Gold Miners

Technology Unearths Wealth of Data for Crop Consultants

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Farmer Kevin Malecek (left) relies on technology and crop consultant Jared Anez to make agronomic decisions. (Progressive Farmer photo by Steve Woit)

When Jared Anez started his crop consulting business in 1997, his tools included a soil probe, sweep net and note pads. Today, he uses a machine that maps electromagnetic conductivity in the soil; he studies images taken from space, and a laptop is his constant companion.

Welcome to a brave new world where technology has uncovered a gold mine of data of potentially great value to the farming community. While some farmers will mine the data themselves (larger growers will probably have an agronomist on staff do it for them), most farmers likely will rely on crop consultants to assay the ore to determine its worth and refine it into something useful.

"There are a lot of really good technologies out there now," said Anez, who owns Anez Consulting Inc. in Willmar, Minnesota. "Our clients push us and challenge us to figure it out. The trick is: Can you turn that information around in time to do your clients some good?"

In a period of soft commodity prices, the answers to that question can mean the marginal differences between a farm that turns a healthy profit and one that struggles to pay its input invoices.

MIXED BAG

Anez Consulting Inc. has 10 full-time employees, operates in 40 counties in Minnesota and does work in the Dakotas, Iowa and Missouri. Some of its livestock clients rely on the company for environmental permitting or engineering services for their operations. Others ask the company to do agronomy work for their corn, soybeans, silage, alfalfa and small grains.

For the latter group, the company offers two tiers of service. Its "conventional" tier consists of soil and fertility tests, recommendations on manure application and scouting for weeds and insects. For the second tier -- what Anez calls his "variable rate" program -- the company offers services in which it divides fields into GPS zones by soil properties and yield potential. The precision ag department then can provide prescriptions for seeding rates and fertility applications throughout the year.

To create the zones, Anez and associates use a Veris machine to map electromagnetic conductivity, and they layer that information with aerial and satellite imaging, both true and NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index). For tasks that require field elevations, the company uses Lidar imaging, a technology that involves aerial imaging and lasers to measure horizontal and vertical topographic distances. (Much of Minnesota's farmland was Lidar mapped by the state government.)

About 45% of Anez's agronomic clients use the conventional package. But the variable-rate clients are the majority, and their numbers have been growing. "Quite a few guys made that move a few years ago, and what drove them was new planters," Anez said. "Once they got a planter that is capable of variable rate, automatic shut offs and in-furrow applications, that was kind of the big push forward for them."

OTHER TOOLS

Anez's brothers, Paul and Vince, have their own crop-consulting firm named Anez Consulting LLC. Their client mix is heavy on livestock farmers, but their services are skewed to the agronomy side. For that reason, last year they bought a fixed wing UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and are experimenting with its capabilities.

They plan to use it to get high-resolution bare earth images and again when crops are growing. The two views will help them map field elevations and allow them to estimate relative biomass across fields. The brothers hope UAV imaging will also help them identify areas of soil compaction, pest issues, nutrient deficiencies and more.

UAVs can be timesaving scouting tools. When aerial photos show possible problem areas in growing crops, boots on the ground personnel can walk directly to those areas of the field for closer examination.

FARMER VIEW

Kevin Malecek of Redwood Falls, Minnesota, has been Jared Anez's client for almost 10 years. From the beginning, Anez has done all the paperwork Malecek needs for state permits for his 9,000-head hog operation. Anez also has helped with manure management. Three years ago, Malecek engaged Anez for prescription farming advice on his 1,600 crop acres. The consultant now writes planting and sidedressing prescriptions using data from yield maps, soil samples and zones mapped with a Veris machine.

"I made a commitment to myself that if I was going to do the precision farming thing, I might as well be at the top end of it," Malecek said.

Sidedressing was of particular interest for him. "In my area, we generally apply nitrogen once in the fall or spring and hope for the best. If it rains a lot, maybe we should have put more down. But I have come to the conclusion that I won't put any nitrogen down except at sidedress," he said.

Anez helps him target rates for sidedressing.

Malecek also has experimented with Monsanto's Climate Pro program, which uses weather data and satellite imagery to estimate/forecast nitrogen levels in growing crops. He uses that information only as a guide, preferring to ground truth remote-sensing observations before taking action.

With the mountain of data available to him, Malecek said the services of someone like Anez are vital. "I think they do an awesome job for me," Malecek said.

WHO OWNS THE TOOLS

Malecek's approach to data collection technology is a hybrid. He owns some technology (yield monitor and UAV), but he also pays other people to supply data tools. He is the sort of client Jim Gill might prefer.

