Central Minnesota features variability aplenty when it comes to soil characteristics and topography, from flat, black expanses rich in organic matter to hilly fields that jolt from sand to clay and everything in between. It’s a consultant’s dream — at least for a consultant with ambition and a desire to solve complex, soil-infused puzzles for grower-customers.
Anez Consulting, based a two-hour drive northwest from Minneapolis in the town of Little Falls, has worked to prove itself up to the challenge for 27 years with a keen focus on soil health to drive yield. Its use of imagery in non-traditional ways is shedding light on field-limiting factors and bringing solid value to customers.
“We’re growing the consulting business each year by focusing on fertility as base and foundation for everything,” says Paul Anez, who owns and operates the consulting business with his brother Vince. “We try to balance our clients’ soils so they can take on more and be more efficient with inputs, in particular nitrogen.”
Anez Consulting has been on a slow and steady build from the beginning, when Vince Anez took over a handful of clients from another consultant in 1990. After a decade of work to build the business, Vince brought in brother Paul and sister Renee to get the business on a faster growth path.
Precision agriculture came later to central Minnesota than the flat, rich corn growing areas in the southern part of the state. But by 2008, grower-customers were beginning to outfit themselves with the base tools of precision agriculture, so Anez started with doing grid sampling. However, it was clear that traditional grid sampling was not meshing with the company’s overall approach to fertility.
“We wanted to look at ways to approach fertility that meshed more with our philosophy, which was focusing on identifying differences in soil properties,” says Paul Anez. Enter Michael Dunn in 2010, who worked with the company on a system that would divide fields into management zones according to differences in soil properties.
Why the emphasis on zones? While there is a healthy portion of the service area featuring the traditional “flat and black” field, a significant portion features extreme in-field soil variability, says Dunn. “Relative to the rest of the area around us, I would say we have about the most variability as far as topography and soil organic matter and CAC,” says Dunn. “It is not uncommon to have sand, clay and silt all in the same 40-acre field — much more extreme than the typical Midwest soil and it can change relatively fast. That’s why the 2.5 acre-grids approach was not doing a good job representing spatial variability.”
With a wide range of soils and topography comes a wide range of farming practice, which makes taking a consultative approach to developing agronomic programs a necessity. “We’re really trying to fit programs to growers,” says Paul Anez. “On top of the natural variability here, we have a wide range of grower practices to deal with. There’s a fair amount of no-till and conventional till practices that can make field mapping challenging.”
There is also a long continuum of experience and comfort level with new agronomic practices among the grower-clients that will also need to be recognized and taken into consideration. “What we do to get started and move through the process is to start by asking a lot of questions,” says Anez. “We want to understand what their goals are, what their plans are five and 10 years down the road, and try to tailor our program around their need and wants.”
After these initial discovery sessions, the agronomy team works to build recommendations for the farmer, which may or may not be the most advanced options. “We have a lot of resources at our disposal, but after we’ve gone through meeting with the client it might be that precision is not the fit for them right away,” says Anez.
As stated before, soil health and fertility are at the core. “Ultimately the program is dependent on what the grower is looking to manage, but for most of our clients it’s about soil pH and fertility. It’s an area where we can emphasize the potential for savings on inputs, including phosphorus and potassium.”
Managing seed population to create savings on seed in low performing areas, while targeting higher yield potential with higher seed population in better performing zones is also an emphasis, says Anez.
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The zone approach requires valid, ground-truthed maps that Anez develops from a combination of imagery sources and a two-year sampling regimen. Imagery sources include data pulled from Sentinel 2 satellite images, Veris EC maps, USGS historical imagery, and if needed, aerial or UAV-derived imagery. The object is to establish the tightest possible zone boundaries, and a clear picture of the characteristics of the transitional areas between the zones. This includes a practice of taking bare soil imagery that has been championed by Dunn that he asserts significantly improves the correlation of zone to soil properties.
The base fertility program available to farmers includes some high-touch services, such as weekly scouting and nitrogen management. For those on the plan, “we have all the grower’s nitrogen input data, including information on manure application, pre-plant and starter use, and plans for sidedress,” says Anez.
Nitrogen recommendations and maintenance are aided by the employment of Adapt-N, which is used to predict in-season nitrogen requirements for split applications at the beginning of the season. Then, scouts will use either the SoilScan 360 instant nitrogen test in the field, or send samples to a lab to test for nitrogen, re-run the actual numbers through the Adapt-N model and get an even more accurate recommendation for the in-season nitrogen application.
“Adapt-N provides us a nice way to recalibrate based on most recent soil test nitrate so we can get a more precise readout when we run new data through the model,” says Dunn. “It helps to provide another layer of data to observe in field, and allows us to have a better handle on soil nitrogen availability.
Integrated pest management is another valued service Anez Consultants provides. “Many growers take IPM to mean insurance pest management and plan on spraying a field for insects just as a regular part of the crop production cycle; we work with growers to identify thresholds and decide whether they will actually gain an economic benefit from that application in-season,” says Dunn. It is part of the base program, but the grower may line up for scouting service in addition to the base plan to get specific timing for taking control measures against a specific pest. Two recent examples of popular services were glyphosate-resistant waterhemp on the weed control side which recently broke into the area, and caterpillars on the insect side.
Anez and Dunn admit it can be difficult at times to get growers to perceive a clear return on investment.
“We have a lot of variability in pH and calcium, so that has been low-hanging fruit for us when we create management zones that recommend variable treatments rather than entire field, which saves money and increases profit,” says Dunn. “In tougher years like it’s been recently, farmers have realized the importance of having a strong fertility program so they can make better budget decisions about where to allocate dollars to best help their operation.”
“When commodity prices are tougher, it seems like we gain more business because we have to watch their dollars,” adds Anez. “We help them manage where to place inputs, and we build client confidence.”