Wabash Valley Service Co.: Back to the Basics
Wabash Valley Service Co. has been at the grindstone on precision agronomy for as long as almost any cooperative service organization in the Midwest. Serving farmers in 10 counties in southeastern Illinois and four in southwest Indiana, Wabash Valley has worked through the highs and lows of precision technology adoption, and everything in between for more than two decades.
And while they would be the first to admit that they don’t have everything exactly the way they’d like it, the agronomy and precision services teams at Wabash Valley are on a track of continuous improvement by focusing on core services, and delivering return on investment that farmer-customers value.
In these challenging economic times, that means maximizing input efficiency, says Dmitri Krajec, precision agronomy manager at Wabash Valley, working out of the Grayville, IL office. Helping farmers be more efficient with inputs makes the case for precision services based off regular soil sampling, data-based fertility and seed recommendations, and the use of precision scouting tools that improve crop protection application decision-making. “Not a lot of our customers are cutting back on inputs, but they are managing them better,” says Krajec. “From running side by side trials on seed varieties to directing fertilizer into high production areas where returns are solid, precision farming is helping our farmers make better decisions.”
Wabash Valley has gone through a lot of trial and error on building agronomic programs, and an internal precision services “division,” over the years. The increasing complexity of precision products and practices led it to separate the agronomy sales team from what it terms a “precision services” team.
Blake Behnke and Travis Correll serve as the Precision Farming coordinators, who basically deal with everything related to precision farming at Wabash for support, sales and technical service. They work hand-in-hand with the agronomy sales team, which act as the main interface between the grower and the cooperative. “Blake and I work with each individual sales person — they have the relationship with the grower, and we are an extension of that with precision farming,” says Correll.
It’s a perfect marriage in theory, but not all sales agronomists are equally inclined toward the technology. “Some of them have taken hold of it and can do a lot on their own, but others need a lot more assistance, including us interfacing more directly with the customer,” adds Correll. “Every location we operate from is a little different as far as personnel and what they sell and what they are familiar with.”
The Precision Farming team has a lot on its shoulders. They are also responsible for ensuring that collected data is accurate and correctly utilized, and work with the agronomy team on recommendations. Equipment sales, which includes products from Ag Leader and, most recently, Precision Planting, are also a key aspect of their work. Finally, the team trains both sales agronomists and customers on software programs and equipment usage.
In other words, in the uneven and imperfect universe of crop production, the precision team acts as the solution center for technology and data, both internally and externally, in all its forms at Wabash Valley.
Even before global positioning had become widely available in the mid-1990s, Wabash Valley was soil sampling and building lime recommendations for farmer-customers, notes Krajec. “Since then, our grid sampling business has grown to about 200,000 acres, mostly on a four-year rotation.”
Soil sampling is indeed at the core of Wabash Valley’s precision program.
Three years ago, the cooperative moved away from using a third-party sampling service and began to bring it in house. “We purchased a Honda Pioneer with a Wintex automatic soil sampler installed on it,” Krajec explains. “We ran it as a demo to start, and it was so successful that we went back and bought two more last year. Each unit covers a third of our territory, north, middle, and south, and we are able to cover 50- to 60,000 acres a year.”
To track the sampling work throughout the fall, Wabash employs John Deere’s AgLogic program, which it has used successfully for five years. “We initially used it for spray rigs and spreaders to run logistics and get applicators in the right field at the right rate, and to monitor where we’re at and what work got done,” says Krajec. “Now we use it to do logistics for sampling — it allows us to see field orders across multiple locations and growers, allowing us to route them most efficiently. It also gives us an idea how much work a rig can knock out in a day so we can adjust to handle more acres if it’s realistic.”
Winter and spring will bring any number of challenges in addition to tracking field data and monitoring field recommendations. Customers adding new technologies and software will need to be trained, or just as often re-trained on last year’s technology. “It could be months in between the time a farmer initiates a rec, or has to crank up a cab display,” says Behnke. “Continuing customer education is always a part of what we’re working on.”
Winter is also a great time for organized training events, which emerge from challenges and issues that farmers are dealing with in a given year. We’ll set up meetings featuring representatives from manufacturers and discussions about new products and benefits to their operations,” says Krajec. “We’re also starting to do more basic nutrient management sessions — kind of a back-to-the-basics approach to get them for focus on fertility and nutrient management and not just the latest and greatest new technologies.”
“We try to demonstrate to farmers the power of the data that they are capable of collecting, and how they can take that data and use it to be more efficient with inputs and make money by adjusting practices,” he continues. “It might be utilizing a different technology, whether data-driven variable-rate or electrical conductivity we’ll see more of in the future, or the data from the smart firmers that Precision Planting is offering that adds another layer of data to look at.”
Some growers are very involved in data collection, and some just want their screen cleaned off so they can keep harvesting, he adds. “The biggest thing is to keep at it, stay in front of growers and have the conversations about the benefits and the efficiencies you can gain and the money you can make when you utilize the technology and the data that is available. For our precision team, it means staying in front of salespeople with the latest data and successes so our agronomy team has a great story to tell.”
