2012 State Of Precision Ag: Data Masters

Rick Greene of MFA (left) walks a test plot area with one of his grower customers.
Rick Greene of MFA (left) walks a test plot area with one of his grower customers.

This year’s glimpse into the state of site-specific agriculture is encouraging: In even just the last two years the industry has matured in retailer expertise, usable cutting-edge equipment, information technology and market expansion — which this report will discuss. But it’s also revealed the major challenge that continues to plague all in agriculture: how to handle piles of grower crop data, gathered from a host of sources.

In many ways precision ag data has become like The Force in the iconic Star Wars films. It seems to surround growers and retailers and possesses enormous power for good and well, evil if used wrong. And like learning to use The Force, harnessing the power of data can require the training of a Jedi master.

But if utilizing data poses such a challenge, why do retailers and growers continue to enter the precision ag fray?

The farm economy has been riding higher these past two years thanks to better crop prices, and some dealers we contacted said it has encouraged a few growers to pay for new approaches they would not try in leaner years. In fact, Sean Nettleton, technology & information management specialist with Wabash Valley Service Co., Grayville, IL would argue that this is an ideal time to adopt precision technologies. “With these increases in grower income, if we can show growers the value of variable rate seed, fertilizer and nitrogen application, they will be more likely to keep using the technology if the farm economy takes a downturn,� he says.

But most industry experts and retailers interviewed believe increased income is not the prime driver behind customers beginning or digging deeper into precision programs.

“The thing that has influenced the propagation of precision services more than anything is not the growing gross revenue of producers but the ballooning input costs on the fertilizer and seed sides,� says Steve Cubbage, president, Record Harvest Enterprises, Inc., Nevada, MO. “As long as input costs remain inflated, then the payback from precision is an absolute no-brainer.�

Says Brian Hunt, precision technology specialist at United Farmers Cooperative, York, NE, “Growers have heard about the 300/100 yield initiative, and they want to start pushing more and more on their yields… to maximize every acre, whether it’s putting on fertilizer or pulling it away from an area of a field that is just never going to produce.�

Support from equipment manufacturers has been another boon. From planting to harvest, companies are encouraging precision approaches. Variable rate seeding capabilities are becoming standard on planters, variable rate technologies are common on sprayers, and yield monitors are factory-installed on most new harvesters. “We’re getting to the point where every tractor, every combine, every piece of equipment growers buy touts that it can do variable rate and other fancy stuff,� say Hunt. “Farmers are getting tired of paying for the technology and not using it.�

What Growers Want

Retailers we talked with said one of the highest priorities for their growers is to have someone manage their data, to make sense of it, and to help them use it to make decisions — decisions which would ultimately increase yields.    “I think more than anything growers are looking for a direction on where to head or what to do,� says Cubbage. “Many have a deer in the headlights look if you mention precision ag data.�

He is concerned that sometimes the precision ag sector likes to impress customers with all the new bells and whistles, whether it’s hardware or a new precision agronomic service. But many growers still haven’t even collected the basic core set of precision data on which to build upon. For example, it’s really hard to do advanced yield analysis if you don’t have good yield data and corresponding planting data like variety and seed population, says Cubbage.

Brent Wiesenburger, precision ag manager at South Dakota Wheat Growers Association, Aberdeen, SD, truly believes retailers have let producers down by not providing “usable� and “scalable� solutions for their data. Spring as-applied data has been good, but fall yield information contains anomalies that require hours of editing and clean-up, he’s found. “Until this part of data collection gets easier, I don’t see much change in how producers use the information they collect.�

Glen Franzluebbers, ag technology director at Central Valley Ag, Oakland, NE, sees a retailer’s role as helping growers analyze their data to find out if the technologies they are using on that farm is making them become more profitable. “The worst thing we can do as retailers is sell our customers equipment and services that do not fit their operation or make them profitable,� he says. “If this happens, we will lose customers and to a greater extent create barriers to the advancement of precision ag now as well as for the future.�

At United Farmers Cooperative, Hunt admits data can be overwhelming, even for him. “I can only imagine what it’s like for a producer,� he says. “The data management side is huge.� He takes in information from growers’ yield monitors, cleans up yield maps, runs an analysis, and writes variable rate prescriptions off of them or soil sampling maps. “If they have information that they want to use, we can try and bring it in and use it some way.�

But Nettleton dreams big when it comes to value for growers. “Hybrid and variety plots have their place, but imagine the value of having all hybrids/varieties mapped and then analyzing that data with yield data,� he says. “A grower can make his entire operation one big test plot, which can be analyzed by soil type, etc.�

Frieberg would argue that the value propositions have never been higher: Precision agriculture is not only the foundation for producing higher yields but the industry’s only chance to do it in a sustainable manner.

