngenta growers.

Mark Stelford understands the need to provide growers and retailers with a solution to what he and his colleagues refer to as the Missouri Challenge-an allusion to the state’s nick­name, the “Show-Me State.”

“There is a lot of agronomic research out there,” Stelford says. “But when you present it to growers, they’ll have varying degrees of doubt. It’s only when you show them in their own fields that they’ll appreciate what each input can do for them.”

Stelford is the general manager of Premier Crop Systems®, LLC, an early developer of digital agriculture tools like Premier Intelligence, a suite of agronomic analysis tools enabling local, infield testing programs. Last year, Syngenta entered a commercial partnership with Premier to offer the industry’s first customized, variable-cost-per-­bushel analysis maps, currently available for wheat, corn and soybean growers in the Midwest. Through the whole-farm manage­ment program AgriEdge Excelsior®, growers have access to Land.db®, the secure, cloud-based software that allows growers to digitally organize their data. Integrating Premier’s data-driven agronomic recommendations into that software gives growers the capability to make highly specific agronomic decisions, based on cost and profit implications.

“We’re combining whole-field economics with precision agronomy,” says Aaron Deardorff, head of digital agriculture solutions at Syngenta.

“We can see cost-per-bushel at a subfield level, so growers know where the opportunities exist and can drive productivity through strategic investments.”

Zoning In
It’s no surprise to growers that certain areas of their fields are more productive than others as a result of varying factors, including soil type and moisture levels. With a larger focus on managing their costs and access to more advanced precision ag tools, growers are paying closer attention to these variances in field productivity.

Many trusted Syngenta and Premier advisers help their grower customers build management zones within a field. Together, they develop higher-investment management plans in A zones, for example, where more aggressive strategies will further improve their bottom line. On the other hand, they are more conservative with the C zones, cutting rates and managing costs to eliminate risk.

Kevin Kruize, precision ag manager at Central Advantage GS (CFS) in Owatanna, Minnesota, says that managing these zones differently delivers better yields in all parts of the field and significant improvements in overall return on investment. With this integration, Kruize will be able to pinpoint where those improvements come from and why on a cost-per-bushel rate. This information will help his customers understand their cost of production and how their input decisions are impacting their profitability.

“One of the toughest things in the industry is showing what is actually providing the grower value or profit,” Kruize says. “Precision ag has helped us make better recommendations, but putting dollars and cents to the data is really going to make our recommendations and insights a lot more valuable.”

Why You Should Test Products on Your Own Farm

Why should you test products on your own farm? Your farm is unique and you have the equipment capabilities and data to conduct those trials. With little risk, you can have a more robust dataset than many companies.  I’ll explain…

It starts with grid soil sampling. Soil sample data is the foundation to understanding and analyzing yield in each part of each field and ultimately, if products or rate changes will provide a return on investment. If there is something wrong with the foundation, additional inputs generally won’t show a return.  From there, we gather information such as– variable rate nutrient information, as-applied planting data, chemicals, fungicides, insecticides, weather data, and more.  Because in the real world, there isn’t one variable. It’s important to know what your measuring stick is, and we’re different, because we use actual costs and yield to understand why products perform and where they perform best.

Often times, information provided for new products or management methods are gathered from trials averaged across geographies, which may not fit your location or your farm. Certainly, there is excellent research out there–high quality university research and independent plot research that has good information. But inevitably, products come to market and growers try new technologies, but they don’t work or they don’t work everywhere.  Why not?

We believe products work in specific places and we want to help growers find those specific places in their field. We hear this from growers all the time, “sure I’ll take a gallon of fungicide or insecticide because I want to see it, I want to try it.” You want to see the product, apply it and harvest it yourself to see how it does on YOUR field.

