Time to Scrutinize ROI

Increasing return on investment for every input is clearly on the mind of every grower. They are in an economic squeeze, but that doesn’t mean they won’t invest more in crops. It does mean they are scrutinizing every dollar they spend. The current success measure now goes beyond yield increase to include which inputs offer better return on investment.

During Premier Crop’s 20 years in business, one of the most dramatic changes has been the evolution of the biotech seed industry. University of Illinois research shows per-acre seed investments have increased 4 to 5-fold in that time. While yields have increased, seed cost per bushel produced has also increased 4-5 times. Part of the increased cost/bushel has been offset by reduced herbicide and insecticide/acre investments.

hybrid selection cost per bushel

But this is not your father’s seed investment! The times and economics associated with managing your seed investment have changed and deserve more attention.

The return on investment for managing your seed investment within fields through variable rate seeding has never been higher. How do you know your ROI on variable rate seeding? For Premier Crop, the answer has always been tying input cost to the as-planted or as-applied fields, adding all input, land, management costs to generate a cost per bushel map for each field.

Why cost/bushel versus a profit map? Our experience is that the first step in a solid grain marketing plan is knowing your cost per bushel of production. Grain marketing in most operations can be a 12-month process and we want to be able to deliver results and analysis as soon as the yield file is processed.

Consider this field’s story:

precision agriculture field history with cost report

Understand why Hybrid and Variety Yields Vary

Yield results are in and every plot or trial has an overall winner! Winning a plot isn’t easy. Sometimes, luck is involved. Years ago, one of our customers measured the impact of “shading” in a plot. If your company’s hybrid was placed next to taller hybrids, how much did being shaded by a taller hybrid affect yield in the outside rows that were shaded? They found the difference could range from 7.7 to 33 bu/acre penalty from being shaded! In some company’s trials protocols, they discard the outside two rows and only count the results from the inside two rows.

Consistently winning is so difficult that companies frequently report percentage wins. Hybrid ABC won 83% of head-to-head trials vs. Hybrid XYZ. It’s hard to blame seed salespeople for using plot results to sell seed, but that frequently results in promoting the plot winners when they many not be the best fit for your fields.

When using plot data to select hybrids and varieties, the fact that there is only one winner does not mean you scrap other genetics from your line up. Big data analytics, like those used by Premier Crop, has been referred to as a way of “crowd sourcing” hybrid and variety selection. Same as with plot results, it’s important to look deeper than what hybrid or variety appears to have “won.” This chart is an example of real results of a local data pool – with hybrid identity masked with a letter. In the table, the number of “sites” is the number of unique farm fields and the area column is acres.

Which of these is the best number to plant? Hybrid A is impressive, averaging over 240 bu/acre on three different fields. In order to average 243 bu/acre, there must have been many times the yield monitor was reading over 260 or 270 bu/acre. But I instantly gravitate to Hybrid B – not that much different in yield, but results occurred on twice the acres and on four times more fields!

What do you think of Hybrid F? Many more sites and acres listed, but over 25 bushel per acre less yield.

use data for hybrid selection

Hybrid and variety results that are calculated over more acres always show up down the list. Why? It’s not because they aren’t great performers. It’s because they get placed in more diverse and negative growing environments. There are a lot of plot winners that don’t shine when they gain market share. In reality, not all of your fields match the well-drained, high-fertility areas that make for ideal plot location.

The more you can sort results to match your fields and management practices, the better your own experience with specific hybrids and varieties will be. The reality is there is no right way to analyze results, but it is important to examine the data results beyond yield. Number of acres and fields data help you understand why hybrid and variety yields vary. It easier for a hybrid to look either phenomenal or horrible if it is only on a few fields. Conversely, if a variety can stay in the top third as it gains significant market share, it’s likely one of the real winners!