Gill owns a crop consulting business in Northfield, Minnesota. He has about 40 clients in southeast Minnesota and Wisconsin who grow corn, beans and potatoes. They pay Gill a per-acre fee for writing agronomic plans, making soil fertility recommendations, helping with seed selection and giving pest management advice.

Gill owns neither a UAV nor a Veris machine. What he has is a degree in plant pathology and 30 years of IPM experience. "I don't provide technology," he said. "I just interpret the data it produces. The human element is what it is all about."

As a one-person shop, he cannot provide all the data-collection services some clients might want. "I don't sell technology. I work with technology that my clients are sold," he said.

OPTIONS ARE GOOD

Technology services also have been low on Brian Bresnahan's list of offerings. The independent crop consultant in Osceola, Nebraska, has kept to the basics in his seven-year company history. His portfolio of services includes soil sampling, fertility recommendations, hybrid and variety selection, tillage recommendations, field scouting for insects and weeds, in-season fertility checks, grid samples and printing yield maps. He can provide all of that with mostly traditional technology.

But he is willing to buy a bigger toolbox: "There is always something new farmers want to stay on top of."

To illustrate his point, Bresnahan said he recently became an agent for Encirca, a Pioneer service he describes as "another layer of technology." Encirca breaks down fields into management zones by soil types; it also gives yield potential models to manage nitrogen within zones. It uses weather stations to ground truth precipitation and soil moisture data. (Full disclosure: DTN, parent company of this magazine, is a business partner with Pioneer in the Encirca product and provides weather services for it.)

Bresnahan's hope is that Encirca will "bring all the pieces together" for him and his clients.

DUAL ROLE

John McNamara wears two hats. He is an agronomist for the Wiles Bros. Farm in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and he is holds the title "agronomist and CCA" (Certified Crop Advisor) for Wiles Bros. Fertilizer Inc.

In his on-farm agronomist role he helps make decisions on planting, fertility and pest control. The methods he applies on his employer's farm are the same as those he suggests for the farm supply company's clients. "We practice what we preach," McNamara said.

On the commercial side, his company offers a host of inputs and services, including spraying, prescription writing, seed sales (DeKalb/Asgrow) chemicals and field scouting.

McNamara brings impressive credentials to his work; he spent six years with the University of Nebraska's agronomy department in Extension weed science while working on his graduate degrees in plant science and plant physiology. For 15 years he worked in technology development for Monsanto covering the Eastern Nebraska area. All of which makes him, "a data kind of guy," he said. At the same time, he said, "I'm fairly old school."

ALL THAT GLITTERS

That personality trait makes him look at some of the new technologies with a degree of skepticism. Of UAVs he said: "They are slick and kind of neat. They have lots of bells and whistles and lights blinking on them. But what can we actually do with them?"

McNamara calls new services such as Encirca and Climate Pro, "new but not yet proven. They are fine-tuning along the way."

And of the Trimble SIS system he uses to create 3-D field maps based on electromagnetic waves, a densitometer and soil probes: It's "just another reference point."

All of the data technologies available today provide "pieces of the puzzle," McNamara said, and should be treated with respect but not awe. "I have to have a reason to spend a customer's money. I have to know the ROI on it," he said.

As a crop consultant, he tries to see things from his clients' perspectives. When it comes to technology, McNamara said, he wants his clients to know this: "I'm not immune to change; I'm not immune to using multiple tools. But in the end, I like to put things in growers' hands and let them manage it the way they farm. That's what is going to sell me as a provider."

WHO'S BEST FOR YOU?

You have lots of choices when it comes to people wanting to give you advice. Co-ops and farm supply retailers offer crop consulting services. Seed and chemical companies have advisers and modeling products for their customers. Independent crop advisers (ICAs) make their living helping farmers make choices.

If data collection technology is important to you, co-ops, retailers and seed and chemical companies might have an edge. They have larger bank accounts than ICAs and can invest in the latest and greatest technologies. On the other hand, your local ICA might not have the latest technology, but he or she might have the education and experience to interpret the data that you can provide with your own technology.

Some farmers use all three types of consultants. Minnesota farmer Kevin Malecek, for example, used a local co-op's consultants for years. He also is experimenting with Monsanto's Climate Pro. And he works with the ICA firm Anez Consulting Inc. Of the latter, he said: "They are not selling me any product. That's one disadvantage to working with a co-op -- they have products to sell, which is another motivation."

Here are three tips for selecting advisers, gathered from crop consultants:

-- Ask for references, especially from similar farming operations.

-- Be specific about your goals from a crop consultant. It's critical that you know your goals and you communicate them.

-- Get personal. Select someone who shares your values. As Jared Anez said, "You really want to work with someone who cares about your family, your farm and your goals. You want someone who is passionate about moving you forward."

(BAS)

Jim Patrico