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Analyzing the ROI on precision investment

Farmers from different areas discuss their results with the seeding and fertilizer system

Clint Monchuk says sectional control and a Trimble 2050 mapping system have brought in 9.5 per cent in annual savings on fertilizer costs.

Can precision technology pay? Farmers participating in a panel discussion at last December’s Virtual Precision Agriculture Conference say yes. However, strategies differ.

Clinton Monchuk of Monchuk Farms near Lanigan, Sask., is also executive director of Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan, and he says the precision techniques used on his farm are all chosen to improve soil.

With little to no tile drainage in his land base, Monchuk says he also strives to get the most out of every field.

This involves soil profiling, plus the use of a mid-row banding system on the planter for in-furrow ammonia application. Overall, sectional control and a Trimble 2050 mapping system have brought in 9.5 per cent in annual savings on fertilizer costs.

“The level of loss is extremely low,” says Monchuk. “Our organic matter continues to grow and we’re seeing better results.”

Sectional control was also incorporated into the farm’s spray strategy, though savings are comparatively minor at about two to five per cent. Similarly, the AFS Pro 700 mapping system in his combines is handy, but brings few direct savings.

“It’s really more for the convenience of the operator. At the end of the day, I don’t feel it actually generates any more profit… the major decisions we made to get that optimal crop happened four months ago or even earlier.

“We like to keep current information, current technology, but (it) has to fit sustainability on our farm. Really, at the end of the day for us to pay for it, it needs to make sense.”

Managing variability

Also on the panel, Justin Hiebert of Hiebert Farms in Ontario says he uses a variable-rate system in a variety of ways on his cash crop and asparagus farm.

“I tend to be the IT guy because I’m the least bad at computers,” he says.

Along with strip till and a homemade Y-drop nutrient application system, Hiebert says they use a home-built planter with Delta Force and Furrow Force, as well as vSet and vDrive, to achieve uniform planting depth.

“Every row is electronically controlled. When you go around a corner, the inside slows and the outside speeds up so your populations stay the same. Every row shuts off,” he explains, adding the system produced a “perfect” stand count in corn test plots planted earlier in 2020.

He also says SmartFirmer sensors — tools measuring the furrow as it pushes each seed into the trench bottom — have been valuable additions to their planting setup.

“Your corn population, fertilizer rates, all change as you drive through the field. You can prescription variable rate a field you’ve never been in before.”

Hiebert and his family have been using variable-rate corn seeding for six years, and are now trying to apply the same strategy to beans to reduce white mould pressure.

They also hope to find a profitable way of incorporating variable rate into fungicide and lime applications, as well as asparagus planting. Good data for analysis will be critical.

“We’re typically not saving money on seed but we’re making more money on seed where it counts,” he says. “One difficulty with variable rate is checking to know what you did was right… Sometimes it just makes it easier and there’s value in that too.”

Hiebert reiterates data is only useful if it can be read, and to read it, you need to protect it.

“Always back up information. Sometimes tech fails. Losing data doesn’t help you.”

Running multiple systems

For Mark Brock of Shepherd Creek Farms in Ontario, effectively interpreting data has been critical to improving cost-effectiveness in his cash crop operation.

Brock uses a variety of technologies, including section control on all equipment and a UAV (drone) in combination with NDVI for diagnosing in-field problems, such as whether a fungicide application is warranted. He also uses RTK guidance for additional precision, and a planter customized with aftermarket parts.

“There’s some really cool hardware and equipment technology on the precision ag side. We just incorporate it as much as we can, whenever we can because we see value in it,” Brock says.

“I always joke our planter has more in it in terms of aftermarket planting parts than I paid for the whole planter. But it’s just a phenomenal tool. I have full confidence when we roll into the field, the instant information we get. When we (move to the next field) we know we did the best job we could have.”

A variety of data tools are also used, such as Climate FieldView, Farmers Edge, Agrimatics and several others. Brock says they use them all because none do everything he wants, although the fact that each service costs money causes “some angst.”

Combined, each system adds another layer, or multiple layers, which support greater precision. But while they generate plenty of data, Brock says they always try to find better ways to use it. He says he hopes by doing so, it will improve profitability and mitigate increasing production risks.

“It just feels like we’re fighting Mother Nature more every year, and we’re looking for tools to mitigate that.

“I think we get caught up somewhere in the hardware and the cool maps, but it really has to make money at the end of the day. We’re going to spend a fair bit of time on some really hard drilled-down profitability mapping and develop some standard operating procedures around (return on investment) against products, and specific to relationships to field productivity zones.”

Beau Jacobson of Jacobson Farms in Minnesota told those in attendance that the use of variable-rate systems on all planters and sprayers on their 15,000 acres has been valuable for handling unpredictable and frequently wet growing conditions.

“Getting proper placement, that has really shined in the last five years or so,” says Jacobson.

“In the Red River Valley here and the fringe areas, we lose more money to excess moisture more than we ever do to drought. Using the variable rate, trying to put zones together and decide what part of the field gets high populations and low populations; and same thing on the fertility side.”

Whether this strategy works in a specific area, however, often isn’t known until yield data is collected.

“Where we try to bomb on the fertilizer and get the best returns, we really don’t have that answer until the combine gets there. If we’re excessively wet, the high ground is where we should have been trying to get our maximum yield. And if it’s dry or closer to normal, which I’m not sure what normal is anymore, then it’s the lower ground that we should have put more investment in.”

Yield measurements are done using a combination of yield monitor weight data. Jacobson says grain cart weights are their top fallback measurement method, considering weight is harder to argue with than at times patchy monitor numbers. Overall, he feels they are deriving sufficient value from their equipment.

“Any small ROI we can get back really shines. I don’t feel our land size is really gaining as much value as it is bringing in key people to our operation, and partnering with them.”

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