Using Data to Measure Hybrid and Variety Performance

The age-old agronomy equation is, “Yield Equals Genetics (G) by Environment (E) by Management (M).” There is a lot of focus on using data to measure hybrid and variety performance, in other words, to sort out the “G” part of the equation. That can start with your own data and but it can also include being part of “group, pooled or community” data. This allows you to anonymously see yield results from both genetics you planted and didn’t plant. Being able to filter results by rainfall, GDU’s and soils helps to address the factors that make up the “E” factor and get closer to apples-to-apples comparisons.

Many times, group data analytics generate results that reduced the comparisons to a single number – the average yield per acre for each hybrid or variety. Many times, that can have the effect of “masking” the deeper story in the data. Another way to visualize genetic performance is to see the yield distribution as a percentage of yield observations.


The blue image is Hybrid A, a popular choice, which averaged 182 bu/acre on 12,560 acres across a local market.

The red image is Hybrid B, another market leader, which averaged 192 bu/acre on 14,712 acres in that same area.

Now look at the yield distributions overlaid. Perhaps this is a more “honest” way to understand yield comparisons.

There are some situations where Hybrid A was actually better than Hybrid B, even though the overall average was 10 bu/acre less. Likewise Hybrid B had higher yields per acre more often than A.

When you visualize data in this manner, it’s easy to understand why one grower can claim Hybrid A was far superior to Hybrid B and yet a neighbor can document just the opposite experience. The real power in data analytics is understanding the situations where each hybrid excels! “Understanding the situations” is really about the “M” part of the yield equation. Realistically, there are a lot of great hybrids and varieties available for most crops. From my perspective, the equation is (?) looks like this: Y = g x e x M!!!!

Management matters far more than most people realize!!!

Measure Financial Impacts of Agronomic Decisions

In farming and a pandemic – having the right denominator matters

Almost everything related to the Covid-19 pandemic frustrates me. From the ease at which the rich and famous can get tested while “normal” people are told just to stay home, to the media’s biases from opposite perspectives.

I live in Iowa, and earlier in the week, our governor and the state epidemiologist held a press conference on Covid-19. Part of their messaging was that not everyone that has the Covid-19 symptoms needs to be tested. The state epidemiologist said that 80% of us won’t have severe symptoms from Covid-19 and will recover fine at home.

I understand those messages and know they are being echoed across the country. We have a shortage of test kits, so it makes sense to use them for the most vulnerable cases.

But since our business, Premier Crop, is all about using data to drive decisions, I also understand that having quality data, and in this case, the right denominator matters.

Here is an example of recent Covid-19 analytics for the world.

11,277 deaths (numerator)/258,419 confirmed infections (denominator) = 4.36% world death rate

What if the “Iowa message” on who needs to get tested (for understandable reasons) is being repeated across the US and around the world? What if we are dramatically under counting/testing the infected population?  What if, at the time of that analysis, there were actually one million people with the Covid-19 infection in the world and the death rate is significantly lower?

is there such thing as bad data

I don’t have an “agenda” in the Covid-19 debate, but I get data analytics. How you measure is directly connected to how you manage. Bad data equals bad analytics equals mis-informed and sometimes wrong decisions. The ‘denominator’ matters!

Let me share an ag data analytics example below from one of our dashboards – benchmarking one of a grower’s 58 individual fields vs the entire farm operation. This field’s seed cost per acre (the denominator) was one of their highest at $107.34/ac – their seed costs/acre ranged from $97.48/ac up $112.03/ac. But when evaluated using, what I would argue is the right denominator, seed cost/bushel produced, this field was almost their lowest at $0.47/bu produced.


How many conversations with lenders this winter have ended in frustration because of a one-sized-fits-all per acre spending limit on inputs. I think it’s time that we change how we measure our farming business.  Everything agronomic is economic and we can measure and manage both.

We can help you use your precision ag equipment and your data to stretch your input investments to the maximum in each part of each of your fields.

The pandemic analytics we are seeing every day in the news can have the effect of de-humanizing the sorrow and heartache that families are feeling as they battle illness and sometimes lose loved ones. We are privileged to work with many multi-generational family farms and we know how important that older generation is to the farm and to the family. Stay safe and keep all of your loved ones safe.