Most growers are capable and have technology to test products on their farm, but aren’t taking the final step of doing an in-depth of analysis. Premier Crop offers multiple testing methods including a patented scientific approach of randomized, replicated trials executed through a prescription and harvested with your own equipment. The exciting part?  You may have the technology to run these trials on your own fields.

test trials on my local farm

As a grower do you try new products or test new rates?  How do you measure if that product or methodology worked? Visually? With a weigh wagon?  Do you use a yield monitor and software to do a simple analysis?  I’m here to tell you—you can do more with what you already have, and we’re excited to work with you!

Remove the Guessing and Make Data Driven Decisions

As farmers face another year with challenging markets and high inputs, we as agronomic advisors continue to work with our clients in order to find where we can remove some of the guessing when it comes to the decision-making process of planning another season. It comes as no surprise to anyone that is involved in Agriculture that many areas saw higher than normal precipitation in 2018.

The map below shows the state of Iowa and the departure from normal in inches of rainfall in 2018.

2018 high percipitation

(source:  parameters from last year versus normal rainfall.)

Unfortunately, this did lead to some areas of drown outs and low yielding areas in fields. Thus, there were many areas that had little if any removals of nutrients but many growers will treat those areas the same as areas that yielded well in the field. This is just one of many examples where VRT and precision agriculture can save the grower on inputs across their farms. It is important to look not just at soil sampling and soil types but also historical yield when deciding on proper recommendations for the field. At Premier Crop, it is important to us to treat every field individually and not look at those fields in a cookie cutter style approach. Premier Crop has an extensive database with over 20 years’ worth of observations.

It is important to look at the return on investment for not just for every field or every acre, but what it is actually taking to produce every bushel. We are able to take all of the costs that are provided and quantify the grower’s yields with those costs. Does it make sense to continue to treat historically poor yielding ground the same as historically high yielding ground? Would your inputs be better spent if focused slightly more on ground that has more yield potential? It is important to us that we treat every acre in an unbiased way, as if we are farming it ourselves, and the data allows us to do that.

The example below shows a field that has been put into three different zones of productivity based upon fertility and historical yield.


We then break that out further and show how each zone did on a per bushel basis with all the costs entered. As you can see we dropped our rates in the least productive zone because it didn’t show the same ability to produce as the other two management zones.


This is a great example how Premier Crop uses data to prove profitability. It’s time to stop guessing and use your data to make profitable decisions.

Can “Unhealthy” Soils Consistently Produce Exceptional Yields?

In the early 1970s, I was fortunate to work for a farming operation that was serious about soil conservation. Serving on State Soil Conservation boards, building terraces, implementing no-till, when planters and weed control options were crude by today’s standards – they were soil stewards. Because of their mentorship, I’ve always taken soil conservation seriously.

In the 1980s, I found myself defending the use of commercial fertilizers. Those that attacked their use liked to describe them as “chemical fertilizers”. If you remember the Periodic Table of Elements in your first chemistry class – you know nutrients are chemicals. Phosphorus and potassium are minerals that mined from the earth, and nitrogen is made from the air (which is 78% nitrogen). Nitrogen fertilizer is a chemical and combining hydrogen from natural gas, with nitrogen from the air, to produce nitrogen fertilizer, was a significant scientific achievement. We have to be judicious in how we apply Nitrogen from all sources, but since it takes energy to create nitrogen fertilizer, it warrants additional attention.

What I understood then as I do now, is that we need integrated approaches to crop management to be both economically and environmentally sustainable. How we manage weeds, insects, nutrients – including organic nutrients, tillage, residue and crop rotations have serious consequences both for the environment and growers’ balance sheets.

One of the thoughts that’s been rumbling around in my head relates to soil health. In some circles, soil health tends to end up in a discussion about farming practices – almost a checklist of do’s and don’ts. Other approaches try to quantify soil health with a test. I tend to like the test concept because it starts to allow us to make comparisons from field to field, within fields, benchmark over time and eventually be able to quantify changes.

