New Tools of the Trade

Crop Consultants Use Soil Sampling Apps

David Hydrick's Crop Consulting partners with Field Concepts to offer services for grid soil sampling. (Progressive Farmer photo by Lisa Buser)

It's growing season in the Mississippi Delta. The shop door slides open at 5:15 in the morning as David Hydrick and crew load motorcycles and four-wheelers for a new day of field scouting. With gas tanks filled the night before, coffee and lunch packed, he knows exactly where to get started.

Hydrick's weather app sends him an update by 5:30 every morning. His crop-consulting business serves clients from the Missouri Bootheel through northeast Arkansas almost down to Memphis. "We get on the app, see where it's rained and how much. If it's rained an hour away, we know whether to use a motorcycle or a four-wheeler, and where to go."

Weather apps are only one of many evolving technologies Hydrick and other consultants are embracing to help their farmer clients optimize bushels and get the most out of crop input dollars. Sorting through ever-increasing technology options and weighing the best choices for each client is no small task.

"It's complicated technology these days, and I can't put my finger on one single tool. They all work together," Hydrick says.

COLLECTING DATA

Multiple layers of data can go into building a field database. For many consultants, it begins with soil-sampling fertilizer recommendations. Hydrick's Crop Consulting partners with Field Concepts to offer services for grid soil-sampling on 1- to 5-acre grids and zone soil-sampling from various forms of data generated by yield maps or Veris sensing data. After samples are processed, Hydrick uses the data to build variable-rate fertilizer and seed prescriptions.

"When soil samples come back from the lab, we use FieldRx software developed by AgRenaissance. We use FieldX (software program collects/manages/shares data) to establish sample points which can be correlated back to lab results," Hydrick explains. "This allows us to know exactly what's going on with fertility levels to make variable-rate fertilizer recommendations in FieldRx across several acres in a matter of minutes."

Another option Hydrick offers is to run a Veris sensing tool over fields. It captures soil texture by measuring electrical conductivity, pH and soil organic matter. "We do this to generate files that simplify variable-rate seeding recommendations and make best use of a farmer's seed investment," he says. "Some soil textures may need more seed, and some need less. This can also be crop- and variety-specific. When we capture the Veris data, we can upload it into AgDNA, Echelon (Agrian), Incompass (WinField) or SMS (Ag Leader) to build variable-rate seed prescriptions to load into the tractor."

He uses several different apps and programs throughout the day. "One of our most valuable apps is MyJohnDeere," Hydrick says. "It tells us everything that has occurred to a specific field. We can access real-time updates of plantings, pesticide applications, field preparation work, harvest, etc. This app also gives us the ability to compare varieties across vast acreage to see what works best at a given location each year."

For consultant Joe Jenkins and his clients, zone-sampling for soil data works best. Jenkins and wife, Dianne, operate Jenkins Precision Ag Service, Kenton, Tennessee. His client base includes the Missouri Bootheel, northeast Arkansas, western Tennessee and western Kentucky.

Jenkins prefers zone soil-sampling over grids because he believes it's a more manageable method for farmers. "We see many variations in topography and soil types, such as sand, silt and clay. We use yield data and topographical areas to define management zones and take soil samples," Jenkins says.

"Data coming back from the lab helps us to create soil maps based on the management zones. We use this information to personally make fertility recommendations, either variable-rate or a regular blend. After farmer approval, we send recommendations and scripts to the vendor chosen by the farmer." He also helps clients manage irrigation with Precision King remote monitors.

With 1.5 million acres enrolled in its Crop-Trak and Nutri-Track programs, MFA Precision Ag Services has a large footprint across the Midwest. The co-op provides an array of consulting options for its farmer members, including grid soil-sampling, yield data interpretations, electrical conductivity mapping, N modeling and variable-rate planting recommendations.

"We follow the industry 4R Nutrient Stewardship program: the right source, the right rate, the right time, the right place," says MFA area manager Jason Mefford, whose service area reaches from central Missouri along the Missouri River valley to eastern Kansas.