Manage Your Seed Investment

As average farm size grows, farmers hear more and more about the data and technology available to their operation. Farm management decisions are increasingly driven by these layers of data. Yet, there is undoubtedly an emotional side to many input decisions–and for good reason. Simply put, we are all still human and crave relationship. If a world that is supposed to be in quarantine has taught us nothing else, it is the truth of that statement. The need for human interaction has and will continue to drive us to desire closeness to others. Business done without handshakes and smiles, a world where virtual meetings reign supreme, is a tricky world to navigate. As more and more buying decisions move online, how will farmers adapt?

In the farming community, one of the places the desire for relationship is so evident is in the seed buying decision. Every farmer approaches their seed purchase a little different, but for many, it’s highly relational.  Who you buy from sometimes matters more than what you buy. The level of trust between a seed salesman and their grower shows when local knowledge trumps big company research data.

Knowing that many seed purchasing decisions happen this way often means growers walk into the winter planning months with only half of the seed equation solved. They’ve planned the right maturities, trait packages, and hopefully price, but might still not know exactly where each variety will go on their farms. The second half of the equation is placement, and surprisingly tends to be uncoupled from the purchase. So, the next question is, “What resources should I use to decide where to place my seed?”

For one Premier Crop Grower, this is where the data comes in. Unbiased, local, variety performance data to be specific. And the best part? The seed salesman gets in on the discussion too.

In trying to place seed, they’ll have to think about quite a few factors ranging from maturity, planting/harvest timing, seed care decisions (insecticide, fungicide), soil type and environmental related such as drainage, soil productivity, disease and insect history. Each of these factors plays an important role in the overall economic outcome.

Because this grower understands that high yields are the ultimate path to profitability, they want to start by understanding what the real-world yield potential is for each variety. Through localized group benchmarking, they gain a view of what’s possible for the varieties they’re planting against a similar group of Premier Crop Growers. It’s nice to know where they stand against a group, but yield alone doesn’t tell the whole economic story…


The next question for that grower is, how did a variety compare when they added everything they spent on inputs to produce that grain (seed + chemicals + fertilizer + operations) and subtracted that from their total bushels x grain sale price, to see what they’ll have leftover to pay for land and management costs. At Premier Crop, we call that a Yield Efficiency score and use it as a way to compare fields, farms, and inputs on an equal playing field.

Rather than just yield, they get to see a chart like this for their varieties:


With that view, they can understand exactly what it cost them when their varieties completely missed the mark in years past.  It quickly leads to a discussion around two key questions:

  1. Which hybrids performed and which hybrids missed the mark, and where were they? (i.e., let’s repeat or avoid those factors next year)
  2. When my yield efficiency for a hybrid was way below the group average, what’s the underlying cause?  Am I spending in the wrong areas?

Both of these questions can and will be clearly answered for this Premier Crop Grower through further exploration of the data.

As a grower you have the opportunity to manage your seed investment. The seed purchase is just the first of many steps. It’s up to you to foster that investment by placing and managing it correctly, and to do so it’s imperative to know as much about that variety as you can before it goes in the ground. With Premier Crop’s wealth of crop input information available, you (and your seed salesman) can dive into the details to solve the seed equation and ensure you’re maximizing profits through correct seed placement.

Using Data for Hybrid and Variety Seed Selection

“Part of the value of what they get in the Premier Crop program is being able to see beyond their own operations. A lot of times, hybrid and variety is the very first thing they look for.”

– Dan Frieberg



DAN FRIEBERG: I always think, from a grower’s perspective, that the first analysis that you do is your own. It’s what your own results were from that crop year. What worked and what didn’t? It’s understanding analytics by hybrid or variety across their operation. The reason that it’s really great at a grower level is that, sometimes, a hybrid or variety in data shows up having done really poorly at a grower level, but the grower knows where it was planted. They have the benefit of knowing that the reason that number did badly, or looks bad, was because I planted it on my three worst fields. It may have been that they picked the number intentionally that had more defensive characteristics because those are really difficult fields. So, I think just looking at how your numbers did on your own operation is maybe a starting place.