Our company, Premier Crop, is all about managing variability within fields and between fields to maximize a grower’s return on investment. We use yield files from calibrated yield monitors to measure our success both agronomically and economically. One of our tools empowers the user to build a multiple year yield map. I find that there are parts of fields that are amazing in their ability to consistently kick out exceptional yields. I understand that there are examples of “throw the kitchen sink” at production and have everything work perfect in a given year.

I’m not talking about a one-hit wonder. I’m talking about areas of fields that are exceptional yielding on consistent basis. Are those areas of the field “healthier” than other areas? Is it possible for them to be unhealthy and be so consistently high yielding?

multi year yield map

What do these high yield areas have in common?

  • Drainage is right – either blessed with naturally well drained or a combination of cultural practice and field tile.
  • They frequently have deeper A horizons (depth of top soil before clay or sub soil) and usually a higher % organic matter.
  • Usually pH is right – not too high but also not low. That makes sense to me, correct soil pH makes other nutrients, like phosphorous, more available and is needed for the bacteria that increase mineralization to be active.

I believe that nutrient cycling is better in these areas – that is soil supplied and fertilizer/manure supplied nutrients cycle to plant useable forms better than in other parts of the field. There is a strong relationship in parts of fields between consistently high yields and soil health. I believe you can have healthy soils that aren’t exceptionally high yielding (can be limited by other management choices). But I don’t believe you can get consistently high yields on unhealthy soils. If you’re trying to understand differences in soil health within your fields, I’d be inclined to start with a multi-year map.

THREE Ways to Determine Field Profitability Using Your Technology {Pt. 1}

This is a three part series focusing on ways to determine your field profitability using your technology. We will post the series over the course of two months. If you don’t want to wait, you can get the full series here.


In tough economic times, it is more imperative than ever to know your productivity and be able to evaluate the cost or benefit of your decisions. Our mission at Premier Crop is to make this easy for you and give you multiple ways to evaluate across your operation. I will walk you through the different methods of evaluation: cost/bu, variance reports, and learning blocks, along with why each is important.

The first measurement is the cost per bushel on a spatial level to give you a new look at each individual area of your field.


Q: What is the end goal of your operation? To raise more bushels to sell at a profit.

Q: How can you do this if you are basing everything off of cost/ac? Cost/bu should be your end goal. How much did your fertilizer cost you per bushel? How much did your land cost you per bushel? This diagram shows a realistic view of your operation.


determine your cost per bushel

We look deeper than your Average Production Costs to find the impact on your cost per bushel by field. And we go even deeper than only looking at your field, we break down each field into management zones and determine the cost/bu in each unique zone. (see diagram below)

Manage your cost per acre in management zones to determine field profitability


Not every area of your field performs the same and using cost/ac as your main metric of measurement can have detrimental effects on your overall productivity. Let me explain.

Your A zone is the most productive area of your field, it consistently performs well. Your C zone, by contrast, is the area of your field that constantly disappoints you. It never seems to do well and brings your overall field average down. Why would you treat them the same? You may be able to cut your cost/ac in the C zone by giving it less fertilizer and seed, allowing crops more room to spread out and grow, but if you do that in your A zone, you would see a decrease in productivity. Your A zone wants to be pushed, it needs more nutrients and can handle more seed population than the C zone.

This is a detailed look of each field, but sometimes you may want a more broad view of your overall operation to make management decisions. This is when step number two is valuable, by viewing your Field Productivity Report Card.

Stay tuned for our next post featuring the Field Productivity Report Card.

THREE Ways to Determine Field Profitability Using Your Technology {Pt. 2}

This is a three part series focusing on ways to determine your field profitability using your technology. We will post the series over the course of two months. If you don’t want to wait, you can get the full series here.


In tough economic times, it is more imperative than ever to know your productivity and be able to evaluate the cost or benefit of your decisions. Our mission at Premier Crop is to make this easy for you and give you multiple ways to evaluate across your operation. I will walk you through the different methods of evaluation: cost/bu, variance reports, and learning blocks, along with why each is important.

