MFA, Inc.: Coming Full Circle
The story behind cooperative MFA Inc.’s involvement in precision agriculture over the past 15-plus years virtually mirrors the overall evolution of precision agriculture in the US. Exuberance and investment in the middle and late 1990s, followed by a period of challenges and recalibration, and then through to a new era of focus and investment in ag technology.
Rick Greene has ridden the technology roller coaster all the way through. In 1995 his ag technology experience began on his family farm with his dad, Ken Greene (Master Farmer, 2011), using Ag Leader’s yield monitor and Case IH’s AgriLogic software to record the farm’s data. Based on his love for farming and desire for technology, he got involved with Iowa State’s precision agronomy program. After graduating from Iowa State he interned with SST Development group which eventually brought him to MFA in 2000.
Rick was hired as the GIS Specialist for the fledgling precision ag team. By 2003 he was shifted over to a Precision Regional Sales Manager position and a couple of years later was brought into MFA’s Corporate realm to lead the companies precision ag efforts.
Greene describes the precision program as having “come full circle.” MFA found itself on the cutting edge of precision early in the program’s existence, offering programs and services that growers weren’t ready to fully embrace during his first stint with precision. Today, the combination of improved products and practices with a strong farm economy has producers ready and willing to embrace the benefits technology provides, and MFA is using the lessons it has learned to build a precision program that meets their needs.
Back in 1994, with the opening up of GPS, the dawning of the Internet and the introduction of yield monitors and guidance equipment, MFA could see the potential of precision agriculture. In fact several of MFA’s retail locations started their own precision ag programs. In 2000 MFA recognized it was the right time to start a corporate program. Greene and his manager developed the program and hired some regional sales managers to service and sell. They also partnered with SST Software to become an SST Information Lab, which allowed MFA to provide centralized, turnkey data analysis.
“When we took on the Information Lab, the goal was to increase soil sampling acres and to start pooling data to provide growers with solid field analysis based on good data,” says Greene. “We wanted to group information so we could help growers make more educated decisions based on trends in their fields and others within the same type of geography.”
From early 2000, MFA also ran the Information Lab to generate recommendations for variable rate nitrogen and seeding, but it was a tough sell. “There were a few select growers, maybe 5% of our customers, that wanted to utilize the variable rate technology, and even fewer of them had a variable rate drive on their equipment,” recalls Greene. “For the most part, there was not a large market share that was ready to invest in the equipment or in the data processing component. It was a very labor intensive and time consuming process.”
The early 2000s brought a confluence of events, from the rise of biotechnology that drastically simplified agronomic practices to a general downturn in the ag economy, which depleted the return on investment growers were realizing from their operation.
With the improving farm economy in recent years, along with a host of new technologies from automatic steering to improved GPS to unprecedented boom and planter control systems, precision technology is back in the spotlight – and MFA is ready to answer the demand.
Economics have been an important driver, says Greene, but even more critical is the fact that “the equipment dealers are now coming out with a lot of the variable rate applicators and seed controllers as standard equipment. Growers are realizing a solid return on investment and are also getting better at collecting the data, especially at planting. The data is recorded more easily than in the past, when we had to rely on manually entered information on handheld units like iPAQs.”
In addition to maintaining a relationship with SST Software to process soil test data, MFA is a dealer for Trimble, Ag Leader and Precision Planting technology products. Out of all the technology MFA sells, automatic planter control is far and away the most popular. “Auto shutoff is huge in Missouri,” says Greene. “It accounts for about 70% of our sales. Growers like to see that quick return on their investment in a piece of equipment. With our uniquely shaped fields, growers are using it to avoid overlaps that waste seed and reduce yield.”
The success of seed control has been a gateway technology for growers, who are now excited about precision and are more willing today to evolve into other kinds of technology and explore new practices, says Greene. “Back when we first started, we were trying to make too large of a jump. Now they see the potential and want to try more precision management techniques.”