TONY LICHT: Maybe to build off of that, Dan, from there, once I do the analysis on my own operation, then I want to think about: “How did it do for others around me in a like environment, somewhere pretty close to me?” Because if it happened to do poorly for me, but I find out it did well for others, where did it do well for others? How can I correct that?

use data to select seed hybrid

DAN FRIEBERG: Amen. Every grower in the system has the option of whether they want to be part of seeing anonymously beyond their own operation. Today, they all want that. Part of the value of what they get in the program is being able to see beyond their own operations. A lot of times, hybrid and variety is the very first thing they look for. They want to see beyond what their own experience was.

TONY LICHT: And depending on the number of hybrids or varieties they’re planting, sometimes if it’s planted on a small amount of acres, they completely forget about it. I mean, you think about the larger-acre hybrids, and it’s like: “Oh, I forgot about those new ones I planted. How did they shake up against the rest of my line?”

RENEE HANSEN: I mean, you’re talking about expanding beyond the operation, in a sense benchmarking against other areas or like areas. Can you explain or elaborate a little bit more about how Premier Crop utilizes the hybrid and variety selection with data? What does that potentially look like? Or what is the conversation with the grower?

DAN FRIEBERG: Renee, it’s kind of unlimited sorts. Initially, a lot of people might focus on soil types. If they have dominant soil types, it might be just hybrid and variety performance on different soil types. In some markets, for example, pH can be a huge driver on soybeans. High-pH areas or low-pH areas can have a huge swing, and varieties respond differently in those environments. Those would be two examples of how people get started, but they probably don’t stop there. They look at things like planting date or harvest date. So, if you’re a large operation, what inevitably happens is you end up with some fields that you know are going to be harvested last. So, for those numbers, Renee, they might drill down on late-harvest data. They’re trying to pick numbers that they know will stand and hold the ear late into harvest because some field has got to be harvested last, and a lot of growers literally plan. They plan their harvest by the way they plan their planting. There are certain fields that are always going to get planted first. In the case of harvest, there are certain fields that are going to be taken out first. It might be the ones that are closest to the bin site. They want to get the bins. They want to get the dryer going, and so there are certain fields that will come out early. A lot of times, those fields that come out early will probably get more of a racehorse number that doesn’t have to stand. It’s the highest yield potential because they know they’re going to get it before they get very far into harvest.

profitability by hybrid or variety

TONY LICHT: As-applied fertility can also be another environment they may want to look at, as well. How did I treat this group of corn hybrids differently on as-applied nitrogen, maybe split treatment or in-season treatment, versus just “all in the fall” kind of a concept? Are there differences amongst the hybrids and varieties now? How did they react to the environment they were in, whether it be as-applied fertility or soil test fertility?

DAN FRIEBERG: What we do is just adding another source of analysis to what a grower considers. A lot of times, their decision is if something did exceptional for them, they’re probably going to plant it again, obviously. They’ll look beyond their own operation to see and make sure it wasn’t a fluke or see how it held up in other environments. One of the advantages we have is that we can tend to see the hybrid and variety performance in different growing environments in the same year, meaning that you might’ve been in a really dry area, but you can go look and see how it did in a normal area. Or you happen to be unfortunate and you got hit by the wind, and so, sometimes, you want to jump out of your area because your own data isn’t as meaningful, just because you had something that happened that didn’t make your data quite as useful.

TONY LICHT: I was just going to say that’s a great point. Case in point: the wide area this year that got hit by the derecho. Those folks don’t lose data for a year. They still have the ability to build on data, albeit from a little bit further than their real local geography. It might be from 20 miles away in an area that was not hit. It could still be considered a like-agronomic environment.

