Thinking Data First: A Case Study In Multi-Hybrid Planting
Delaware, OH-based grower Jim Case and his irreplaceable Farm Manager Nate Long — along with Beck’s FARMserver Field Advisor Mike Hannewald — make for a great case study in a team of stakeholders making things happen in the Big Data world, as PrecisionAg learned recently after meeting with the guys over coffee and yield maps at Case’s cozy dwelling alongside the banks of the winding Olentangy River, just north of Columbus.
Case, who, yes, is a big fan of red equipment, farms 1,200 combined corn and soybean acres — mostly in small fields scattered around Delaware County — and began his 2015 multi-hybrid planting journey with a sizeable up-front investment by bringing in the only Kinze 4900 Multi-Hybrid (MH) planter in the state (other than the one that sits in friend to PrecisionAg.com & Ohio State Extension educator John Fulton’s shed).
The investment proved a success for Case, who got started in precision ag back in 2005 with a lightbar and eventually progressed to establishing a local Central Ohio RTK network with other area growers, as the second-generation farmer made enough in yield increase in the first year to completely offset his initial out-of-pocket. Getting hooked up with Hannewald and the Beck’s software and support team also helped make a difference, according to Case.
“Before Mike came along Nate and I were having some issues with deciding what type of data to use, should it be soil type, or field typography or yield data, or some combination of the three?”
So Case made the leap and jumped on board with Hannewald. FARMserver, Beck’s Web-based precision data management software suite, was chosen to store, sort, process/normalize, and visualize the data.
Looking back, another crucial piece of the puzzle that came into place was Hannewald convincing Case to keep things as simple as possible in the first year.
“Keeping it simple, a simpler approach, it just made sense in the first year,” said Hannewald. “If you pile too much on that first year, they can get discouraged. Jim had almost 10 years of yield data we could’ve used, but we decided to go with a four year base for that first year, with his 2012 data — which was a drought year — as kind of a worst case scenario layer,” he explains.
Analyzing The Data
From there, the team loaded Jim’s historical yield data into field maps and began analyzing the pretty pictures with Long, Case’s farm manager who possesses a great deal of contextual knowledge about his fields, such as the location of low spots and poor draining areas that typically yield poorly.
From there came the most important part: Choosing the hybrid types that would be placed throughout Case’s fields.
“Us three as a team, along with some seed folks from Becks, we spent about half a day mapping fields and drawing up the management zones, figuring out how many acres should be planted with an offensive variety (high yielding), and how many acres we plant with a defensive (yield holding),” Case explains.
In actuality, the team decided to go with two different pairs composed of four hybrid varieties, one pair being early maturity and one pair being late maturity.
“And one of the hybrid pairs pretty much nailed it,” beams Case.
A few things the team found out after analyzing the 2015 numbers were that seed populations — not just hybrid type — made a big difference in yields, as did many other factors such as grain moisture at harvest time, tillage, etc.
“We’ve found that it’s really the little things all along the way that make the biggest difference (in yield),” recalls Case. “Attention to detail is huge, we try to be very particular in everything we do, and Nate, that’s where he really steps up in a big way for me. This was the first year we didn’t strip-till — we no-tilled — and that was a call Nate made that I was admittedly very wary about, but the yields came through.
“We like to say, ‘there’s no silver bullet, its silver buckshot’.”
“It was just a big learning experience,” adds Hannewald. “Multi-hybrid planting, it’s not just a new planter or new monitor — it’s a new cultural practice, a new way of farming, and everything from the seed you buy to what you do with tillage and cover crops is going to make a big difference.”
Accurate placement of management zones is another variable that fell just right for Case in 2015.
“Success happens with good management zones,” says Hannewald. “And Jim had 92% good zones (last year). How do we measure zone quality? Well basically if what we thought in the spring was high yielding, if it yields high in the fall, then that’s a good zone.”
Another aspect of FARMserver that Jim and Nate agree fits their operation to a “T” is the ease with which the system lets a user set up test plots. The two ran over 45 test plots this year and plan on doing more of the same in 2016.
Speaking of 2016, the team plans on looking at implementing a soil type data layer, or perhaps aerial crop health imagery, as well as change up the hybrid types again, all in the name of placing the right seed in the right area of the field for righteous yields.
“Becks has a lot of knowledge that we haven’t even scratched the surface on yet, so we plan on tapping into more of that,” adds Hannewald. “In farming we can’t control the weather, but the technology is there for you to control almost everything else.”