On the software side, the agronomic backbone of software comes from SST, which Wabash Valley uses for cloud-based storage, transfer, and recommendation building as well as report creation. “All fertilizer and lime recommendations, seeding and anhydrous applications are built in SST,” says Krajec. To pull in disparate software more efficiently based on what growers use, Ag Leader’s SMS and MyJohnDeere provide linkage for data transferring into the centralized system.
Deere’s AgLogic also provides logistical help for spring application, and has come in particularly handy for keeping track of dicamba-loaded rigs. “As we enter the dicamba age, and with Enlist coming soon, it’s a good way to keep separate rigs on one product and maneuver them through the service area to keep them on that product and avoid the possibility of contamination,” says Krajec.
Dicamba damage assessment, in addition to other in-season field problems, are often entrusted to drones. While not a standard line item on the precision service checklist, using the Drone Deploy system a drone can be called in to georeference and assess a problem of unknown seriousness or origin, and monitor it through the season.
As for mobile technology, sometimes the simplest tools generate the most satisfaction for customers. For example, many customers have come to count on text alerts generated by the AgLogic program letting the grower know that an application has been completed. A step up from the simple job alert are georeferenced scouting notes that Wabash agronomists can send via the SST Sirrus mobile app, complete with images of the field observation. Video communication, including Facetime phone calls, also serve to tighten the connection of farmer to agronomist — and even allow the precision team to troubleshoot equipment problems via video chat.
On fertility, the entire service area is on a spring nitrogen application regimen, but Wabash Valley is having good success moving customers to split application to reduce nitrogen loss and increase efficiency.
We’ve been promoting split application, and our company has made a huge investment on topdress application rigs,” says Krajec. “We can go in and knife in ammonia or UAN, and then come over the top with urea or AMS. We also use Y-Drops in several parts of the company with UAN and micronutrients, and we have seen a lot of yield gain and a lot of efficiency by pushing some of that nitrogen later into the season when the plant is getting better uptake.”
It’s largely a yield benefit, adds Krajec, but it is also just a best practice. “Yield response on topdress has been pretty positive a large percent of the time, and it’s also the right thing to do environmentally.”
Climate Is Right
Ask 10 retailers for their opinion about Climate Corp. and it’s possible that 10 different answers will come back, from “not working with it” to “all in.” For its part, Wabash Valley is a reseller of Climate FieldView, and is seeing a bright side to its proliferation.
FieldView has created a different level of data interaction with the grower,” says Krajec. “They get more access to their data without having to use a different GIS tool. They can go in and look at the different layers of data and build reports to see how different practices affected yield.”
For example, farmer customers can look at the impact of split planting trials or fungicide trials or really any practice in a field and view data reports. That said, Krajec doesn’t believe it can replace boots on the ground agronomy consulting when it comes to deep analysis and true collaboration. “The data in FieldView is a great snapshot, but it’s just one source of information. Customers continue to want to consult with our agronomists when locking in decisions.”
Krajec is also pleased that Climate seems to be recognizing the importance of on-the-ground, face-to-face agronomic consulting as a companion to FieldView tools.
With big cities hours away and few destination companies in the area, Wabash Valley has to work hard to get on, and stay on, the radars of future employees, notes Assistant General Manager Allen Rusk.
“We host high school FFA programs — in fact, we have one coming in later this week,” notes Rusk. “We will tour the office, have lunch, and talk about our company and the career potential that exists in agriculture. We encourage them to explore options in junior college as well as full four-year programs that lead to careers in the industry.”
Wabash Valley will host 12 to 15 college interns per year, who bring with them summer projects that they will work on and Wabash management will view and evaluate. “Our success for keeping them here after having them here through the internship program has been better.”
Correll and Behnke have gone into schools as well to talk about nutrient management, drones, and other new technology in an effort to create interest, and they have been invited back several years running.
The CCA program is central to the agronomy team, which features 18 certified individuals. Rusk admits that it does not necessarily score points with growers to have CCAs on staff, but feels that at this point it is something growers expect as table stakes for professional consultants. “The expectations for new employees is that they will be working toward their CCA if they do not already have it, says Rusk.
Package or Ala Carte?
One nagging challenge in selling agronomic programs that lingers these days is whether to sell services individually or bundled in packages. More recent efforts to bundle services have not panned out as hoped, as individual farmer desires, and the many stages farmers work in as far as technology adoption, seems to necessitate a more one-on-one approach to sales.
Wabash Valley shifted its approach on packages from three options to a single, “all in” bundle featuring a wide range of service options. Available as part of the package is: grid soil sampling; VRT lime, phosphorus, potassium and level nitrogen products as desired by the customer, harvest monitor calibration; advanced yield data processing by hybrid/variety/soil type; access to Wabash Valley Viewer, a data viewer tool; custom VRT seeding recommendations, custom VRT nitrogen recs; planter monitor setup and support; and multiyear yield analysis.
So far, the packages have not received the support that was hoped.
”We’ve done a lot of different packages over the years — currently we have some that tie our grid sampling to recommendation building to yield calibration, and we offer these as a package rather than ala carte. That way has been pretty tough, and not really taken off,” says Krajec.
‘’We’re not losing business because of it, but it seems like every grower does something different. It almost seems easier to allow them to pick different things ala carte and serve it that way. No one grower is the same.”