DAN FRIEBERG: There are really big dollar swings because we’re measuring the economics and the agronomics. The reason people focus on it a lot is, at the end of the year, there are just really big dollar swings on a per-acre basis. It could easily be a 100 dollar-per-acre swing in return to land and management or what we call yield efficiency. You can just see really large swings. When you start analyzing that way, from my perspective, it probably leads to having a strategy where you call more aggressively. I grew up on a livestock farm and the term “cull,” “culling the herd.” In the livestock industry, you’re just constantly eliminating the low producers. When you’re making genetic selection, you’re eliminating the bottom 20 percent or whatever. In the case of hybrid and variety selection, I think, sometimes, we need to be more aggressive about calling some of the poor performers out if we’re really focused on trying to drive the highest returns.

Yield Efficiency Score

RENEE HANSEN: You both were talking about data. Can you elaborate a little bit more on the data features that Premier Crop measures hybrid variety with?

TONY LICHT: Everybody always thinks of just yield by hybrid and variety, but there are a lot of other attributes that come along with that hybrid: relative maturity on the chemical resistance or the seed disease resistance, as far as rootworm traits, non-rootworm traits. All those things come along with it. So, the conversation goes beyond not just a yield by hybrid, but maybe there was a specific trait that really helped drive yield, or a certain plant date helped drive yield. What are the trends I can see across my farm from a given year, and then also across a series of years, as well?

DAN FRIEBERG: Over the years, you’ve lived through some of the trait issues, just where we had areas where the rootworm trait wasn’t holding up. We ended up going through several years where needing a rootworm insecticide was a big part of the strategy and a big return for growers.

TONY LICHT: Absolutely. As a grower, do I need to do a double approach here? Not just the trait, but seed-applied insecticide, and where? And what can I expect from those people that have been utilizing that? What has the success rate been for them, to determine immediately, like: “Okay, well, here’s kind of a return on investment I can expect to get back out of this.”

DAN FRIEBERG: The trait thing probably also comes up as people shift in herbicide strategies. Renee, people would use the data to try to quantify differences in herbicide if they’re considering Liberty or if they’re needing to rotate strategies from any kind of a pest management or weed management strategy. That’s another piece where they drill down in data a lot, just to try to find the best performing genetics, as they’re switching strategies.

RENEE HANSEN: So, what would you say is the benefit to having all of this data to a grower who is utilizing Premier Crop Systems versus somebody who isn’t?

DAN FRIEBERG: It’s even the growers we work with, Renee. We are one part of how they make decisions in the seed world because, a lot of times, they have seed sellers who they really trust. They have long-time relationships in local communities with seed advisors. So, a lot of times, the seed advisor is there, too, and most growers will want to plant 20 percent of their acreage to something that’s new because every year there are new genetics coming out. Unless it’s been planted commercially, we don’t have any data on the new numbers. A lot of times, that’s what happens. Their local seed advisor or seed seller is positioning what they know about the new genetics from plots and what they’ve seen in small quantities as it got planted in the pre-commercial years.

TONY LICHT: A team can definitely help that grower out. We’ve always said that agronomy is local. So, that local knowledge with that seed advisor, combined with a lot of data points from a given area, can just help amplify the value proposition for the grower in getting the right seed on the right acres.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, and since we have a lot of data in our system, we clearly have seen. Over the years, with all of the data in our system, have you seen trends? And what are they?

TONY LICHT: There have definitely been trends in certain geographies of a stronger yield correlation by later maturing hybrid. But within that, there are all these “gotchas,” where there are a few early-season hybrids that perform within those environments very, very well — whether it be later maturing hybrids going further north or earlier maturing hybrids going south. So, definitely looking at not just a multi-year, but looking within and across those different years individually, trying to pull out those trends of what hybrids can be moved around either north to south to accommodate diversifying a grower’s portfolio.

DAN FRIEBERG: In the early years, you could literally see in the data. Sometimes, when companies had trouble with trait insertion, the non-traited versus the traited, you could actually see a yield decrease. I mean, companies are getting way better at that. I don’t think it’s as big an issue as it might’ve been in the early years.

