Advancing Precision Programs: One Agronomist’s Perspective

Despite industry concerns that 2014 could bring a downturn in precision use with the lower overall outlook for commodity crop prices, Bill Aiken says that there is a considerable level of optimism among their grower members.

Aiken is precision agronomy lead at Stateline Cooperative, Burt, IA, and he has been working on the conundrum of building a successful precision program for many years at different retail organizations. His charge at Stateline, where he started last fall, is to help redefine precision farming and help nudge along the adoption process.

“What the leadership and the board of Stateline have challenged me to do is to examine our definition of precision agriculture and precision farming,” says Aiken. The main reason, he says, is because the early definition of precision farming has been misleading. “At a 30,000-foot view, many growers still have the perception that if they implement precision ag technology that they will cut input costs.” Growers who view this as the end game will tell you that they believe they are paying Cadillac prices for a Chevrolet product.

“We have found out that the reduction in input cost is not one-size-fits-all and predictable, nor should it be the driver of change. Optimizing production inputs, in a manner that enhances profitability while having a neutral environmental impact appeals more to us than merely reducing input costs. It requires a tremendous amount of due diligence amongst trusted advisors to determine if it is even viable,” he adds. Even the “bleeding edge” category – those willing to try new things even without a definitive return on investment, are going to expect sound, tested science based programs, or well-designed “On Farm Discovery” projects with an opportunity to minimize risk long term.

There is another factor, too. Some service providers have also leaned too heavily on the sale of components to drive profitability in precision programs as well, says Aiken. With few exceptions, precision has not evolved far enough beyond “component management” – selling individual products or components of a precision program, such as variable rate seed or fertilizer, and data analysis, rather than a cohesive program. “It has evolved that way because it can generate cash flow, but in the end it can be disruptive to a full program approach because we end up talking about the tools and not the toolbox,” he adds.

Like many cooperatives that have emerged from consolidation, acquisitions, and expansion over the past decade, Stateline is a collaboration of eight independents and local coops. With different dynamics in each place, precision programs will need to be fluid and flexible to address each situation. And, growers across the strata of experience with precision will need to be able to understand the benefits.

“If it’s a leading edge grower, the top one-third of the marketplace, he will generally be willing to invest an extra dollar with a questionable return. But the next two segments, the early adopters and what I call the “tell me” (late adopters) segments that make up the remaining two-thirds, are not going to invest a dime unless you can tie some predictability to it. Our job is to provide ‘equity’ regardless of segments and address viable ROI to both the grower and retail.”

One of Aiken’s first exercises in the redefinition of Stateline’s precision program was to go out and survey growers, retail managers and agronomists, consultants and academia in the area to identify barriers, roadblocks and opportunities.  “If I could summarize where things have evolved among growers, it’s with a phrase I have adopted: Autopsy Ag,” he explains. “That is, basically many of the decisions we are making for this year are based on post mortem analysis.”

Aiken terms Stateline’s desire is headed to “predictable production.” Working with a deeply involved trusted adviser, the entire toolbox, using applied research and localized on-farm discovery, growers will be able to buy into precision programs that provide a holistic approach to crop production that is tailored to his specific crops, fields, and goals. “We are not completely sure where it will take us, but our main message is that we are going to deal in predictable production and complete, cohesive programs,” says Aiken.

Changing approach is absolutely necessary in order to bring hesitant growers to the table. Aiken pointed out that adoption numbers among retailers, as reported in the CropLife magazine/Purdue University Retail Precision Adoption Survey, have essentially flatlined since 2008. “I think it’s a lack of confidence in precision programs that has left that bar unchanged,” he says.  “Our industry has and is rethinking the message relative to precision ag, but then we need to effectively ‘manage the message.’”

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