Sunrise Cooperative: Precision Farming, Evolved

Sunrise Cooperative: Precision Farming, Evolved

Craig Houin, Sunrise Cooperative; Photo Credit: Sunrise Cooperative, Piqua, OH.

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Asked to eulogize his precision program’s last 12 months in one singular word, Craig Houin, the R7/Data Innovation Lead at Sunrise Cooperative in Fremont, OH, thoughtfully pauses, searching for just the right word to capture 2018’s hectic pace.

“Evolving,” Houin replies. “Or evolution.”

Expounding as to why he chose those words, Houin points to Sunrise’s budding precision ag service program, Sunrise Precision Services (SPS), which experienced a slight reshuffling after its 2016 merger with another Ohio ag retail outfit, Trupointe Cooperative, based in Piqua.

“I feel like we’ve realized some of the wants and needs of the growers a lot better this year, a lot better than we’d done in that regard before,” Houin explains from Sunrise’s impressive agronomy center on a rainy November afternoon. “We have a pretty diverse service offering, with crop model and grid soil sampling with Climate FieldView Plus as options, plus all of the R7 stuff we’ve done — multi-year yield analysis for variable-rate scripts — so I kind of would like to say ‘evolving.’ It’s evolved really well.”

The SPS team consists of 20 members and is led by Daniel Kirk. The group leverages Climate FieldView Plus, ADAPT-N, Field Forecasting Tool and R7 Tool from WinField United, and Mapshots’ AgStudio as its primary GIS platform. On the equipment side of things, SPS is a Precision Planting Premier Dealer and an Ag Leader Blue Delta dealership.

“(The merger) expanded our offerings a little bit because we didn’t do Adapt-N before,” Houin says. “And we just really got started working with Field Forecasting Tool back in 2015, so we’d just finished up our second year with that program as the merger came through.”

“We worked to ramp up the Trupointe branches to have a precision presence at each location, and that was a little bit new to them,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time in the our southern territory in the past year and a half putting a face out there, introducing some of the precision programs, and having a different type of conversation with the growers in that area, as well as developing relationships with the salespeople.”

Houin also believes the two cooperatives’ similarities helped make the 2016 merger a bit easier on the once-separate, now-merging precision ag departments. “Our program offerings were pretty similar with regard to we both did grid sampling, we both did VRA recommendations, we both did variable rate planting and nitrogen prescriptions, so it was a lot of overlap,” he remembers.

Vetting Tech

Besides his responsibilities heading up the cooperative’s efforts within WinField United’s R7 Tool, Houin also spends time as the group’s ag tech beta tester, evaluating whether various software and other technologies will scale and fit across Sunrise’s service offering.

For Houin, the words “ease of use” are not some trendy, flashy soundbite that sounds good on a press release. It’s a big factor in how he evaluates new products.

“With regard to any kind of platform, simplicity of use and understanding is incredibly important,” he stresses. “When I’m training a salesperson or even a farmer on how to use it, it has to be intuitive and straightforward. When they see a button on the screen and they go to push it, they’ve got to know what that button means, and that button has to do the same thing every time.”

Additionally, when looking at potential new technologies for his Sunrise member-growers, Houin will typically weigh whether the proposed product serves a current need for growers.

“(For us,) Climate solves the problem of instant data analysis for our growers and solves the problem of data transfer across different OEMs,” he states. “R7 and Field Monitoring Tool, those solve the problem of where to look for problem fields from a daily (sub-weekly) image and vigor scoring the fields (for scouting). And then Field Forecasting Tool and Adapt-N help solve problems within nitrogen management, in-season.”

Finally, Houin must feel good about the ag tech company overall — its culture and customer service, chiefly among the attributes he’s looking for, must be spot on — or Sunrise’s growers suffer. In the cooperative world, that simply cannot happen.

“If the grower has trouble and we can’t answer it — and oftentimes we can’t answer it because it has something to do with their account setup, and we’re not authorized to change that — we can’t call Climate for them, so the support needs to be good for our customers,” Houin says. “Most of the time we can fix most anything ourselves, but there are those occasions where our customers have to call in, so having good customer service from the vendors is really important, as is the credibility of the company.