TONY LICHT: When new traits come to the market, growers will definitely want to ask the question: “How do the new traits compare to my existing operation? Or how much more do they bring to the table for me?”

DAN FRIEBERG: Growers drill down on that really quick because what tends to happen is new traits come at a price. Usually, the company is wanting a premium for them. They’re trying to weigh that. Is that extra seed investment worth it? Am I actually getting a higher return?

RENEE HANSEN: Can you talk a little bit about yield efficiency — and Dan, you did elaborate on it a little bit — and how developing and making a selection for your hybrid or variety, how that can attribute to your yield efficiency score?

DAN FRIEBERG: Yield efficiency is just the dollar-per-acre return to land and management, meaning, after you’ve paid for the seed and nutrients and crop protection and field operations, what’s left. From a seed perspective, Renee, it comes down to: “What was the price point? How much did I have to pay for the seed?” And then, probably, the next piece is: “How could I manage the seed?” There are some numbers that just have a lot of flex, meaning they’ll flex ear size as based on population. So, in a highly variable field, that might be a great strategy, just something that will really change. In other words, you can plant at a lower population, and if it’s a good year, you won’t take a yield hit. Versus a fixed-ear number, they’re really responsive to populations. It’s just even a bigger factor. Some numbers just require more. In order to produce at the top end, in general, you need more. You need more plants, but some numbers seem to be able to flex more than others. So, that goes into yield efficiency because if you can plant a number at a lower rate and still achieve the same yield, you could potentially add 10 or 15 dollars an acre in return.

TONY LICHT: To build off of just reallocating your rate around the field, as planters become more sophisticated, we can reallocate which hybrids go on which part of the field, assigning hybrids to zones or soil types and at different rates, as well. We’ve got a different cost point of the hybrid and a different rate to maximize the ROI.

DAN FRIEBERG: We have a lot of growers in the system that are doing multi-hybrid or multi-variety planting. Do you think that’ll continue to grow? Where do you see the trend on it?

TONY LICHT: We continue to be in a discovery phase with that, of trying to figure out the best placement of hybrids, the different rates of hybrids, like those treatment blocks behind you in your background, Dan. ELBs accelerating the learning of rate and also placement of hybrids helps us versus single-rate testing year over year. We definitely continue to try and find the bottom of the soybean population, but the issue with that is, all of a sudden, it becomes an unemotional decision. That’s at times looking at data points in January, February, March, but all of a sudden, sometimes, it becomes a little bit of an emotional decision in season. If I feel confident in the data in January that I can drill down a seeding-rate population to 120 or 110 or 100 thousand, and, all of a sudden, I might get cold feet in April. If it happens to be a really great spring, and we can get out and plant early and do everything we want to do early, all of a sudden, it may be an uncomfortable situation of: “Boy, I don’t know if I have enough. I don’t know if I have enough information on planting this lower rate this early. Maybe for safekeeping, I should just turn the population back up just a little bit.” So, it’s trying to balance the emotional decision versus the data decision back in the couple previous months to really drive and find the bottom of where we can go on populations. It’s just the same way in corn, in soybeans and corn. As far as wheat, how much we want to sow. I think everybody kind of knows where the optimal rates are, but where are the extreme rates, the highs and the lows that really maximize that yield efficiency?

seed yield efficiency

DAN FRIEBERG: I get copied in on a lot of the trial results. I’ve seen some 80,000 seed drops on soybeans that just did exceptional, and they were learning blocks or replicated trials. It really gets your attention because if you start trimming 50,000 seeds, and you get a higher yield, it really drives the dollars really fast.

TONY LICHT: Seed treatments and soybeans have really, really helped us drill down, I think, our populations, as well. We’re better protecting that seed to ensure that every one of them matters more to get up and out of the ground in a timely fashion.

RENEE HANSEN: Yeah, ultimately, driving up that yield efficiency score, helping growers profit more. Thank you guys for joining us today. So great to see you, so great to have you, and we’ll be back again. Thanks for listening to the Premier Podcast, where everything agronomic is economic.