Variable Rate Tie

Using the data to help direct variable rate tasks is a major goal. Cubbage reports a tremendous uptick in variable rate fertilizer applications, spurred in part by the fact that fertilizer prices have remained high and that variable-rate simply makes economic sense.

Stationed in Illinois, Nettleton sees VRA is a “hot item right now.� Here again, he says input costs are driving more growers to look at ways of maximizing their return on investment, and “we feel VRA is one of the best ways to do that.� But it can’t be done instantly. “We feel the more years of data a grower possesses, the better we can manage areas within a field,� he says.

At South Dakota Wheat Growers, producers are using the company’s MZB (Management Zone Based) system for fertilizer and seed prescriptions variable-rated 96,000 acres through their own equipment in 2011. And this does not take into account other precision ag providers in the trade territory and the prescriptions they generated. Wiesenburger feels that growers in his area have been very fast to adapt to the technology — and all that are using it definitely see the value.

Rick Greene, precision agronomy manager at MFA Inc., Columbia, MO, reports that on-the-go application using nitrogen sensing (Ag Leader’s OptRx) has really taken off. The reason: the huge increase that split or in-season N application can bring to yields. MFA has offered the service for two years, but has done work with the University of Missouri since 2005 to confirm the technology.

Greene notes that variable rate applications have been well-received in general, especially those targeted between the V6 and V8 stage, and MFA’s rigs are covering some 7,000 acres per season. “It’s a great way to move some urea,� he says.

In contrast, Dan Frieberg, president, Premier Crop Systems LLC, West Des Moines, IA, has noticed that many markets in the heart of corn and soybean country are actually reducing variable rate application acreage. He feels the biggest cause is a lack of champions for the approach — there is not “someone to build the story,� who is able to explain the agronomic reasons for and value of the technology. The trend reveals how hard it is to lead the charge for change in a company with a “this is how we’ve always done it,� mentality, he believes.

“The sad thing is the value of variable-rate nutrient applications to the grower has never been higher, ever,� he says. The investment and reward have escalated dramatically in favor of these applications.

What about variable-rate planting, one of the newer technologies in the precision world? MFA’s Greene has found that growers are particularly interested in variable rate seeding and topography data because they can see the results so readily. “It can be a struggle for them to cut that check for other precision services, but they enjoy both of these components,� he says.

“Variable-rate seeding has been exploding over the past few years,� says Glen Franzluebbers, ag technology director with Central Valley Ag, Oakland, NE. In fact, the company’s VR seeding program has nearly doubled every year for the last few years, and “it’s currently one of the hot topics among our customers,� he says.

He adds that while many industry members have questioned the profitability and reality of this technology, his company’s Advance Cropping Systems program team has worked out a host of issues over the last seven years. He thinks the approach will continue to increase in popularity and acceptance, especially with seed companies and some equipment dealers finally getting on board.

At South Dakota Wheat Growers, prescription acres for variable rate plant population have doubled each year since 2009, when the coop started working with local seed companies to develop recommendations. “We provide prescription files for the various displays on the market and do our best to keep educated on the programming that goes along with it in the cab so we can help out with some of the tech support issues that arise,� says Wiesenburger. He adds that developing relationships with local John Deere and CNH dealerships is the key to supporting this precision equipment.

Wheat Growers typically moves inputs from low-yielding, low profit areas to high-yielding, high return areas. To pinpoint these regions, the company uses a combination of Veris EC, RTK elevation, as well as satellite imagery or yield data to come up with five to six management zones with unique characteristics — that are soil tested. “This allows us to vary the fertilizer and seed inputs based on yield potential of a given zone,� says Wiesenburger.

In Ohio, CPS Washington Court House’s precision ag specialist Douglas Nace says VR seeding is the company’s most asked-about service — growers want the technology because of the high cost of seed, plus again, the capability is so widely available now on their planters.

Nettleton says that in his territory in Illinois, VR seeding is beginning to grow. “As a retailer we feel we are in the driver’s seat as far as creating seeding recommendations. We know our growers’ fields and can sit down with them to create recommendations that place the best seed product at the right seed rate on the right acre.�

While many variable-rate capable planters are being sold, seeding is not simply a plug and play operation, warns Cubbage. “It takes years of good precision agronomic data to really implement it the right way and quite simply, few growers have that at this time.�

In fact at Precision Planting dealer meetings that he attends, Cubbage has gotten one perspective on the progress of the technology. An informal show of hands reveals 50%-70% of attendees have variable seeding capabilities, but when asked how people are actually doing prescription-based seeding recommendations, only one or two hands go up.

“Either growers don’t know where to start or they don’t have the foundational electronic GIS yield, planting, and soil data they need in order to make a sound agronomic seeding recommendation,� says Cubbage. “We continually have to tell our customers you have to walk before you run when it comes to precision ag data. If you don’t have multiple years’ worth of foundational data then it’s hard to move to the next level of precision ag.�

Key Staff

Making magic with the data does not come easy. Chief among retailers’ recommendations was to have a staff dedicated just to this business segment.

