Think Data First: Embracing The Mindset

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of American Soybean magazine. It is published by the American Soybean Association.

Ohio Farmer Mark Ruff
Ohio Farmer Mark Ruff

For Mark Ruff, there are several important truths about his approach to using technology on his Ohio operation, Ruff Farms. First, technology is not an end – it is a means to an end. Second, data is useless unless it is driving decisions on the farm. Third, technology compatibility across machinery is more important than having the latest, shiniest machine. Finally, when it comes to putting technology and data to work, it helps to have some solid partners.

“I don’t think that our use of technology makes us successful,” says Ruff, “but I believe that technology speeds up the process and allows us to achieve success more rapidly.” Indeed, through hard work and staying focused on return on investment across the business, Ruff Farms now produces soybeans and corn in essentially 50-50 rotation on some 3500 acres for more than 20 land owners, which he prefers to call land partners. He and his wife Marcia provide the management and leadership, and his father Luther lends a hand wherever he’s needed. Four additional full-time employees are counted on to do the heavy lifting in the field.

ROI Focused

Ruff is not cut from the same cloth as the typical American farmer.

While he grew up in the country near the town of Circleville, about a half hour’s drive south of Columbus down Interstate 71, his was not a farming family. He studied to be an ag teacher and taught for three years, and while he loved the kids, he found it intolerable being cooped up in a classroom for eight hours a day, five days a week.

So he stepped out on his own to become an entrepreneur of the rarest kind – a farmer entrepreneur – in 1997. He and Marcia, his childhood sweetheart, carefully waded out into the business. During the first three years they both maintained full time jobs while working on establishing the farm operation – Marcia worked as a school teacher and Mark at the state Farm Bureau. But it became too much to manage, so Mark turned to the farm operation full time in 2001.

Untethered to a past generation’s approach to crop production, Mark and Marcia, who still works as a half-day kindergarten teacher but is involved with all financial decisions for Ruff Farms, have taken their own road to growth. “For us, it is a business and that is how we treat it,” says Mark. “There are a lot of unique things about production agriculture, but in my mind, at the end of the day it also looks a whole lot like any manufacturing business.”

TimNorris, ag consultant, ohio, aginfotech
Tim Norris, AgInfoTech

Mark’s answer to virtually every question the farm operation presents, from seed selection to fertility to technology acquisition has been, “what is the return on investment?” And while he likes to control what he can, he’s also been willing to delegate and collaborate when it’s been necessary to get all the information together and make best decisions.

“He is one of the more business-oriented farmers I deal with,” says Tim Norris, president of AgInfoTech, an agronomy and technology consulting firm based in Mt. Vernon, OH who has worked with the Ruffs for more than a decade. “We’ve been doing grid sampling and variable-rate fertilizer with them from the beginning, and Mark is very analytical, and always thinking about ROI. This is what drives his decision making process. He would rather invest in technology and data management and in getting the most production out of a field that way than buying new iron. In terms of data collection and technology, he has one of the most advanced planters around, and it’s an old John Deere 7200. He gets a tremendous amount of data out of older equipment, retrofitting and making it do what’s needed.”

Ruff is passionate about the value of data, and uses it to manage the myriad expectations and demands he faces from his land partners.

“We have a wide range of land partners, from long-timers in their 80s to sons and daughters in their 30s who inherited their farm to folks who bought land to diversify their portfolio. Some have little interest in the data, some want detailed yearly updates. Regardless, our goal is to add value to the land partner, to help them make best decisions, and be able to make a case for change based on something more than gut feel. It’s the right thing to do.”

Digging Deeper

A large part of Ruff’s approach to technology and ROI over the past seven years has been accumulating, interpreting and managing field data on land partners’ farms. “Data brings things into focus,” says Ruff. “It makes everyone sit up a bit straighter and makes us pay attention. It’s not just me driving across the field and making observations, it’s really proving out the benefits of best practices.”

The first technology purchase in 2008 was an Ag Leader yield monitor that came with a used combine he acquired. That same year he added a self-propelled sprayer and an Ag Leader Insight display to handle variable rate prescriptions, mapping and logging as-applied data, and for handling technologies such as automatic swath control and assisted steering.

Yield data is the scorecard by which all decisions are made about the year ahead, in particular seed variety selection. Post-harvest, Ruff is pulling down and analyzing yield data with help from AgInfoTech. Mark is adamant that he maintain full control of his data, and AgInfoTech provides a download and storage tool called AgriVault that provides that level of control.

