This yearlong endeavor looks at how four farmers are evaluating technology and agronomic information that can boost the productivity of their operations.
It feels like it was just yesterday that I updated my blog. It has been said many times over, but time really does go by too fast. We still have work to do in getting ready for the busy harvest season, and within a week or so, it will be upon us. Nothing has changed much since my last update with regard to our mindset or our to–do list, so I'm going to stray a bit in this installment.
News flash: life rarely unfolds as we plan it. If you disagree with this statement, please excuse yourself and return to whatever it is that omnipotent beings do. This axiom hit me square this past month when I heard some unexpected news. A friend texted me asking something to the effect of "What happened to Tyler Sash?" A quick Google search taught me that the former Iowa Hawkeye and New York Giants safety was dead at age 27. As a lifelong Hawkeye fan, I remembered him for his big plays on the football field. Three interceptions at Iowa State, a big late game pick against then No. 3 Penn State that set up a winning field goal, and an interception against Michigan State where he made a gutsy lateral to the faster Micha Hyde who returned it for a touchdown. That last play, I witnessed in person during a severe beating of the Spartans. Did I know the guy? No, but he had impacted my life in some small way as a football fan— he was young, he was successful and he was dead at a young age. There was no foul play involved— he was found by someone coming to walk his dog at his residence in his hometown. .
In cases like Tyler's, it never makes much sense to speculate about what happened and why it happened when there was no sickness or trauma. We just know that there is a family somewhere mourning the loss of their loved one, everyone of them wishing they had one more day with him. But, the human observer in me can't help but wonder what terrible circumstances, thoughts, or emotions may lead to tragedies like this. .
In searching for answers, or maybe just to remember a young life gone too soon, I used the Google machine to read up on what Tyler had been up to in his last years. Of course, he had played for the New York Giants for a year or two. He also did some charity work, and had a few efforts towards business and promotions, but one small thing caught my attention. He had started using the Twitter hash tag #getbetternotbitter. Simple as it may be, and who knows if he was the first, it struck me. .
I know why it did. Recently, I have experienced some interpersonal difficulties. The type of thing that can make a person feel "less than" or undervalued if you let it, and I have at times. And to be honest, for as long as I can remember, there has often been something like that coming from various sources. Before you reach for the tissues, though, let me tell you a secret: I thrive on it. For as lousy as someone underestimating, devaluing, or mocking me can be, it is high–octane fuel in my motivational tank because it makes me angry. It doesn't even have to be something about me, it can be circumstances out of my control that I view as unjust, or other individuals who seem to walk in judgment, arrogance, or greed whether they do or not. It's unfair of me, but it fuels my engine. .
So what does this make me? Bitter at times. It isn't all that much fun, but in a bizarre way, it has served me well by keeping my eyes open at 3:30 a.m., or pushing me to fix machinery in a snow–covered field in freezing temps with howling wind. It's kind of like Bruce Banner in the Incredible Hulk. He doesn't seem to enjoy the fact that he gets angry and turns into a rampaging green beast, but when he does bad guys get destroyed with his super strength. While I lack super strength and bad guy vanquishing abilities, I hope you get my point. .
The point is, Tyler had it right. For physical and mental health, I should meet life's sneers and jeers in the most rational way possible asking myself if anything about the circumstance is in my control. If not, I should let it go like Queen Elsa building her ice fortress. (I have two young daughters and 242 hours logged watching "Frozen") But, if there is something personally or professionally that I can do better, more in keeping with the person I want to be and the business I want to build, by all means, I need to look in the mirror and fix my stuff. I can't fix others, and I can't fix circumstances beyond my control. When I do that, there is something liberating, and honestly a little exciting about laying down that weight. .
Instead of brooding and working like a maniac fueled by unquenchable rage, things get simpler and much more positive when viewed with the proper focus. Getting better, not bitter. Whether you're a farmer, a husband, a father, or a clock maker, there is something for you in those four words. .
It is the last week of August, and we are coming off of four solid months of work in getting this crop prepared for, planted, protected, cared for, and fed. Now, everything in our power to protect and add yield has been done. It is a strange time, really. For at least the next month, no equipment will be out in the fields. Rather, it will be in the shop. The spring and summer equipment will get winterized for a seven–month nap, and the harvest equipment will come out of hibernation.
It's like a massive exhale after holding our collective breath for the past third of the calendar year while we've worked, hoped and prayed a good crop comes from all the money and sweat spent. Now, we'll take another deep breath because the big green judge known as "the combine" will deliver the final verdicts on the crop year in one month. The worst part of the wait is that we won't be nearly as busy anymore, so I'll have more time to walk fields, estimate yields, and worst of all, time to think. Specifically, time to think thoughts like "If the yield isn't what it should be, what did I do wrong?"
