Why Local Help Is Still Important In Precision Agriculture

Farmer Brad Hagen inspects cover crops
Minnesota Farmer Brad Hagen has partnered with the local cooperative, Central Valley Coop, and its full-service precision ag program Central Advantage GS, for more than a decade. Here Hagen is inspecting a field planted with cover crops.

Just south of the Twin Cities — a stone’s throw from the Iowa border — on about 1,400 acres of land situated somewhere along the I-35 corridor between rural hamlets Albert Lea and Owatonna, lies grower and early precision agriculture adopter Brad Hagen’s corn, soybean, peas, and hog operation.

Hagen has been immersed in the world of yield monitors and NDVI sensors for about 15 years now, and having built up a significant bank of historical yield data on his operation, he is now seeing some of the benefits that come with such a long-running dedication to data collection.

“It’s so valuable to be able to go back 10 years and look at different trends — like whether a certain area of the field has more yield potential based on potassium (K) applications — just stuff like that,” said Hagen recently during a break from his fall post-harvest duties. “It helps us to manage every acre to max productivity and maximize potential profits.”

Hagen has partnered with the local cooperative, Central Valley Coop, and its full-service precision ag program Central Advantage GS, since basically its beginning 12 years ago. He says the program has probably made the most significant impact thus far in his nutrient management efforts on farm. Hagen’s farm lies within the Minnesota River watershed, and several recreational lakes are located nearby, so keeping the nitrates that he applies to his corn and soybeans in place is vitally important.

“The newest thing they (Central Advantage GS) have been doing is where they go in during the spring and soil test to see where we are with available N, then they map that out in grids and write a variable-rate prescription,” says Hagen. “Then I’ll typically VR sidedress during the season to add what’s removed.”

Like many growers, Hagen was initially skeptical to abandon the flat-rate N applications that had seemingly been working just fine for years. It took a bit of self-evaluation for him to realize the program worked.

“At first I was very skeptical, so I ran a lot of tests myself where I’d do the variable-rate recommendation on so many acres, but then on a few acres I’d do what I thought was right based on my knowledge of the farm, rainfall, what the corn looked like,” recalls Hagen. “And basically every time it made me look like a fool, so finally I said well I think I ought to just stick with the prescription from here on out.

“And off course you have the financial and environmental incentives,” he adds. “Since you’re only putting on what you need where you need it.”

Another area that data has played a big role for Hagen is in his work with cover crops.

“As you know we use quite a bit of cover crops in Minnesota and with the Central Advantage program I can try all kinds of different blends and they track the data on all the different blends and where they are planted, then they compare one mix versus the others and get a standard deviation; it helps identify what we’re doing right and what we need to work on with those cover crops.”

Hagen — who has yet to embrace drone technology for his imaging needs but says he’s considering it in the coming years — sees uncertainty in where precision ag is headed, just as others have told PrecisionAg.com in recent months.

“It’s hard to say where things will be in five or 10 years, every year you’re moving in leaps and bounds,” he says. “What I think will stay the same is, you’re always going to need to have service and local knowledge behind all the data stuff, so you know if it’s giving you the wrong answers.

“And you’ve got to have a team that understands you’re equipment and how to keep it working. You’re always going to need that support from local people.”

Hagen’s Trusted Advisor

Ashley Schmeling grew up on a corn and bean farm in tiny Blooming Prairie, MN, and has now been a precision ag specialist with Central Advantage GS (Owatonna, MN) for about five years now. During that time she has been Hagen’s main liaison on all things precision while otherwise managing about 40,000 acres annually.

Ashley Schmeling Central Advantage
Ashley Schmeling, Central Advantage GS

Schmeling says the size and scope of Hagen’s data storage might be the largest of any Central Advantage GS customer, and being that he’s in his 12th growing season in the program and they grid soil sample once every four years, he’s on his third cycle with grid soil sampling when most are still on their first or second cycles. That enormous data bank gives Hagen a leg up on less-endowed growers.

“Brad, he’s just a very smart man. You can tell that he likes to think about different practices and other things and then go out and test them on his farm,” says Schmeling. “He’s really good about looking at year-to-year comparisons and five year trends.”

Central Advantage GS offers the Premier Crop Systems platform for data analysis and management zone setup. Schmeling says Hagen, who deploys a Precision Planting monitor in his combine and planter, uses the data platform to anonymously benchmark his operation against others in the immediate area.

“A lot of guys today are asking for that (benchmarking) and want to see that data and how they stack up,” she says.

Currently, Schmeling is working with Hagen on a few projects, most notably a variable-rate planting soybeans project using Hagen’s vast stores of historical yield and cation exchange capacity (a numeric value that reflects the total amount of exchangeable cations a specific soil can hold, relating directly to nutrient-holding capacity) data, as well as other factors such as organic matter and elevation.

“I think another thing that Brad would tell you is we’ve improved the fertility of his land pretty well,” Schmeling adds. “His first year in the program, where his organic matter was and where it has gone and continues to go up, I think he sees the pay off in that investment in his land and his soil health.”

Another thing about Hagen that makes for success in his data collection efforts is sheer power of will.

“Brad especially, if something isn’t looking right or he can tell something’s off, he’s going to be calling us, for sure,” says Schmeling. “During this past planting there were a couple times where something wasn’t quite looking right on his monitor and he shut it right down and called us.

“That’s a good mind-set for growers to have. You can tell that he wants to see the data collected right and know that it’s accurate just as badly as we do.”

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