“We are cautious about who we share data with, and the agreement we have with AgInfoTech ensures that at the end of the day, it is my data and I am in full control,” says Ruff.

AgriVault is essentially a cloud-based data storage site to which Ruff can download and manage data for organization, cleanup and management. “That’s really a struggle with farming today, every time you are out there, be it harvesting, spraying, spreading or scouting, you are collecting all sorts of data,” says Ruff. “This is the way we are organizing it so that we are able to use it to improve how we manage our inputs and our fields.”

It also allows Ruff to manage a team approach to making seed decisions, including Norris at AgInfoTech and his seed suppliers. That said, Ruff is still selective about what he shares with seed suppliers. In fact, Ruff takes full responsibility for the seed selection and placement with land partners, and provides relatively finished data to seed companies to use in variety selection.

“For example, we would share that Variety X performed well in these conditions, or share information comparing varieties based on on-farm trials we’ve done, but never raw data,” says Ruff. “It gives us the opportunity to talk about why a variety did or did not perform well and helps us build the coming year’s program.”

For future variety decision making, Ruff focuses on field factors and challenges seed companies to match recommendations to take best advantage of what the strengths and weaknesses of each field. “I talk to them about specific fields and share information such as topography, soil type, management considerations, typical moisture, and let them make a varietal selection based on the data I give them,” says Ruff. “Then we establish a management program based on the variety – is it a fungicide response variety, do I need to plant early or late – how do I manage your variety so that I can succeed for both of us.”

Ruff’s approach is to establish high, medium and low zones within fields upon which variety and seeding rate recommendations are built, and AgInfoTech is a key contributor to the data pool. “Ruff has helped us perfect the seed prescription process we use, and our approach to variable rate seeding when we utilize the seed consultant,” says Norris. “We take several years of yield data, weed out anomaly years that were too high or low based on weather or field conditions in a given year, and use the result to come up with seeding prescriptions.” Fields are matched up with varieties based on data, and Ruff generally follows the seed recommendation that emerges from the analysis, adds Norris.

One of the key individuals on the other end of the table for these seed discussions is Carl DeBruin, agronomist with United Landmark who works out seed recommendations with Ruff. DeBruin says that Ruff’s business-like approach to decision making is unique among growers, and while it’s challenging it is also predictable and based solely on the data.

During the season, Ruff relies on DeBruin for scouting reports, which he collects and records using a georeferenced tablet computer. Eventually, Ruff sees the potential benefit of flying UAVs to make scouting more efficient.

Tech Use And Teamwork

Beyond seed decisions, precision technology brings additional benefits to Ruff Farms and its land partners. Automatic swath control paired with assisted steering and as-applied mapping is not only making Ruff more efficient, but will help manage future regulation. “Ohio is going down the road of fertilizer application certification, and I do not thing we are too far away from producers or customer applicators needing to track what they apply and where they apply it,” he says. “It’s good to have that as-applied map available.”

It’s also good from land partner relations. “We pride ourselves on having a lot of that information available, and for land partners, knowing what was applied where is important data for them to have, from pre-plant to harvest.”

Another recent addition to the technology toolbox is drainage tile installation. Ruff acquired a Trimble FMX display and a tile plow, and utilized Norris and the team at AgInfoTech to get one of his employees fully trained in operating the system.

“We’ve begun doing tiling work, predominantly for our farmers land partners, to improve yields in wet areas of fields,” says Ruff. “We sent one of our guys to Tim to learn how to operate the equipment and use the software to design a drainage plan.” Last year was a time to learn, and despite some challenging end of year weather they managed to topographically survey and design about 500 acres and install about 150 acres of tile.

Also last summer, Ruff had Norris bring in and demonstrate a UAV. “We want to expose our guys to new technologies like this, and they were really intrigued by the potential of UAVs in our operation,” says Ruff.

With precision technology and data analysis, there’s always something new to learn – and the sheer volume of information and possibilities can seem overwhelming for many growers. But choosing the right approach, and picking key partners to help without losing control of the outcome, is a strategy that is working well for Ruff Farms.

“I wish all growers had the passion for data that Mark has,” says Norris. “He has a vision for how to collect and utilize data correctly and make it work for his operation.”

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