Central Valley Ag’s Advance Cropping Systems Division currently has five employees whose sole job is precision ag services and equipment, and the company plans to grow that team in the future.

United Farmers Coop’s Hunt says his only job now is variable rate precision services, and he’s begun training one of the company’s younger field sales agronomists in the technology. Plus, the coop just hired a new staff member who will start in the specialty this summer.

In fact, having everyone else at a dealership on the same precision page is a huge success factor, our contacts have found. Frieberg has seen extremely rapid growth among the best retailers he con sults for because they have the right team in place — a combination of great program leaders and buy-in from the entire agronomy sales staff and management. “These retailers are creating so much value for their growers that their competitors are left trying to play catch-up, he says.�

Nettleton does admit the biggest barrier to the growth of Wabash Valley’s precision ag segment is getting the company’s sales staff on board with what this technology is capable of doing for the business. “I think most of our people recognize the value, but taking the reins and using it as a tool to grow our business is going to take guys going out of their comfort zone a bit,� he says.

At Landmark Services Cooperative, Cottage Grove, WI, company-wide meetings are held in August to educate all employees, from managers through to office staff, about the latest technologies/services the firm is offering.

Mobile Seized Upon

Mobile technologies are hitting fields at great rates to aid precison ag. Many retailers have started with Smartphones and tablet devices for transmitting information on jobs, logistics, prescriptions/recommendations, scouting reports and pest identification.

One example mentioned several times by our retailers is Raven’s new Slingshot, which offers real-time connectivity from the office to the field. South Dakota Wheat Growers has deployed the modems in its 2012 application fleet purchases and will be evaluating them. Wiesenburger is optimistic that the technology will solve several of operational challenges such as prescription file transfer and as-applied data collection.

At AgVentures LLC in Shawano, WI, all field employees have Smartphones. When applicator drivers are assigned orders, the jobs automatically show up on those phones. Application logs are filled out this way, and the technology has been a “huge help,� reports Jamie Wetzel, plant manager..

Cubbage sees a mobile tsunami coming to agriculture just as it has to other business and educational settings: “Retailers will connect with their customers, monitor their fleets and manage their data not with a PC or laptop but instead with a tablet that goes everywhere they do and is always connected.� He also says it will be instrumental as a training tool for workers and technicians — and a tremendous sales tool out in the field.

Cloud Is Here

One trend that promises to greatly aid precision ag is the rise of cloud computing – where retailers move some or all their business applications and data from their own local computers and servers to the Web.

“Everything is moving to the cloud quickly, more quickly than I would have ever imagined,� says Cubbage. Just now forming in precision ag, it provides a much safer, more secure, and much more accessible home for a client’s data, he says. For instance, his firm Prime Meridian’s AgriMAX online cloud service allows customers to access their data 24/7/365.

Wabash Valley Service Co. just switched its billing system to the cloud. Nettleton is encouraged that while there may be some growing pains, the technology should work well. His main concern: Internet speed at some of companies rural locations.

Douglas Nace, precision ag specialist, at CPS, Washington Court House, OH, says his favorite precision tool now is NutriScriptionHD, a web-based information management system that not only makes fertility recommendations from different types of data, it has record keeping abilities and asset tracking features that can move information wirelessly. In fact, NutriScriptionHD entered its latest phase of development in late spring with the ability to allow scouting data for all crop variables to be electronically transferred, explains Nace.

Some of the system is cloud-based and can be accessed by iPads, he says. “We are concerned about security, so we have that information encrypted.�

AgVentures offers cloud-based data storage to customers. “We recognized that when we go to a farm, there would be a drawer full of thumb drives with crop data on them,� Wetzel says. But he adds those drives are vulnerable to catastrophes such as a kid in the home writing over data with a game, especially if those drives weren’t labeled right. “You’ve got a lot invested in collecting the data, now where do you store it because you might want to use it five years from now,� he points out. Then too, if a grower’s computer simply crashes one time, he can lose yield data.

In fact, the Web is beginning to give growers more access to and more control over their precision data than they’ve ever had before, says Cubbage. They may not necessarily want to dig in and process and analyze the information, but they want access to it, complete with a map with layers and layers of data.

SST Software is starting to deliver this piece to growers via its online Viewer that allows growers a web portal into their precision data instead of having to buy software and process it themselves, explains Cubbage.

Gary Myers, YieldEDGE precision ag manager, Landmark Services Cooperative Cottage Grove, WI, is excited about the speed cloud computing will add to delivery of services, with crop and field information coming in, being processed and then moving out quickly.

