Like a lot of farmers who adopt precision ag practices in a big way, C.J. Blew has often scratched his head regarding which practices make money, and which don’t.
“We’ve jumped into precision ag with both feet,” says Blew, who, along with his brother Russell, grow irrigated and dryland corn, soybeans, wheat and milo and run a cow-calf operation near Hutchinson, KS. “We believe it is a game-changer for us. But we need to know how this stuff works.”
Now, thanks to data science-based technology that allows him to compare his fields to similar farms, he has some answers.
Using the TrueHarvest yield benchmarking service offered through his co-op, MKC, Blew knows that the combination of variable-rate technologies he used on an irrigated field paid off handsomely in 2014. Following harvest in 2015, he will use the service across the entire operation to assess how management practices on those fields stack up.
Benchmarked yield jump
The TrueHarvest benchmarking analysis of the field couldn’t be more clear-cut. In 2013, the cornfield yielded 189 bushels/acre, placing it in the 51st percentile compared to similar fields in similar conditions. In 2014, with new variable-rate irrigation, P, K and zinc fertility and seeding rates in play, yield jumped to 237 bushels/acre, placing the field in the 72nd percentile.
“It reaffirmed the variable-rate technology was working,” says Blew, chair of the MKC board of directors. “It also reaffirmed that we had some areas we had pushed to the point of diminishing returns. You always are striving for more returns, but when you push beyond the point of diminishing returns, it is good money after bad.”A benchmarking “gap map” analysis of one of C.J. Blew’s fields shows that adopting a range of variable-rate practices in 2014, including irrigation, seed and fertilizer, took field performance from the 51st percentile to the 72nd percentile. Red areas show where yields have the biggest opportunity for gains, while blue areas already are performing near their potential.
“2014 was a great corn year around here,” notes Ross Benisch, a precision ag specialist with MKC, who worked with Blew. “Comparable fields used in the benchmark were up 15 or 16 bushels/acre. What the benchmark told us is that in a good corn year all the changes made a big difference by adding another 40 bushels/acre on top of that. Without this, we wouldn’t know if it was just because of the weather.”
Data from MachineryLink
Blew and MKC are early users of TrueHarvest, which was introduced by FarmLink early in 2015. The benchmark service is built around yield data gathered through FarmLink’s combine leasing arm, MachineryLink, which currently leases 200 combines. Combines are leased to a succession of farmers who use them to harvest about 800 operations, about 1.5 million acres a year.
Yield data, which is uploaded to TrueHarvest computers in near real time, is correlated with typical growing conditions, soil type, slope and other factors to establish yield benchmarks that allow apples-to-apples comparisons, says Dave Gebhardt, FarmLink’s chief strategy officer - data products and agronomy.
“What the industry has lacked is the ability to close the loop at the end of the season and show how the field performed relative to the environment and the inputs that were used,” he says.
“We can click on any CLU (FSA Common Land Unit) across the country and show you what the opportunity is.”
That opportunity is shown in a “gap map” that compares actual yield versus what could have been based on a comparison to the benchmark, says Kevin Heikes, FarmLink director of operations.
“The benchmark is not a report card,” he says. “Instead, it points out opportunities to address under-performing areas.”
Actionable, not prescriptive
For Blew, gap maps became an important tool to determine whether and where to primp management practices across the entire farm in 2015. But because the maps aren’t prescriptive, deciding what to change was up to Blew, with advice from Benisch.
After reviewing gap maps, he developed a plan to boost productivity in under-performing areas, and to hold the line or back off in areas already reaching their potential. “We went with more nitrogen, including the starter,” says Blew. “With variable-rate N, there were some areas where we put on 25% more, and others where it was 5-10% and others where we cut back.”
Variable-rate seeding prescriptions also were tweaked. “In areas where we had maximized potential, there was no need for 34,000 seeds on that,” he says. “Some areas got higher seeding rates.”
Long-term, Blew expects to boost P and K fertility where benchmarking and soil tests show yields will benefit. "Even though most of our land is rented, we manage the land like our kids are going to end up with it," he says.
He expects TrueHarvest to guide the way. “The precision ag stuff we have been implementing is going to shift toward a decision aid process,” he says. “You need to know that this stuff works.”
TrueHarvest is available direct via its web site or through marketing partners, such as MKC. MKC is charging a $1.75/acre introductory price for use in making decisions for 2016, which includes benchmarks going back to 2012. FarmLink charges the same price via its website.