The first measurement is the cost per bushel on a spatial level to give you a new look at each individual area of your field.


After determining your cost per bushel, it is valuable to look at all your fields and rank them, like a report card. This process allows you to view which field deserves the gold star and which field needs more attention. This is a process that is automatically generated for you when you are enrolled in our program.

One part of the report shows a cost/bu field average over all of the crop acres for a given year and over multiple years. It allows you to look at trends in regards to cost/bu over time. This report will show you if one field is consistently producing a lot more or less yield or costing a lot more per bushel.

In the report below we can see that Bob Smith’s BS3 Home field corn averages $6.11/bu(1) across all the years of data, which is higher than his other fields in comparison. In 2018 it cost him $3.38(2) to grow a bushel. This report will show where the cost/bu had a significantly higher average (2012 $15.07/bu(4) corn) but since 2014 this farmer has been doing a good job of maintaining his cost/bu average on the BS3 field. However, we can see that across all acres of our fields the average cost of corn in 2018 was $2.94/ac(5). Therefore this field raises a flag for us to look deeper into the field data.

In contrast, the BS4 Home field averaged $2.59/bu(6) in 2018 which is below our average corn costs of $2.94/bu(5). This field has a consistently lower cost/bu year over year than other fields.


What does this mean? The purpose of the report is to get us to ask ‘why?’

BS3 could be averaging a higher cost/bu because our management zones are not correct, we may be trying to push the field too hard, our plant population is off, or the nutrient prescription is flat-rated. Or we may be paying higher rent on that field and need to consider if it is economically responsible to keep renting at the current rate.

Again, this report is a big-picture overview across a whole operation, it’s main strength is to get us to ask why. Why is BS4 performing so much better than BS3? What can we change to get our cost/bu more in line across all of our fields? Lower seed costs? Split apply nitrogen? Apply fungicide?

Premier Crop can help answer these questions, our trained agronomic advisors can identify yield-limiting factors by doing an in-depth analysis of your individual field. We are able to recommend a management change that will affect your bottom line across a whole field. That is our ultimate goal, to make you profitable.

Is there a way be profitable without implementing wide-scale changes across your whole operation? The answer is yes, with step three, Learning Blocks…stay tuned!

THREE Ways to Determine Field Profitability Using Your Technology {Pt. 3}

This is a three part series focusing on ways to determine your field profitability using your technology. We will post the series over the course of two months. If you don’t want to wait, you can get the full series here.


In tough economic times, it is more imperative than ever to know your productivity and be able to evaluate the cost or benefit of your decisions. Our mission at Premier Crop is to make this easy for you and give you multiple ways to evaluate across your operation. I will walk you through the different methods of evaluation: cost/bu, variance reports, and learning blocks, along with why each is important.

The first measurement is the cost per bushel on a spatial level to give you a new look at each individual area of your field.


What is a Learning Block? Premier Crop has created a low-risk way to test and check variable rate seed populations, crop protection products and nutrient rates in one-to-three test acres, called Learning Blocks™. You have the ability to check if the optimal rate for that environment is higher or lower, in a low-risk way, built right into your prescription, using your technology.

After you have established management zones for your field, Learning Blocks prove whether a practice such as plant population or different nitrogen rates, are effective in that zone. Since Learning Blocks are one-to-three acre cells it’s a low risk way to prove and maximize efficiency.


In the diagram above, this Learning Block was performed to test plant population. Did it pay? Yes and no. The Hybrid A did not have enough yield increase to offset increased seed costs. Hybrid B did have a yield increase to produce a positive ROI.

A great benefit to Learning Blocks is that you can place multiple Blocks in one field to test different management zones, soils, nutrients and more. This can ultimately help you make confident data decisions that will help you profit, all while using the technology you already have.


Get started, contact us to calculate your profitability and schedule a demo today.