One of the biggest challenges retailers saw with the cloud is security. Wiesenburger says that as software systems evolve, so will the issue of getting buy-in from the local retailer and/or producer — they’ll need assurances their data is secure and will not be mined by anyone else. In fact, the term “uploading data� may be hard for some growers and dealers to get used to, he says. “But the capabilities of the industry to learn are endless if we can manage through this.�

Another issue: Cell phone signals. Greene says the cloud will ultimately be used everywhere, but not all sales staff currently have access to signals in all locations. In addition, he looks forward to the day when the company’s GIS specialist — who processes nutrient management information — will not need to travel to all 45 MFA locations to back up and maintain data systems, which are not networked at this time. “Stand-alone data needs to go away,� he says simply.

Cubbage agrees that very soon every manufacturer, supplier or ag retailer that a grower deals with is going to have their services in the cloud — but cautions that if farmers have to keep track of 10 different accounts to “do business� there, they will get very frustrated. Companies such as John Deere, Raven, and Pioneer cannot each have a piece of a producer’s precision data, otherwise how can he assemble them all in one place?

Cubbage emphasizes that growers should make this concern known to the industry now and demand to have their own “precision safety deposit box.�

Four Key Emerging Trends

Precision agriculture is never short on research and development. When asked what emerging technologies have caught their interest, our dealers had varied answers.

Better RTK. Cubbage describes how RTK is going through some growing pains as it transitions to new Internet and cellular technologies from traditional radio delivery systems. Indeed, these technical variables are difficult to control as they involve outside parties such as Internet providers and cell phone companies.

Responses to questions about the spread of RTK were a mixed bag, though all retailers appreciated the value of the sub-inch accuracy it provides for strip and ridge till operations. At this point, South Dakota Wheat Growers uses RTK only on custom strip till applicators in the fall, and they need to run their own base stations because coverage of the networks do not completely cover their needs.

Central Valley Ag’s Franzluebbers says RTK use and popularity are rapidly increasing with his customers, and he expects it to be mainstream in the next few years. Just this year, Central Valley Ag started to offer My Way RTK service to their customers. Though the company does not currently use RTK for custom application, he anticipates it in the future.

Greene at MFA is surprised that growers he never thought would invest in RTK have done so — some with as few as 1,000 or 2,000 acres of strip till. His company’s aggressive goal for them and any equipment buyer is to help them get a return on investment or break even in the first year.

“I just know it’s going to be like Christmas in precision ag land if 4G cellular data service ever makes it to the Back 40!� says Cubbage. “When it arrives, I believe cellular RTK will become common among applicators and all users as it will be bundled as part of an overall RTK, logistics and data management package.�

Premium soil sampling. The world of soil sampling has taken a highly engineered turn. This summer CPS Washington Court House, OH, will be offering AgRobotics Auto Probe as a premium soil sampling service. Billed as the world’s first automatic on-the-go soil sampling machine, the unit pulls one core every 17 feet, generating 20 cores for every 2 ½-acre grid. It will allow CPS to cover more area with higher quality samples, says Nace.

Stretching variable capabilities. In the Wisconsin territory that AgVentures serves, use of manure fertilizer is common. Now in the works is technology to variable-rate apply that manure. “They’ve got sensors in the line that read the phosphorus level in the manure and apply on-the-go,� explains Wetzel.

One important market in his region is in forage crops. Technology in development now maps forage according to NDF and ADF fibers (measures of quality). Wetzel also notes forage yield monitors are in the works, and once they are refined, it “will be huge for us also.�

Variable-rate irrigation was a vital new topic for a number of retailers. Central Valley Ag’s Franzluebbers believes that with increased water use restrictions and discussions about water shortages in some areas of the country, water management and VR irrigation will become very important to agriculture.

Also in Nebraska, Hunt says United Farmers Coop is looking at variable rate irrigation through center pivots. More and more pivots are going up there, and the company is in fact offering VR irrigation on a “tiny� scale. Hunt says the service will take time to develop, just like everything else in precision agriculture. “It sounds good, but you’ve got to get it out to the producers and get somebody to try it,� he points out.

Imagery progress. Last year CPS Washington Court House, OH, installed CropSpec on one of its applicators to record IR imagery of the crop. “This lets us locate area of the fields to tissue sample and scout for problems,� explains Nace.

Hunt says he would like to see more growers use the satellite imagery and even in-season imagery that’s already available to them. United Farmers Coop accesses the information through its ties to Winfield Solutions — which teamed up with Geosys in late 2010 to offer a host of field analysis tools.

Landmark Services has successfully been utilizing satellite and aerial imagery for several years; in fact, the Winfield Solutions R-7 program is modeled somewhat after a program Landmark has been using for years, Myers says. “We are looking now to use all of our combined information to identify trends within fields and analyzing how and why they exist,� he adds.

Work being done using crop sensors to variable-rate nitrogen interests Wabash Valley Service Co.’s Nettleton. He thinks offering the technology to customers is something that can differentiate his company in the marketplace.

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