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.”

Leave a Reply

Service Providers Stories
Filling The Planter from Cab
Service ProvidersPrecision Agriculture: What is it?
March 15, 2018
If we look at the title of the article, all of you will come to an answer. These answers will Read More
Business ManagementBeing a Great Team Player in the Precision Agriculture Game
March 15, 2018
Only great team players who are great teammates, have the potential to get championship results. Each player on the team Read More
AmericasCommodity Classic 2018: Can’t Algorithm Agriculture (OPINION)
March 7, 2018
Once the annual end-of-winter blowout known as Commodity Classic wraps, it basically signals that we’ve reached go-time for agriculture. The Read More
Business ManagementOpinion: Closing the Gap Between the Precision Ag Industry and New Graduates
March 1, 2018
As my time as an undergrad comes to a close, I look at the precision ag industry and I see Read More
Trending Articles
Business ManagementBeing a Great Team Player in the Precision Agriculture Game
March 15, 2018
Only great team players who are great teammates, have the potential to get championship results. Each player on the team Read More
Dr Brian Arnall Oklahoma State Paul Schrimpf
Excellence AwardsOpen For Nominations: PrecisionAg Awards Of Excellence Honor Outstanding Achievement in Ag Technology
March 7, 2018
Nominate an outstanding individual for one of four PrecisionAg Awards of Excellence. Recipients will be honored at a special ceremony during the 2018 InfoAg Conference in July. Read More
AmericasCrop Scouting in Brazil Improves Through Intelligent Pest Monitoring Systems
February 28, 2018
About nine years ago, shortly after finishing my graduation, my first job was as a monitor of pests and disease Read More
Events12 Groundbreaking AgTech Startups Selected to Pitch at AgLaunch Startup Station
February 22, 2018
AgLaunch is bringing its Startup Station pitch event back to the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show for a second time Read More
Industry NewsNFMS 2018: Case IH Talks Autonomous Agriculture, Announces Pilot Program
February 20, 2018
Since the reveal of the autonomous concept vehicle, Case IH has been evolving the technology and further defining automation and Read More
AsiaCloud-based Irrigation Could Double India’s Crop Yield and Halve Water Use
February 12, 2018
A cloud-based, micro-irrigation system tested on a farm in India has cut water use by up to 80%  and doubled Read More
Latest News
Corn Field
Industry NewsIndustrial IoT Company Intros Remote Asset Monitoring S…
March 16, 2018
FreeWave Technologies today announced the general availability of the WAVECONTACT WC30i-AXIS Wireless Angle Sensor. This sensor measures thief hatch states Read More
Decision Support SoftwareOpinion: The Missing Link in Precision Agriculture
March 15, 2018
The agtech boom over the last two years is indeed astonishing. Farmers are becoming more open to new, emerging technologies Read More
Sensors/IoTEstimating Field Weather and Soil Conditions
March 15, 2018
There is a favorite expression of mine that I love to apply to meteorology: “Measure with a micrometer, mark it Read More
Filling The Planter from Cab
Service ProvidersPrecision Agriculture: What is it?
March 15, 2018
If we look at the title of the article, all of you will come to an answer. These answers will Read More
Business ManagementBeing a Great Team Player in the Precision Agriculture …
March 15, 2018
Only great team players who are great teammates, have the potential to get championship results. Each player on the team Read More
AmericasJanzen: What You Need to Know About Congress’ Agr…
March 15, 2018
Via Janzen Ag Law Blog: Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Thune have introduced Senate Bill 2487, the “Agricultural Data Act Read More
Farmer tractor tablet
Data ManagementAg’s Digital Revolution: What’s Holding Us Back?
March 15, 2018
Data is undeniably a valuable asset. Yet, in the ag ecosystem, who’s seeing the value from it? A recent article Read More
PrecisionAg InstitutePrecisionAg Institute Whitepaper Library
March 14, 2018
Welcome to the PrecisionAg Institute Whitepaper library! Here you will find free whitepapers and case studies from the PrecisionAg Institute Partners Read More
Africa/Middle EastAgTech Startup Wefarm Secures New Financing Round
March 14, 2018
Wefarm, the world’s largest farmer-to-farmer digital network, has secured $5 million in additional seed funding, led by Silicon-Valley based True Read More
Spensa platform
Industry NewsAg Tech News: DTN Acquires Spensa to Boost Predictive M…
March 14, 2018
DTN announced today that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Spensa Technologies, according to a press release on Read More
Industry NewsAg Tech News: BioLumic Garners $5 Million in Series A
March 14, 2018
BioLumic, creators of the first ultraviolet (UV) crop yield enhancement system, today announced the close of $5 million in Series A financing. Read More
UAV drone
DronesFlorida Specialty Crops: Realizing the Benefits of Prec…
March 13, 2018
Dr. Yiannis Ampatzidis recently joined the faculty at UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC) in Immokalee, writes Frank Read More
Data ManagementAgReliant Genetics, The Climate Corp. Collaborate on Da…
March 13, 2018
AgReliant Genetics, the third largest seed company in North America, and The Climate Corp., a subsidiary of Monsanto Co., have Read More
Sensors/IoT6 IoT Trends to Watch in 2018
March 9, 2018
With increased value provided by edge computing to security improvements with Blockchain integration, IoT platforms across the board are just Read More
EuropeJohn Deere to Acquire Carbon Fiber Boom Manufacturer in…
March 9, 2018
Agriculture is a tough business to be in, even with a booming economy the ag world is still taking its Read More
Data ManagementOpinion: Ag Data Sells, But Who’s Buying?
March 9, 2018
Indulge me and let’s beat a dead horse together. We all know that data is a huge deal these days. Read More
Industry NewsAutonomous Solutions Announces Autonomous Vehicle Pilot…
March 7, 2018
Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) technology will be used in two pilot programs with large scale commercial growers in California. A Read More
Precision IrrigationLindsay Event Puts Focus on Precision Irrigation and Sm…
March 7, 2018
Lindsay Corp., a leading global manufacturer and distributor of irrigation and infrastructure equipment and technology, today hosted Water Matters 3.6.18 Read More