Delivering on Ag Data Value
Bruce Baier is another deeply experienced precision agriculture manager who survived the early years of ag technology while riding the “bleeding edge.” Starting with grid sampling in 1994, when he was with the retail division of Cargill, he parlayed that data into variable-rate prescription building in 1995, closely followed by the purchase of the company’s first yield monitor.
“We learned about what not to do by making a lot of dumb mistakes, but that was what the bleeding edge was like,” Baier says. “It was really not a lot of fun.” In 1999 Baier and his colleagues really pushed the envelope, working with an ambitious farmer on a variable-rate planting system built off a Rawson controller (a technology manufacturer purchased by Trimble in 2008) and an Ag Leader monitor.
Forays into imagery, early variable nitrogen regimens, and measurements of everything they could get their hands on followed, with widely varying success — but also a lot of learning in the process.
Today, as the precision program manager at Ag Partners LLC, headquartered in Albert City, IA, Baier is happy to stay on the “leading edge” of technology while working to deliver good value in precision services to farmer clients. Ag Partners serves farmers in 12 counties in northwest Iowa, and the branded precision offering — InSiteCDM — has attracted about a quarter of the farmer-customer base.
InSiteCDM emerged in the mid-2000s with the combination of Ag Partners and CS-Agrow and really took off in 2009 with the hiring of Clint Sires, who, as manager, has focused on growing the program.
“Helping farmer-customers learn and using data to make better decisions is the gist of the program today,” Baier says. “We do research to figure out better ways of doing things, whether it is nitrogen recommendations or management zones or different practices, such as narrow-row planting.”
Baier relies on Sires to oversee the precision offering while also managing two precision ag technicians who handle equipment service and sales. Sires and an InSiteCDM specialist focus on the data. On the equipment side, Ag Partners is an Ag Leader Blue Delta dealer and a Precision Planting dealership.
Focus On Data
The InSiteCDM model lives by validated data, so the top priority for everyone who is in contact with the farmer is ensuring that proper data collection and management techniques are followed. Program progress is most often measured by yield data, so farmers who sign on for the InSiteCDM program also are required to harvest with calibrated yield monitors. “When they sign up, an accurately calibrated yield monitor is right there in the agreement,” Sires says. “It serves to stress the importance of accurate yield data.”
Every sales agronomist, in addition to the InSiteCDM team, is capable of calibrating the monitor, he adds.
They also make it clear that more and better data delivers better recommendations that make the time and effort worth the hassle. “When there are problems or just neglect, it is possible with newer equipment to use scale tickets and back-calibrate,” Baier says. “We try hard to make them understand that you can have the averages right, but there’s a lot of value in understanding the spatial variations, the highs and lows, in the field. So when we talk about management zones and assigning rates and population by the fertility of these zones, it is now much more important that they get the highs and lows set within the field, so we get the zones set up properly. Education is the key to understand how important it is to get it right.”
While Ag Partners sees its role as data collector and interpreter as absolutely critical, it has chosen a partner to provide storage and help make the data more useful and malleable: Premier Crop Systems, out of Des Moines, IA.
“Premier Crop supplies the website interface to input data and the ability to create and run reports,” Sires says. “When the data is not available electronically, the collection form Premier Crop provides allows us to collect virtually any other type of data, from row spacing information to manure application and more, and record it on a field information sheet. All of it eventually becomes a layer on a map. Once the data has all been entered into the system, we can go in and run queries on the data for our sales agronomists and use the results to provide better recommendations for all inputs being used.”
The Premier data toolbox has been in place for the past decade, which has seen a sharp increase in the available valid data. It gives Ag Partners a rich historical perspective that allows a lot of comparing and contrasting of weather and pest anomalies as well as agronomic practices for long-time customers.
Premier offers another benefit — access to aggregated data from similar precision customers. This is not always overly beneficial, unless it pertains to a particular issue of broad regional interest. “In 2012 we were experiencing a drought, and customers were questioning whether it was worth the extra expense to apply a fungicide as was planned,” Baier says. “Premier had data from Illinois from a previous year that showed that there was a benefit to applying a fungicide in a drought situation, so we went ahead and recommended fungicide. It ended up working out very well for those that applied.”
Despite the success and customer loyalty enjoyed by Ag Partners’ InSiteCDM program, one curious fact is that fewer than 20% of farmer-clients in the program utilize wireless data transfer. Baier doesn’t really mind — collecting cards and flash drives from customers creates an additional touchpoint, and if attention is paid to the process, getting access to the data is virtually assured.
Baier says the reality is that farmers haven’t shown much interest in paying for the systems and subscriptions and have been content to stick with the memory drive.
Ag Partners agronomists and precision specialists take advantage of the additional customer exposure received through multiple touchpoints with farmer-customers. Baier says the process to set up management zones for the next planting season starts in August, followed by visits to farmers to discuss strategy and ensure they are on the same page with customers.
At harvest time agronomists and precision specialists go through the process of checking calibration before capturing yield data and providing it to farmers as rapidly as possible to facilitate seed purchasing decisions.
Through the end of the year all the field data is inputted, cleaned up, and returned to farmers in electronic or paper form. January is preparation time for a producer meeting in February. In the past, representatives from all of the major input manufacturers have come to speak, as well as some special guests that provide food for thought. “They don’t always exactly coincide with what we are doing, but it gives them something new to think about,” Baier says.
The meeting also features data breakout sessions, which are customer-only sessions that dive deeper into all of the group data that has been collected. This “deep dive” into the data unlocks agronomic insights and trends that would otherwise be unseen. These insights eventually lead to better future recommendations.
In-season scouting is not part of the precision service unless specific problems arise that require diagnosis. “I prefer to have airplane imagery taken when needed, but for small areas we will bring out our drone,” Baier says. “We get a better, faster, and more complete picture with an airplane.”
Imagery as a product is something Ag Partners has tried numerous times, most recently with some of the drone-driven alternatives, but none of them has panned out.
One of the keys to adding value for farmers is conducting on-farm trials through a program Ag Partners calls “Learning Blocks.” Baier explains that these trials have been effective in proving the value of products and practices and have given the agronomists the confidence to make recommendations to farmer-customers. “We’re lucky to have succeeded early on in proving that we could test products and show which ones made the customer money,” he says.
The key to a successful Learning Block, essentially a two-acre testing area in a farm field, is identifying a section with consistent soil type to reduce potential variability. “This allows us to do whatever is needed to test product effectiveness — for example, varying plant population or nitrogen rate,” Baier says.
Enhanced Learning Blocks takes the research a step further. These farm trials are set up to match university-level research parameters for replicating trials — for example, a tested product in an enhanced block would get five replications of four different rates in the same block. “A lot of what we do with these is testing nitrogen rates, plant population rates, and new products,” Baier says.
The testing regimens will be important, as Ag Partners looks at putting a few products and practices through its paces in the future. “Biological products have some interest to me, and the concept of soil heath is a wide open area to be explored,” he adds.
Multi-hybrid recommendations are also on the wish list, but so far it’s been difficult to sell farmers on the payback. “At the end of the day,” Baier says, “yield is still king.”