Not all farm-management decisions can be labeled as low cost and high reward. But Andrew Bowman from Oneida, IL, believes that crop scouting is one practice that can. He has confirmed the economic benefits on his own family farm, and now shares his passion and skill for crop scouting with other area farmers through Bowman Crop Assure LLC.
"I budget to spray everything on our farm with fungicides and insecticides, but I scout to see if it is really necessary," says Andrew, who farms 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans with his father Lynn, and also is a partner in the family's Bowman Insurance Agency.
By scouting his own cornfields, Bowman was able to make timely and targeted spraying decisions in 2011. Instead of spraying all 700 acres of corn, he had 240 acres of corn sprayed with fungicides for about $25/acre, saving $11,500 on unsprayed acres. He anticipates they will likely make well over that cost on the 240 acres that were sprayed. By doing his own scouting, he also saved the $5,600-$14,000 that he could have paid for the service.
Bowman is a 2006 FFA American Star Farmer and a University of Illinois crop sciences graduate. He worked for Monsanto before returning home to farm in 2009. He has since simplified the operation's management system to be less intensive.
The Bowmans no-till their corn and soybeans and select hybrids and varieties that defend against environmental challenges.
Crop scouting is a major part of the operation. Bowman's education and industry experience taught him that too many farmers use chemicals prophylactically, avoid pest refuges and count only on seed reps for generic advice. One of his college professors and Extension entomologist, Mike Gray, refers to the trend as "Insurance Pest Management," or the new IPM.
"It is not sustainable for a 1,000-acre farmer to prophylactically spend $30/acre for aerial fungicide application – $30,000 for that 'insurance.' If the money is spent without regard to ‘old IPM’ principles, it is easily better spent on crop, property, life and disability insurance," says Bowman. "Why deplete working capital when you don’t know whether or not it was necessary? It is irresponsible to spray everything without regard to ‘old IPM’ principles. That accelerates pest-resistance selection pressure. A scouting program allows for better capital management."
The economics of scouting apply to any input applied, application timing or long-term observation, Bowman says. "Even under what used to be good crop prices – $3.50 corn and $7.50 soybeans – it does not take long for a scout to save a farmer money by telling them not to spray, nor long for the farmer to reap rewards from a scout saying 'spray now.'"
Scouting helps farmers accurately address insect and weed pressure. Andrew notes that Bt hybrids kill corn rootworm larvae, but not adults. "Adult rootworms love pollen so much that they can clip corn silks back and stop pollination. No pollination, no kernels, no yield. Only 13 unpollinated kernels/ear equate to a 5-bu./acre loss," he says. "Nebraska research finds delaying weed control costs farmers 2% in yield for every leaf stage of delay in corn and soybeans. These are the types of situations that argue for scouting before spraying."
With that said, Bowman understands that scouting isn’t easy for anyone. "No one, not even crop scouts, enjoy being doused with corn pollen when the heat index is 115. Even fewer get excited about how one little observation may matter when they are knee-deep in mud half a mile from the truck with rain beating down," he says.
"It was easier to see the payoff when crop systems were simple, but more intensive. We had fewer considerations and technologies and were able to focus on problems. Now we have more variables that do not always have dramatic impacts on yield. But when they do, a small change can mean an extra 50 bu./acre.”
Bowman decided to take his philosophy to other farmers. He created Bowman Crop Assure in 2009, and today scouts fields up to 50 miles from home, primarily in Knox County. His business in two years has grown from 2,000 to 13,000 acres. His wife Karlie, digital media manager for a seed company, bolstered his potential mobile technology capabilities and his website, BowmanCropAssure.com.
"I am the eyes and feet for my clients. I make observations on crop development with respect to biological, cultural, environmental and managerial parameters," he says. "I time trips based on the weather, critical growth stages, environmental concerns, pests and client requests."
Bowman offers three program levels, ranging from three to four visits per season to seven or eight trips per year. The fee-based cost ranges from $1-1.40/acre/trip, or from $4-9.60/acre for the season. Clients, including both farmers and retailers, receive a detailed report each visit that evaluates crop development, weed, pest and disease density.
Bowman hopes to expand into long-term agronomic consulting services like nutrient and tissue sampling, prescription agronomy, weather monitoring and on-farm trials.
"There may be years when nothing goes wrong, but the one year you miss something seemingly small could be the year that proves tremendously costly," he says. "With increasing cash rents and land prices, can any of us really afford to be at a competitive disadvantage to our neighbors?"
Should you hire a scout?
Andrew Bowman, owner of Bowman Crop Assure, Oneida, IL, suggests three considerations for determining whether or not to hire a professional:
- Time. How much time are you willing to spend walking fields? Bowman says 25-90 minutes/80-acre field is a good rule of thumb. If you scout regularly and cover all acreage multiple times a year, you may be able to walk fields more quickly. Bowman's clients generally fit into one of three time categories: farmers with greater strengths or interests in other aspects of farming; farmers with other enterprises or too many acres to manage alone; aging farmers who prefer not to walk fields.
- Skill. If you feel you have time, do you have the skill and want to develop it? Bowman says scouting has changed dramatically in the last few years, from monitoring European corn borer to understanding new pests and technologies like western bean cutworm, brown marmorated stinkbug and the Illinois soil-nitrate test. He says farmers that do not want to devote time to learning may want to work with someone with the skill and commitment to continuing education and crop-advisor certification.
- Level. Determine what level, if any, professional service you might want. Decide if you need help as conditions merit making observations, help with variable-rate recommendations or other out-of-field services, including number of scouting visits, intensity of each trip or hours required. If you decide on a professional, hire an accredited Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) that carries errors and omissions professional liability insurance. If you decide you only want someone to stage the crop and determine application timing, hire an FFA student or have an employee look at fields weekly.