Consultant-Grower Success Story in Georgia

In 1999, Debbie Waters was one of only a handful of believers in the power of precision agriculture in the Cotton Belt. Her time spent honing in on the benefits and best practices in her region as precision agriculture coordinator for Southern States Cooperative’s southern territory earned her a SiteLiner Award for precision excellence from our sister publication, ag retailing magazine CropLife.

In 2001, Waters made the decision to strike out on her own. She formed Innovative Crop Technologies (ICT) in September of that year. “I prefer to work with growers to build a whole program,” she notes, saying that separating herself from the application side of the business freed her to be a more effective consultant for growers. “I wanted to truly work out the best precision agriculture programs on the farm, not just soil sampling and spreading.”

While Waters’ story is that of a consulting firm, it provides valuable lessons about the importance of grower focus in delivering precision services.

Proving the value of precision has been a constant uphill battle for Waters, first as part of a retail outlet and now as the leader of her own precision consulting firm. Her situation now, apart from the actual application of products, allows her to focus on services and products that benefit the end user.

Waters’ group deals in all the essential precision agriculture equipment, and performs the basic services as her clients require. Soil sampling, crop scouting, and nutrient management, yield monitor sales and service, and field mapping are part of the core program. But out of the 80 growers she works with directly, only a small percentage use the full program.

“What we see is that more and more growers are getting into doing their own application and soil sampling,” says Waters. “And growers that really are going at it hard are pretty much doing the entire farm.”

Most of ICT’s progressive growers are using yield monitors, and lightbars for guidance have made a significant impact. “They are getting more comfortable using a global positioning systems (GPS) in general, which makes them more receptive to the whole program,” says Waters. “They are no longer scared of the equipment.”

Tools Of Intelligence

The ICT structure separates out responsibilities for equipment sales and service from agronomic service to keep things organized and keep people focused.

“I have a partner, Brian Kelley, that heads up the equipment side, especially the lightbars and automatic steering,” says Waters. “I do work with yield monitors, but basically I am the data management side.”

Waters biggest task involves making fertility and application maps as well as yield maps. “We do that not only for farmers, but a lot of the dealers in this area,” she says.

In terms of base geographic information systems (GIS) progrmming, Waters stuck with SST Development‘s SSToolbox and SGIS from AGCO Global Technologies for Agriculture as her systems of choice. These were the same programs she used at Southern States. In the field, ITC uses Site Mate from Farm Works Software for all soil sampling and crop socuting.

“Most of the growers that we set up to do their own soil sampling have their own iPAQs and Site Mate programs,” notes Waters.

She is also pushing hard on yield monitor adoption. “Most of it is cotton, but I think we have six growers down here that grow a good bit of grain and they all have grain monitors,” says Waters. “We use the yield to create management zones instead of grid sampling.”

In the field, Waters has automatic soil probes installed on her entire fleet of four-wheel all-terrain vehicles. “And we use only Trimble 132 antennas,” she says. “A lot of the growers are using the cheaper NavMan — the little iPAQ sleeve antenna — and that’s OK for them because it is on their own farm, but if I am out there mapping, they want accurate acreage.”

More recently, Waters has been looking into automatic steering products. Currently, her company is using Trimble’s Autopilot offering.

Building A Program

For better or worse, Waters has found that successfully implementing a precision program in the Cotton Belt means creating them one grower at a time. However, the general structure of the program is similar.

“On the service side, once samples are pulled — some we do it, some they do it, sometimes someone else does it — and we have the results, we sit down and figure out the best plan,” says Waters. “Do they want to straight rate or variable-rate everything, or work out a blend and then hit the low spots? We are really trying to customize the program for what they are comfortable with, and what they can afford.”

One of the more popular “customizations” is when the grower wants to pull his own soil samples. “We train them and set up their equipment,” says Waters. “And when Trimble, Mid-Tech, AgLeader, or any other manufacturer puts out an upgrde, we upgrade the equipment and software. Also, we’ve converted a lot of grower-owned spreaders that were only capable of doing one rate to be capable of doing variable-rate.”

Waters employs lots of part-time labor — especially early retirees looking to stay active in agriculture and college students — along with her full-time field staff to ensure they can cover service calls.

Adopting Automatic Steering

Waters’ group embarked on auto-steering technology in October last year, something she says takes a while to get off the ground. “You don’t jump into a market like that unless you know that you have the parts all in place and you are really capable of service them,” she says.

The challenges are worth it now, says Waters, as interest is increasing. “In the past, growers were saying that it’s just too expensive, but now they are seeing — especially with strip-till on cotton — that they really can pay for automatic steering technology and get a rapid return,” she explains.

“One big niche area of interest is in planting and digging peanuts,” she notes. “Using RTK-level accuracy automatic steering when digging the peanuts, vines aren’t cut so not as many peanuts are lost.”

What will drive further adoption of automatic steering technology? “First, it makes equipment operation easier,” says Waters. “Once they get over their fear of the equipment, operations are easier, and allows some operations to drop equipment and labor.

“The two units we have in place now are used for strip-till,” she continues. “Before, these growers only option to cover more acres with the new heavier stye implements was to use the larger track tractors, now because of this technology, they can take their smaller, more versatile tractors and pull whatever implement. For example, they can strip eight rows, plant 12, and pick six without a problem.”

Other Precision Tools

Like any advanced precision practitioner, Waters is looking at other techniques and technoloies to help out her growers:

Remote Sensing. “We’ve been trying to get some acreage in place, but it may not be until next year,” Waters says. “We scout about 16,000 acres in the summer, and if we can get our growers interested in remote sensing it will help us direct our scouts in the field a litle better. Not only for insects, but for Pix applications. Some of the fields we scout are 200- to 250- acre fields and it’s real easy to miss a spot that might have needed Pix. And Pix is so important on some of the newer varieties, if you miss a spot you really reduce your yield.”

Data Management. “This season, we have expanded to the point where we’d really like to have access to the databases from various locations,” says Waters. “We have two guys on staff that work with a certain set of growers, and they need to have access to the database where they are instead of having to come to the main office. This coming season we are looking at using AgFleet, and Internet-based mapping system, that will provide that access. Our big issue with that is getting access to high-speed Internet service to our home office.”

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.

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