Against the Grain

Instinct Battles Technology as Innovation, New Generation Sweep Onto Farms

Ryan Johnson has led the way in bringing technology onto his family's 10,000-acre North Dakota farm. (Progressive Farmer photo by Joel Reichenberger)

History remembers little about June 22, 1969, but Dale Johnson does. That's the day he went from being a teenager who helped on the family farm to an actual farmer -- a young man with a plot and a plan.

He rented a quarter section, 160 acres, from his grandfather, who'd taken on the ground near Cummings, North Dakota, as the second generation of Johnsons to till that soil, a mile off the blacktop in eastern North Dakota.

Persistent rain kept the wide-eyed Johnson out of the field early that season, and, when he finally got in, June 22, 1969, all he felt he could still plant for the quickly maturing season was millet.

"I can't even remember if I made a profit," he said. He maintains an office not far from the plot he still farms with his two brothers, a son and a nephew.

That was 50 crops ago, and in the years since, Johnson learned to farm that quarter section and many of the other farms the Johnson operation expanded onto through the years. A new wave of technology has forced him to reevaluate some of those hard-earned lessons, however.

His son, Ryan Johnson, came back to the farm in 2015 and has helped the family usher in some of the latest innovations, from drone and satellite imagery to variable-rate planting and aggressive monitoring of yield maps. All that information, gathered by one generation of the family, has forced another older generation to really consider what it knows about the soil it's worked for five decades.

GETTING WITH THE TIMES

Rocky and in need of serious dirt work, Dale Johnson's original 160 acres was a tough plot with which to start a career. Millet wasn't as much a bold farmer's decision as it was a forced constraint that first summer, but he harvested it that fall and hauled it to a birdseed plant.

Now, that same farm is dramatically more efficient. This past summer, it produced a strong stand of corn, aided by all the innovation of 50 years, but, most recently, by the Johnsons' aggressive adoption of precision technologies. That's led to a jump in profitability across the family's 10,000 acres.

Their local agronomist, Sean Entenson, from Reynolds United Coop, pitched them on the services of WinField United. The company combines satellite imagery, drone imagery and other information such as yield maps to forecast crop performance across a field. Local agents such as Justin Risovi help transfer all that data from colorful charts into actionable intelligence, working with Entenson or, at times, directly with the Johnsons.

The data has helped dictate planting decisions. This year, the family put in 4,000 acres of corn, 3,500 of soybeans, but also 1,000 acres of edible beans. They have regularly put in wheat and sunflowers, plus sugar beets, one of the primary products of the area. And, it's helped decide how to plant.

"Before, we used to plant a field just straight across. The whole field would be whatever variety of seed it was, 32,000 seeds per acre across the half section," Ryan said. "But, there's a coulee that runs right through the middle."

DATA ADVANTAGE

They've used the collected data to lower the average population of the field to 28,000 seeds per acre, but they haven't lowered the population from edge to edge. Instead, they're planting at 18,000 in poor areas, like that coulee in the middle, but 34,000 in the best parts of the field, on high ground.

"Where we had a good crop, we're getting a great crop. We've seen a significant boost in our yield, because we've been able to really pour on our nutrients, pour on our seed or to put the money where it matters," Ryan explained. "Then, on that low spot, I don't put any fertilizer on it. I put just the bare minimum seed to make it come up, and because I'm not overdoing it there, I'm saving money, and the ground can actually handle what we're planting there."

That's improved the yield even in those poor spots in the field, often by 20 or 30 bushels per acre.

"I'm getting more for less," Ryan said. "You spread that across 10,000 acres, and you have yourself quite a savings." Ryan grew up with the technology. He trusts it. It took a little convincing to get his uncles on board, however. The difference in approach is evident in nearly everything about father and son.

Ryan, 26 years old, didn't go straight to the farm as a teenager. His father and his uncles wouldn't let him. When they came together to be the fourth generation to farm their family's ground in 1977, written into their partnership was a clause that their children wouldn't be allowed to come onto the farm full-time unless they had a college degree and had worked off the farm for at least two years.

The time after that decision only underscored its importance. "We went through the high interest rates, and we decided the kids need to have an education of some kind," Dale said.

Ryan spent several years working with John Deere focusing on GPS. He then graduated in 2015 from North Dakota State University with a degree in agriculture systems management with an emphasis in technology. Only then did he return home.

He brought more than a degree with him. He helped usher in a new age on the farm.

GENERATIONAL SPLIT

Even when the farm first started working with GPS, Dale Johnson was slow on the uptake, the kind of farmer who would answer a beeping GPS by simply turning it off rather than addressing its concerns. Ryan, on the other hand, pulled into a field in the spring that was to switch from soybeans to corn. He called Risovi with WinField to get a new planting prescription for the ground given the change in crop. But, Risovi didn't seem to be in a position to help, waiting out a layover in Chicago O'Hare International Airport. Still, he was able to log on, upload the necessary data to Ryan's rig in the field, and, 10 minutes later and 700 miles away, the Johnsons were farming again.

Ryan carries three tablets everywhere he goes. One Apple iPad controls a DJI Phantom 3 drone he uses to survey fields and upload data to WinField and his local agronomist. Another is set up to work with the planter, and the third, a Microsoft Surface tablet, displays the data and maps he has come to trust.

Dale doesn't carry three tablets. He doesn't actually carry even one.

He's on board, though, even when he's working on a field he once was sure he understood.

"It's a good tool," he said, letting loose another hearty laugh. "I hate to admit it."

(AG/)