There was a time when retailers hit customers’ fields primarily to spot insect and weed threats. “Now we are looking at weeds, insects, diseases, nutrient needs and storm loss assessments,” says Tom Gaschler, master agronomist with Frenchman Valley Co-op, Imperial, NE, where scouting has been an important offering for the last 20 years. Scouts there help the firm’s agronomy department with sales and service — and help identify and schedule post-emerge herbicide, fungicide and nutrient applications.
Dan Armbruster, sales agronomist at Cooperative Elevator Co., Pigeon, MI, says his company still does quite a bit of conventional scouting because of the crop mix the firm services, which includes specialty items such as edible beans and sugar beets as well as corn and soybeans.
“We’re always looking for diseases and insects and deficiencies,” says Armbruster. “You’ve got to do the whole sheabang while you’re out there. As much ‘fun’ as it is walking in corn above your head, you try and get out as many times as you can.” The team goes through most crops about once every two weeks, not necessarily walking an entire 80-acre field, for instance, but driving around to see what is going on.
“Because farmers want to get the most out of their inputs, they’ll have us do more looking at fields for them, and our demand for scouting has gone up,” says Bob Siefkes, agronomist at Great Bend Co-op, Great Bend, KS. “They don’t have time to do it themselves.”
Depending on the region of the country, retailers might actually run into an overabundance of independent scouts. Ty Fickenscher, ag technology lead at Cooperative Producers, Inc. (CPI), Hastings, NE, says he sees a host of independent crop scouts, making the specialty oversaturated in central Nebraska — in fact, “quite a few younger people are starting up in scouting, many partnering with more experienced professionals.” CPI has never had a defined scouting program, but staff do check fields before and after applications to ensure the right products are being used. Interns come in during the summer to support these efforts and catch any problems.
Fickenscher says he was brought on six years ago to initiate CPI’s precision ag program, part of which included careful attention to other developments in the field. The company started zone sampling, which uses satellite imagery to determine plant health. From this imagery, different areas of a field are grouped together based on the level of plant health each area shows. Once these zones are created, CPI field staff collect soil samples in each to determine what soil properties are maximizing or limiting plant performance. The company has also offered grid sampling for a number of years.
“Our precision farming solutions program has been built around soil sampling, but it’s now developing into a whole suite of services,” Fickenscher explains. Just last year CPI added another specialist for its eastern territories to grow the precision end of the business more aggressively.
Last year, too, Fickenscher’s group was charged by CPI’s board of directors to move more quickly on zone sampling for customers. The co-op purchased four new John Deere Gators with soil augers so the agronomy team can hit fields any time of year — even when the ground is frozen — to pull samples. The choice made sense: These 2011 Gators can handle more rugged terrain than previous models, plus CPI has a good relationship with Deere. While Fickenscher was reluctant to reveal the price tag for the vehicles, he did comment that “considering how quickly we can get that sampling done now, our sampling business has increased quite a bit. I’d say the return on investment is three or four years.”
In CPI’s four-year precision program, zone and grid samples are taken in years one and three. “We’re comparing third-year levels to the first year and are making recommendations on the field level rather than the entering a generic equation for all fields,” says Fickenscher.
At Great Bend Co-op, agronomists recommend soil sampling be done every year. The goal is to let customers know exactly where they’re at. “Nothing’s worse than trying to guess what to put on,” says Siefkes. Many factors can affect how a crop responds and how much nutrient reserves may be left in the soil because of the weather. He says rain in particular can take fertilizer out of soil much more than just irrigation.
Fickenscher tells one success story of a 240-acre field with low soil nutrient test levels that maxed out at a 220-bushel corn yield. Under CPI’s prescription program, the grower pulled an average of 260 bushels. The solution was variable-rate applications of phosphorus and sulfur products in dry and liquid forms.
A large share of customers’ acres at West Central Cooperative, Ralston, IA, has gone to variable-rate technology, with 60% to 70% of growers needing grid sampling. To handle that volume, the company subcontracts all field collection to Midwest Independent Soil Samplers. The move allows West Central staff more time to draw up recommendations.
Seeking Tissue Samples
In addition, the firm is starting to develop relationships with equipment companies to tie what the growers are doing in their rigs (such as gathering numbers in yield monitors) to agronomics. John Deere, for instance, is helping the co-op with integration and data management for grower customers. “It’s up to us to provide our agronomic insight and process a lot of that data into knowledge,” says agronomist Jason Kohorst.