“Are they transparent with what they are going to do with the data? Are they progressive? Are they looking to the future? Maybe they’ve stumbled in the past, and how did they react at that?”

4R’s Beget Precision Adoption In Western Lake Erie Basin

Sunrise Cooperative’s Norwalk, OH, Agronomy Center.

With a good portion of Sunrise’s operating territory draining into Lake Erie’s unfortunately nutrient-rich western basin, precision placement of nutrients remains a top priority at Sunrise within the precision and agronomy departments. Adapt-N, as well as WinField United’s Field Forecasting Tool (FFT), helped the cooperative achieve 4R Nutrient Stewardship certification back in 2015, becoming the first Buckeye State retailer to have all its locations become certified. Post-merger, Houin adds, the group is initiating the process of certifying the legacy Trupointe locations.

Field Forecasting Tool, in particular, which Houin describes as a “dynamic crop model,” has helped Sunrise agronomists have a different conversation with growers around fertilizer.

“It’s changed the conversation to such a degree that we’re no longer set to a nitrogen/potassium management program (for the year),” Houin shares. “The growers that we’ve had in that program have been very flexible. Once they see the potential response that they have, then it opens their eyes to all the possibilities that are out there with different management strategies.

“Here’s a good example,” he continues. “I’m working with a grower that’s all pre-plant nitrogen, ammonia ahead of the planter. In 2018 he got all of that applied, and then he didn’t get back into that field to get it planted for another five weeks, due to rain, so that nitrogen sat out in that fallow field for nine weeks before it had seed to feed. We had a lot of rain from April to May, so the potential of that leaching was great. So we were able to run scenarios (in FFT) and say, ‘OK, it looks like here in the third week of June there’s a prime opportunity (to get more on). The problem is you’re going to have more nitrogen than you originally applied because of the amount that you’ve lost.’ So he went ahead and did it on four fields, and I talked to him yesterday, and he’s never had corn yields that high.

“Now, it changes our conversation this winter. ‘Do you really want to put all of that nitrogen down out front? You have the equipment, why don’t you go ahead and put some ammonia out now,’ and then that gives us some opportunity to be flexible throughout the growing season. Field Forecasting Tool really helped us see that there are a lot of different management practices we could utilize, and not every field would get the same program, and not every grower will get the same program.”

“It’s just really changed the way that we look at nitrogen management from top to bottom.”

The Year Ahead

Precision Solutions Specialist-R7/GIS Stuart Smith (left) discusses the results of 2018 soybean planting population trials with R7 Lead Craig Houin.

Being that we’re close to the New Year, it made sense to ask Houin what he thought 2019 would look like for growers enrolled in Sunrise’s precision programs.

“Just expanding on everything we’ve been doing for the last 12 months or so,” he answers. “And just make sure we get more acres (of data) into our models, make sure we get more acres grid sampled. We had a good fall this year grid sampling, so I’ll look forward to that continuing to climb. And then just get out in front of more growers, helping them with their fertility recommendations.

SPS also is expanding its communication reach with growers through a podcast, Precision Vision Podcast, and its online presence, which includes a new web portal and blog that covers all things related to grid-soil sampling.

“I think 2019 is going to be a challenging year all the way around, and it’s starting now. It’s been a pretty interesting fall, so far. We’ve got really, really good yield across all of our trade area basically, so growers are pretty happy and optimistic. But they’re not so optimistic about what the board’s doing on price. But I think with the reduced margins that are going to be coming, it really gives an opportunity for precision technology to shine a little bit more.”

To learn more about Sunrise’s Precision Program, check out its latest Podcast, the Precision Vision Podcast featuring Craig Houin and Land O’Lakes Technology Manager Morgan Seger. Also, Sunrise has launched an informative blog to educate growers on all things soil sampling, you can check that out here if you’d like.