Technology Fills A Need

The CropLife/Purdue Uni­versity precision agriculture adoption survey conducted earlier this year showed a continued steady growth in the use of agronomy and efficiency improving technologies by ag retailers. From automatic steering, which leapt from 28% adoption to 41% (while manual guidance fell by more than 25%), to heightened optimism about adding precision services over the next two to three years, the stage was set for a good year for precision.

In fact, the CropLife 100 survey did indicate that precision services experienced an increase at 59% of the responding companies, as growers look for new practices and products to boost efficiency and enhance yield.

Retailers that have had an established precision agriculture program have, in general, found growers to be pretty receptive to it during this period of economic prosperity in for agriculture. Brent Low, vice president of sales and marketing at Ag Partners, Albert City, IA, says the company’s InSite precision agriculture program is providing farmers with a consistent and clear way to turn data into field recommendations.

“Really, all areas of our precision agriculture department continue to grow — in fact, we’ve added some services to our portfolio that has enhanced our customer offering,” says Low. Explaining why growers are interested, he adds that “growers want to be good stewards of the land, and just as importantly they want to maximize every acre in their field. Our InSite customers think in terms of creating knowledge blocks within their fields, and we will help them blueprint what it takes to capitalize on what they learn.”

Scott Firlus, agronomy manager with Wisconsin River Coop, Adams, WI, agrees. “For us, precision agriculture has been in a growth mode. Most of our growers are looking for more ways to increase their land stewardship practices and precision agriculture is exactly what they can use to accomplish this without applying inputs where they aren’t needed.”

Dave Coppess, executive vice president, marketing and sales at Heartland Coop, West Des Moines, IA, says that better technology is leading to more precision business. “We continue to grow our grid-sampling,” says Coppess. “It’s getting easier, thanks to improvements in technology, to get growers to appreciate the value of using precision ag in their fields and helping them figure out what all the data being collected means and how it can improve their growing practices and profits.”

In good economic times, precision agriculture is allowing retailers to be more consultative, says Stephen Briggs, vice president, sales and marketing at South Dakota Wheat Growers, Aberdeen, SD. “Growers are using the same services that we’ve had available for years, but we have seen huge increases in our variable-rate application business,” says Briggs. “Doing the soil sampling and turning grower data into recommendations that we make for fertilizer, seed rates and seed placement are in great demand.”

That has necessitated a bigger investment in people and equipment to meet the demand, he adds.” We have increased the number of feet on the ground to call on and service growers, and we have increased our assets to handle new grower needs in precision ag and gotten a little sharper on some of the things we do. And we have also asked our people to do more with their time, too.”

Managing the growth and staying ahead of changes in grower demand can be challenging as well. Lane Mielke, sales and marketing manager with North Central Farmers Elevator, Ipswich, SD, says that while precision ag practices are not for everybody in his sales territory, they’re adding acres every year.

“We have one full-time precision agriculture specialist and we are currently looking for a second to help him out. It is a growing business, but it can be pretty tough to keep up with the technology and train the farmers.”

North Central offers soil sampling, mapping and the creation of prescription recommendations. One area that Mielke says is really taking off is variable rate seeding. “It’s fairly new, and the new planters that farmers are buying come with the capability built in so they are dabbling in it. We’re trying to help them best use this capability.”

With grower enthusiasm generally on the rise for precision technology and practices as the year closes, and income levels solidly on the positive side in most areas of the country, it appears that precision services will continue to grow for retailers. “Precision agriculture is the here and now, and the future,” says Low of Ag Partners. “It will play a part in helping growers get to the 300 bushel corn and 100 bushel soybean levels, and we’ll continue to break new ground with our precision agriculture offering.”

The Logistics Challenges

As service demands from growers increase and seasonal work windows shrink, more retailers are searching for ways to improve their overall service efficiency. Along with increasing capacity and speed by upgrading blending equipment, facilities, and rolling stock, many are also turning to technology to improve logistics management.

Craig Childs, senior vice president of agri-services at MFA Inc, Columbia, MO, says that the cooperative is experimenting with logistics technology with a group of locations. “The system uses GPS tracking of all of the application equipment so that they  can do centralized dispatching,” says Childs. It’s still in the experimental phase, and Child’s isn’t quite sold on what they are using yet.

“We haven’t made a big step in that direction yet — in my mind, we have to see how it pays. It’s great information and provides great feedback, and it’s easier for our dispatchers to see where the equipment is in the field, but the verdict is still out on how much more profitable it makes us to use the system.”

South Dakota Wheat Growers has gone to a centralized trucking system with solid success, says the company’s Briggs. “We know at all points where our trucks are, when they are running, how long they’re parked, what speed they are traveling at, etc.,” he says. “We are using a GPS flash system that helps us manage our fleet, as well as the leased trucks we used, and it has been very beneficial. Now, we have 37 outlets that are centrally dispatched.”

A combination of centralizing facilities and technology is improving service at Ag Partners. “Our geographic footprint has grown substantially over the past three years,” says the company’s Low. “We now operate our fertilizer business out of three hub plants and cover a 200-mile radius. Our integrated dispatch system, coupled with a proactive team approach allows us to make the most efficient use of people, time, and equipment to service our customer base.”

North Central Farmers Elevator has developed a central dispatch system and has a logistics manager that oversees the entire application fleet, says Mielke. The dispatcher covers a radius of 150 miles.

“We have global positioning in all our equipment now, so it can be tracked,” he says. “We can see where it’s going, what it’s doing, how long it’s sitting and waiting for a fertilizer load or how long it takes to run an application on a particular field.”

Setting up the system was certainly a challenge, but another issue has been the people aspect of installing what amounts to a wholesale change in procedures. “Once you take control from one individual and give it to another, there is always heartburn,” says Mielke. “The technology is user friendly for younger applicators, but the older generation doesn’t adapt as well.”

They’ve seen a lot of potential advantage to it, but it will be next spring before they truly put the system through its paces, he adds. “It was expensive to outfit all the machinery, but if it makes us more efficient it will be worth its weight in gold.”

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