Some retailers we spoke with have added or seriously ramped up tissue sampling field work in the past few years.
But the season can be long for sampling, from the beginning of May until the second week of August, says Armbruster. “We try to time it so that sample results can be used to combine foliar feeding with other trips across the field.”
Each summer Cooperative Elevator hires two interns who strictly handle tissue sampling and travel among the company’s seven agronomy locations that staff salesmen. This year the agronomy staff is purchasing tablets for the first time for field use.
Most Cooperative Elevator sales reps also have smartphones with an application that scans a tissue sample bag and transmits all data to the lab, no form required. The firm uses Winfield Solutions’ NutriSolutions program for evaluating tissue samples. The software is a tool to develop fertilizer recommendations based on identified nutrient levels.
Great Bend Co-op also uses Winfield’s resources for tissue sampling, and Winfield’s approach has helped a great deal in increasing customers’ yields. As an example, Siefkes says his team has discovered corn needs much more micronutrients during the growing season than previously thought. “Tissue samples tell us that. Many of our growers will also fertigate potash or whatever is showing a need. That helps a lot,” he emphasizes. Other shortages have shown up, including boron and manganese — especially in soybeans — and zinc in corn. One solution: Siefkes found that zinc in a seed treatment makes a big difference in emergence of the corn plant.
“These tissue samples are finding a lot of things we didn’t know before that are helping take us to the next level of production, and that’s what these farmers want,” he says.
He is also impressed with the database of samples — more than 60,000 — that Winfield maintains. “So when we do those tissue samples, we really have a good database from which to base our recommendations,” he says.
Cooperative Elevator’s Armbruster is convinced of the value of tissue sampling as well. Last season, this service revealed manganese deficiencies in soybeans and boron problems in wheat that were just not visible to the eye. “Ultimately, we do an end-of-season report card for growers to see what actually happened,” he explains. “Deficiencies they had earlier in the season were fixed. We have sound science behind what we’re doing.”
West Central’s Kohorst says his company has moved more towards the “tissue sampling aspect of scouting rather than insect pressures.” Over the past five years he’s grown confident in the information (such as heat units) provided by Iowa State University to alert him when insects and diseases might be a problem — and when it would be time to have a company representative visit fields.
“Our scouting has decreased yet we’ve increased our tissue sampling program substantially in the past two years,” he says. The rise coincides with the growing availability of foliar nutrients and micronutrients, he points out. Distributors and suppliers have found an increased market for their products as sampling identifies previously unaddressed problems.
West Central hires a summer intern whose sole job is to do tissue sampling. For 2012 some of the company’s regional interns may take in a portion of that workload, distributing it among six or eight employees as well as salespeople. “As that business grows, we’re making adjustments,” says Kohorst.
Taking a tissue sample does require a level of expertise. “There’s an art to it as far as selecting the right leaves. If you don’t, you may take an inaccurate reading on what is going on in that plant,” he explains. Growth stage is also very important. If employees “misstage” the plant, the nutrient recommendation may be off.
West Central tries to make a small profit off tissue sampling, but the technology helps more towards the fertilizer sale … and helping the grower. “What has boosted our fertilizer sales the most has been an increased knowledge of the grower and his ability to raise better crops,” says Kohorst. He admits other factors have played a role, including the way farmers have changed from fertilizing every two years to now, every year. Then too, corn acreage has increased in the area, demanding more product.
Reasons For Success
One thing that has greatly helped CPI is team members attending trade shows where they learn from other dealers. Fickenscher makes a point to attend InfoAg, for instance. “It’s pretty easy to set up a grid sampling program, go out and pull your points, and write a prescription,” he says. “But workshops at these meetings show dealers the best thing to move ahead, how to take programs to the next level.”
Cooperative Elevator’s Armbruster adds that staying on top agronomic technology is huge. “You can take advantage of some of the technology that’s out there, and it can make you a whole lot more efficient,” he says.
Great Bend Co-op’s Siefkes also believes staying on the “cutting edge” of technologies so retailers can offer them to growers is “the main thing. To get ahead you’re going to have to get into these new technologies that help you show the farmer what he needs to do to increase yields accordingly,” he adds. “The newer growers, especially those coming out of school in the last five years are on top of this, and they’re the ones demanding it.”