Sunrise Cooperative: Using Precision Ag Technology To Enhance Nutrient Stewardship
It’s fair to question whether 4R Nutrient Stewardship programs would even exist today without the advent of precision farming technology.
Craig Houin, R7/Data Innovation Lead, Sunrise Cooperative (Fremont, OH) and a longtime precision ag advocate, just so happens to know a thing or two about both subjects. He’s part of Sunrise’s Precision Solution leadership team, a team within Sunrise Cooperative’s (which recently completed a highly publicized merger with TruPointe Cooperative) precision farming efforts, a program which includes use of WinField United’s R7 Tool.
“Beyond the obvious aspects of data management and ROI [return-on-investment], when you look at the variable-rate technologies that we have on equipment, the software that we use to take the soil test information, whether it be zone or grid sampled, and run our calculations for recommendations based on those soil test results, it’s all driven with precision technologies,” Houin affirms.
“Without all of this precision technology it would be hard for us to be 4R Nutrient Certified,” adds Chris Horning, who Houin introduced during our interview as Sunrise’s, Data Operational Lead; he also helps head up Sunrise’s 4R Certification program.
Horning, as Houin tells it, was particularly instrumental back in 2015 with Sunrise being the first retail entity to have multiple locations receive 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification from the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Council, headed up by the Ohio AgriBusiness Association.
It makes sense that Sunrise would launch a proactive game plan for keeping nutrients where they belong, what with the cooperative having operations and grower-customers situated around the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) watershed, which has received a lot of relatively negative press in mainstream media over the past several years with the annual algal blooms that show up every summer along Lake Erie’s western shores. Generally speaking, local agriculture operations have repeatedly taken it on the chin for the current conditions in WLEB, although many argue agriculture aren’t the only culprits complicit in contributing to the situation over the years.
That’s where the cooperative’s precision ag programs can come into greater play going forward, and it must continue to do so as the cooperative works through its merger with TruPointe, also having a high concentration of operations around the watershed. This isn’t a deal where Houin can expect to wake up tomorrow and poof, the problem’s gone.
New Tech To The Rescue
One new solution that Houin, Horning, and company hope to leverage in nutrient stewardship efforts is WinField United’s R7 Field Forecasting Tool, which the Shoreview, MN-based ag tech outfit has released to a limited number of retailers as part of a pilot program.
“We like it a lot better than some other crop models that are out there, because it gives you nitrogen and potassium tracking, which is different than most models that strictly do nitrogen,” explains Houin. “It also helps with water if you have irrigation, because it will help you manage your water based on weather and crop and all the other variables. It’s still early with that particular tool, but it will eventually be a part of the program with NutriSolutions 360 and the R7 Tool.”
“But the meat and potatoes for us is the soil sampling (program),” Horning adds. “The geo-referenced soil sample. That’s the heart and soul (of our precision programs), and everything is built around that. That’s where the conversation is had with growers. Even the precision equipment that we have to have in order to handle the variable-rate applications, it’s all driven off of the fact that we have site-specific information on what that soil needs. When you utilize geo-referenced soil samples you get three of the four 4Rs, Right Place, Right Source, and Right Rate.”
Having that conversation with growers is another aspect of the 4R Certification process that often goes unnoticed. The program requires ongoing grower education and community outreach, and stressing the ROI growers can see with some of these systems after just a year or two definitely helps the cooperative increase adoption.
“ROI is a key focus on that,” Houin explains. “It doesn’t take long for growers to understand that if my soil test levels are adequate to high on phosphorus, and I can get within that 4R Certification protocol by either not applying or applying less in those areas — and of course not affecting yield — the return on my fertilizer dollar is a lot higher.
“We have the same ROI conversation with variable-rate N and VR seeding on corn and soybeans. We have that conversation an awful lot. That’s been one of our main challenges from management — to just get out in front of growers more often and communicate the benefits of precision technologies and how it can affect their bottom line.”