Working In The Zone

There’s certainly no single “right way” for a retailer or consultant to deliver precision agriculture services to grower-customers. Depending on how deep one wants to get into the data processing, what variables are to be considered, and what kind of staff will be working on the program, there are options that range from complete “black box” turnkey solutions to total “do it yourself” concepts — and everything in between.

At All Points Cooperative, with 12 locations serving central Nebraska, Skeeter Rutkowski and Brian Hunt have based their precision agriculture program on composite satellite imagery that allows them the opportunity to use technology while also remaining “high touch” in the field.

The central Nebraska cooperative services primarily corn acreage, about 70%, with the balance going primarily to soybeans and alfalfa. Almost all of it is irrigated land. Five years ago, the cooperative started using satellite imagery that generated yield potential maps. Using these images, which measure biomass and provide a virtual look at yield, a variable-rate nitrogen prescription can be created for the following year. While the program worked well, it only worked in grassy crops and, at the end of the day, Rutkowski wanted more information out of the fields.

Last summer, All Points started working with images provided by FieldInSite called SaMZ, an acronym for satellite management zones. FieldInSite is a division of the fertilizer manufacturer The Mosaic Co. SaMZ images are actually data composites of individual fields that FieldInSite develops using several years of image data.

All Points pays Field InSite to generate the SaMZ images once a grower has agreed to add the service. The images themselves actually break the individual fields into up to six management zones based on the composite data, creating a map of known variability. Using these images, All Points takes samples in each of the zones to begin establishing nutrient application recommendations.

“Sample results will range widely across the zones,” says Rutkowski. “Our fields out here look flat and even, but we’re finding a lot of variability.” The samples pulled are used to provide a comprehensive picture of the management zones, providing solid measurements of pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and zinc.

The goal is to begin to apply the absolute right amount of each nutrient in each zone to optimize yield, something Rutkowski and Hunt are still working on. “We know that not every zone has the same yield potential,” says Rutkowski. “We hope to combine yield monitor data with the SaMZ images to better determine what that potential is,” and ultimately what are the best nutrient recommendations.

Last summer, All Points began a serious push into its market with the map and sample approach, and grew its business from about 5,000 acres to more than 24,000 acres. “We did it by holding smaller grower meetings of six to eight growers at a time, so we could really explain the program and answer questions,” says Rutkowski.”We’ve noticed that at bigger meetings, you don’t get a lot of discussion going and because of that, you don’t get people on board.”

More sales last summer meant more fall sampling, which All Points streamlined using pickup trucks equipped with soil sampling rigs. The company owns two Ag Leader Insight and two Raven Viper in-cab computers, which are moved from application rig to pickup truck for sampling seamlessly.

And the increase in business necessitated the acquisition of new dry machine with added capacity. All Points chose a Case IH dry applicator with three bins, which Rutkowski says will crank out three times more acres as well as provide additional versatility.

One downside to All Points’ system has been a lack of compatibility across the software and hardware needed to make it all work. Rutkowski gets good support from Mosaic as far as the actual maps and from the suppliers he uses, but there’s no single solution that will work. “We use SST for our some of our data sets, and we use a John Deere sprayer that requires us to use Apex to write prescription maps,” he explains. “It would be great to have one computer program or one technology to run exactly what we want.”

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