On the GPS side, MFA administers a real-time kinematic GPS network using Trimble equipment, to which growers may subscribe for an annual fee. The “top tier” growers, about 10% to 15% of MFA customers, are using the RTK GPS signal.
But while important, the activities of the “early adopters” of technology that work with MFA is not what has Greene feeling bullish about the company’s precision offerings. “We have really just started to penetrate the 30% to 50% percent of guys that are not as historically technology savvy.” These folks have been particularly interested in planter control, which opens the door to auto-steering, variety tracking and data management. There was a “downside” to the increase in use: “we’ve had a substantial increase in technical service calls because of it,” notes Greene. Since 2005 we have hired 3 more Regional Precision Technicians to help compensate for the additional support.
In Missouri, employing precision technology is all about understanding agronomy and dealing with soil variability no matter what type of geography you farm.
MFA builds agronomy packages for growers under a brand called Nutri-Track. The emphasis is on collecting accurate and intensive soil sampling and yield data to deliver the best possible recommendation for variable rate fertilizer application. The name of the game in Missouri is managing widely variable soil.
Services are available ala carte so growers can get into precision in a way that matches their needs and level of comfort with technology. Growers can start with intensive soil sampling, then add in yield monitoring with crop removal. For cash renters, a straight crop removal program is offered.
MFA uses SST’s FarmRite system to process soil test data to generate fertility recommendations, and that information is compiled into a booklet that MFA’s precision specialists use to make fertility recommendations to farmers. Ag Leader’s SMS Advanced software is used to process yield data and is added into the recommendation mix for growers who order the service.
A big emphasis is placed on working with growers to ensure that they are using equipment properly and collecting sound data. Field days are held twice a year, once prior to planting and once prior to harvest, to review the equipment and data collection process with growers. “It’s a chance for us to re-emphasize the importance of data collection and equipment functionality,” says Greene. “When it comes down to it, I would rather have no data than bad data.”
Another key focus for MFA is water management, reinforced by the floods that plagued the river areas earlier this spring. Using the RTK capability and Trimble equipment, topography can be established for fields and recommendations for re-grading can be developed.
On the horizon, Greene and the precision team are incorporating Veris electrical conductivity data into the mix. A significant predictor of water and nutrient holding capacity appears to be at the depth of the topsoil and catering to the sandy soils of the river bottoms, which Greene says is “soil moisture is really the most yield limiting factor in the state of Missouri.” The Veris data seems to provide a window into this variable, which could significantly improve fertilizer and seed population recommendations.
“We’ve been out on a couple of farms we never worked before and run the Veris, then mapped it out and reviewed the data with the producer,” says Greene. “And the producers said, ‘you’re right on with depicting the field’s variability.’ You usually don’t get that kind of feeling from the grower.” He feels that after this season, MFA will have a solid basis of data on which to judge the value of the Veris service.
In the more distant future, Greene says that on-the-go sensor technology is showing potential in Missouri. The University of Missouri has been conducting demonstrations of the technology throughout the state and showing the potential benefits of split nitrogen application, but using the technology as intended – holding back a significant portion of spring N – represents a big change in practice for growers.
“They are willing to cut back on nitrogen to some degree, but not 30% to 40%,” says Greene. “It’s still seen as more of a rescue treatment than anything, but as we move forward I feel it will take off like fungicide application.” Greene also says he is really impressed with the before and after aerials of fields we tested the on-the-go sensors. Simply stated we are reallocating the nitrogen to the areas that need it the most. Now that is what precision is all about. MFA is working with the technology and hopes that this year’s yield data will give them some sense of the benefit of on the go sensor technology.
Since MFA’s inception of their precision agronomy program, they have grown from 5 to 100 ag retail locations and a corporate support staff of 3 to 13 who are dedicated to providing sound agronomic recommendations in a timely fashion in order to maximize yield, manage inputs and preserve the environment to provide our customers with a sustainable way of farming.