Since precision agricultural practices and technologies first appeared on the scene back in the mid-1990s, there have been several industry experts that predicted they would ultimately transform the world of agriculture into something different. The following quote from Ag-Chem Equipment Founder Al McQuinn is typical of this view: “Someday — and not in the distant future — they won’t call it site-specific farming. They’ll just call it farming.”
In the ag retail community, many companies agree with this statement, including United Cooperative‘s President/CEO David Cramer. “To be successful in agronomy today, agricultural retailers must be committed to precision agriculture,” says Cramer. “United Cooperative has made major investments in precision agriculture and continues to do so today.”
To some observers, this might seem surprising, given that United Cooperative is headquartered in South Beaver Dam, WI, with the majority of its business conducted within the Badger State. Besides being a region typically invested in dairy production, crop fields in the area tend to be smaller than similar ones found throughout other states in the Midwest such as Iowa and Illinois. Given these conditions, conventional wisdom might say that the demand for precision agriculture and new technologies here — even in the early 21st century — would remain slim.
However, says Jim Kemink, vice president of seed and agronomy sales for the company, this is not necessarily the case in 2011. For one thing, the agricultural dynamics of the area are currently in flux. “That’s typically been the reason precision agriculture technologies have been behind kind of an eight-ball up here,” says Kemink. “But now, we are in a transitional area, with many dairy farmers moving into cash grains during the past few years when dairy prices have significantly fallen. Growers didn’t used to see the need for precision farming then, but they see it now.”
Of course, the other thing that has aided demand for precision technologies in the marketplace has been the increasing simplicity of use for these systems. “Ten years ago, this was a serious issue,” says Kemink. “To use some of these technologies, you needed a specialist and more employees to do it right. But now, even though this is kind of rocket science, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure it out and make it pay for itself.”
When United Cooperative aggressively rolled out its precision agriculture program to grower-customers a few years ago, Kemink says many of them “jumped into it fairly quickly,” for at least part of their acreage. “We take a practical approach to our precision agricultural offerings,” he says. “We use it as an overall management tool where it makes sense. We are not pushing for it to be used on every acre.”
For as the precision ag services currently being offered by United Cooperative, Kemink says the most popular have been the ones that involve variable-rate application for aglime, phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and nitrogen (N) and creating seeding maps for grower-customers using SMS technology from Ag Leader. “Business has been very good in these areas,” he says. “In fact, we recently purchased a couple more twin-bin spreaders so our applicators could do variable-rate P and K at the same time.”
United Cooperative is also starting to utilize Winfield Solutions‘ R7 Placement Strategy coupled with GeoSys‘ FarmSat platform in its operation as well. “These systems allow us to use satellite imagery to build zones in the field for our customers,” says Kemink. “From these, we can then put together detailed recommendations for variable-rate planting and variable-rate N maps, which our growers can use to more efficiently plant and fertilize their crop acres, ideally allowing them to make more money on their harvests while utilizing their crop inputs dollars more efficiently.”
In the bigger picture, adds Cramer, these precision ag technologies should also be able to aid growers in their efforts to practice sustainable agriculture. Of course, since United Cooperative is the reigning National Winner for the Environmental Respect Awards program, sponsored by DuPont Crop Protection, this should come as no surprise. “The cooperative strives to be good stewards of the environment every day,” he says. “Even when I’m in the planning and building stages for additions, environmental safety is always a priority.”
Naturally, this company philosophy extends into the fields of grower-customers. “United Cooperative also understands that precision agriculture and technology use will grow within our cooperative and with our grower patrons,” says Cramer. “We know where the future is heading with variable-rate N, variable-rate seed and variable variety seed in the very near future. We understand by using variable-rate technology P, K and aglime, teamed with variable-rate N and variable-rate seed, our grower patrons can continue to increase their yields while reducing their impact on the environment by utilizing the four Rs in nutrient application: Right product, right rate, right place and right time.”
Since first getting into the precision ag market a few years ago, Kemink says United Cooperative has received very high marks from its grower-customers. “That makes sense when you offer your clients an opportunity to maximize dollars spent on today’s higher fertilizer costs and apply their crop nutrients in only those places in the field where they are needed,” he says.
But the response to the company’s precision programs has also surprised a few folks in United Cooperative’s office as well. “I think it surprised many people here a little bit just how much grid sampling and variable-rate application work our growers started requesting to be done on their fields,” says Kemink. “Part of the reason for this might be that we’ve heavily promoted our precision ag services at various trade shows and meetings. Here, we were able to show growers that to do grid sampling only costs them approximately $2.50 per acre over four years, a small cost compared to the cost of P and K. With this being the case, I think the company might be able to triple its sales in these areas within the next year or so.”
Within the next few years, Cramer says United Cooperative plans to expand its precision ag services to some of the newer technologies currently being offered in the marketplace such as automatic steering and boom section control. Additionally, the company hopes to start using smartphones for its precision ag customers as well. “United Cooperative is already gearing up to provide today’s high-tech growers with the precision products and services they need to meet tomorrow’s needs on their farms, working together to feed an ever-growing world population,” he says. “As the advent of 4G and GPS technology continues to evolve, United Cooperative’s goal is to be a leader in this area.”