"Many technologies exist for P [phosphorus] and K [potassium], nitrogen modeling and seeding rates. We want to manage nutrients to maximize farm profitability and reduce runoff, or excess nutrient buildup. The beauty of the nutrient stewardship principles is that they align perfectly with farmers' intent to be more efficient and increase bushels per dollar of crop inputs invested," Mefford says.

He stresses that technologies aren't a substitute for diligent and frequent scouting. "Our consultants are in a farmer's fields weekly—no ifs, ands or buts. Today, scouting is not paper reports or even laptops. It's barely iPads. Smartphones go with us everywhere, and we can explain problems by sending a video or photo instantly." MFA uses a Sirrus app made by SST Software, which allows quicker, more streamlined communications.

AERIAL IMAGERY

New technologies in aerial imagery are booming to supplement groundwork and help consultants further refine decision-making for farmers. Aerial-imaging technology creates NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) images, which are digital photos used to give a better view of what's happening in a field from the top down. Using software, these images can be used to develop NDVI maps to assess crop health.

"NDVI images help locate and detect crop stresses, such as variability in crop stands, diseases, weeds and other potentially costly problems, early while there's still time to fix them," says Austin Bontrager, consultant with Servi-Tech Expanded Premium Services (STEPS), Seward, Nebraska. "For example, we can get an early image during emergence to spot problems in winter annual control or use thermal imaging to determine dry and wet spots in a field to guide decisions even before planting."

Servi-Tech consulting services covers farms in eastern Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, and operates soil, water and feed sample testing labs in Hastings, Nebraska, Amarillo, Texas, and its Dodge City, Kansas, headquarters.

Bontrager says Servi-Tech decided it could offer a better service with manned aerial imaging compared to using drones. "The resolution may not be as high, but when you look at the NDVI images side by side, we concluded manned aerial imagery provided a better product," he says. "We can get consistent reliable imagery that's captured more frequently and covers a much larger geography at a more efficient price." A UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) may cover only 1,000 acres a day compared with a manned aircraft that can cover tens of thousands of acres a day, Bontrager explains.

SOIL-MOISTURE SENSORS

For many crop geographies, new technology for irrigation monitoring and management is gaining ground. Traditionally, farmers and consultants timed irrigation using a hand probe to measure soil moisture and schedule irrigation timing.

"Although hand probes are still a good method, it's labor intensive and only gives a once-a-week snapshot," says Bontrager, who spends most of his time providing training and technical support for Servi-Tech agronomists and customers.

For the past eight years, Servi-Tech has provided remote soil-moisture monitoring for many of its clients. The firm turns sensors into actionable irrigation advice by showing farmers how many inches of crop-available water remains in the soil and how much additional water their fields can hold.

For 2018, Bontrager says they plan to launch a new irrigation-management system, TheProfiler Plus. Farmers will be able to get readings from two different locations in a field using research-proven watermark sensors that cost about half the price of a single location to install, he explains. "In the future, we hope to bring other types of sensors into this cost-efficient ecosystem to help farmers keep track of more than just soil moisture. Our new radio network will allow us to do this.

DATA ANALYSIS

Despite the myriad data collection technology, farmer John Lindamood aptly observes: "The gorilla in the room is data management. We possess all this data, and how do we use it?"

Lindamood, who farms near Tiptonville, Tennessee, says most farmers don't have time or expertise to process, analyze and formulate plans based upon their data. "We need to write prescriptions based on our data, and we don't have time to do it," he says. "We also want to know how to incorporate data into plans for the coming year to make better decisions."

For him, data management is the most difficult part of precision ag. "Joe and Dianne can provide any type of management you want," Lindamood explains. "When we get backed up, they can shoot us a recommendation, which we can download onto our equipment and make applications accordingly."

Jenkins uses a combination of in-house data analysis and outsources information technology help, as needed. "At the end of the day, we provide our farmers with a step program over time to do what's needed to improve their yield and fit their budgets," Jenkins says.

Other precision ag services, such as MFA, develop in-house data management and analysis. A grower can log into its portal to see all his data in one place. MFA can also pull specific data to eliminate sorting through it. "Along with this service, we coordinate with their equipment, develop recommendations and analyze data to create annual plans," says Jason Worthington, MFA senior agronomist. "To make data useful, you have to put it to work."