Mostly, and most usefully though, we will prepare. We'll make sure every machine is in nearly perfect working condition, hire harvest help if necessary, and plan for 2016. That last item is really the most challenging thing about harvest. Simultaneous to the most intensive operation of the year, we need to be laying groundwork for next year's crop. For example, I most likely will split–up more fields into management zones for sampling— without the benefit of having yield information from 2015—because otherwise, I will have no time to do it in–season. Fertility plans for the strip–till rig should be in place before the combine rolls, as well. Then, there is the reason I think combine manufacturers started installing a second seat in the cabs—for seed salesmen. I don't know the percentage of farmers that want to buy their seed before they even know what this year's results are, but we are not among them, no matter the early–discount structure. However, that does not mean we don't need to be ready for the November ordering period right after crawling out of the machines. So, thought on the matter is required as we complete harvest.
There is good reason to be optimistic about our 2015 crops. The usual drowned–out spots from excessive May/June rains are minimal. Our lessons learned from years of fouling up our nitrogen program in one way or another seem to have paid off, as deficiencies are minimal in the corn. The weather helped in this regard also. Soybeans got what they need most in August rainfall, and we managed the insect and disease pressure. This certainly doesn't mean everything is perfect. Some fields planted on the early side of our spring window suffered through poor emergence. There is a hybrid or two that seems to not be performing as advertised, and as always, there are spots that need more drainage help. Overall, it's the best crop we've had in at least five years, and I'm not going to complain. It is also not in the bin yet, so nothing is guaranteed. I'm reminded of some cliché about counting chickens before they are hatched.
I want to mention at least one new thing that we will try this fall that we have not done before: a cover crop planted after soybeans are harvested. Instead of dragging a drill out there, then strip tilling, I am going to mix a blend into my dry fertilizer applied by the strip–till rig. Since my system is getting pretty aggressive with regard to post–emergence passes, I want to avoid another one which a dedicated inter–seeding pass would require. The thought is that if it works the covers will be right where they are needed most to control erosion, scavenge nutrients, cycle nutrients, and get the soil biology stoked up for 2016. It should be a fun and relatively easy thing to try with big benefits, if effective.
Lastly, next time I do this, we'll be one full year wiser. I'll know if my dual– hybrid seeding strategy worked. I'll know if some of the other products I used added yield. I'll know how much more effective spraying fungicide with 360YieldCenter's Undercover product was, and likely, much more than this will be learned. As always, it will be an exciting and challenging time of year.
In past entries I wrote and talked at length about our plans for this planting and growing season, so it only seems reasonable to spend this entry bringing readers up to speed on how those plans have materialized, what worked, and what did not. So, in a straightforward, rapid-fire fashion, here we go.
I would be remiss if I were not to lead off with the fact that on May 12, our two healthy twin baby boys were delivered by C-section! Leo Carson and Luca Hamilton weighed nearly a combined 15 pounds. This entry is being written in the eleventh hour due to those two boys having a cranky night, but everyone is doing well. Whatever hardships we have been through to put this crop in, protect and feed it, the fact still remains that my wife carried 15 pounds of live human being in her abdomen, had them surgically removed, is their sole food source and care taker, and has to deal with many a cranky time on her own when I am away working whilst our two daughters, ages 2 and 4, try their best to injure each other in a loud fashion. So, as successful as this planting season was, I do not win MVP of the family for the time period, and that's cool.
The dual hybrid planter worked very well. Where there is a visual difference in hybrids, it is fun to look across the field and see where the hybrid changes were made, and it pleased me that the changes seemed to be in the right places, mostly. We had some corn seed that weighed in at a mighty 35 pounds per 80,000 seeds that caused difficulty when the partner hybrid was something like a 50-pound seed. Fortunately, the god of college interns smiled upon me and brought me a young man that ran the planter with rabid attention to detail that would have made an astronaut proud. He took the initiative to change the vacuum pressure on the fly when the planter switched hybrids to optimize singulation. As I have stated previously, even though the technology is by most measures "very cool," it will be worthless unless the right hybrids are put in the right place, and the success of that effort this year is very much yet to be determined.
Conditions were good, not great, at planting and our weather since has been good as well, especially in light of all the areas I hear about that have had way too much water, which gives me vivid flashbacks to 2013 in northern Iowa. I feel for the guys that are dealing with that. Emergence and crop growth to this point when compared with other seasons in memory ranks very well. Our best, earliest-planted cornfields are shoulder high, with the others not too far behind. The biggest positive factor right now may be that the bottom ground that we have lost to drown outs in three out of five years are largely intact with healthy plants. The crop is far from made, of course. We will need some timely rains to happen-and hail, wind and diseases not to happen-but the potential is there for a very good crop.
In early June, I bought a self-propelled sprayer through my sales business and outfitted it with Y-Drops and Undercover nozzles from 360 Yield Center for our own use and custom work in promotion of the products. I had the idea clear back in early spring, but was hesitant to take on the risk. Thankfully the project has gone well. We have covered thousands of acres already with more to go, and customer reception has been very positive. Personally, having seen the power of late Nitrogen placed properly in corn last year, it is a very fun machine to run, knowing that what it is doing has such potential to boost productivity. When the timing is right, we'll start using the Undercover units to saturate the crop canopies with fungicides, insecticides, and possibly foliar fertilizers as well.
So, as daunting as the task at hand seemed last April, it is largely done. Aside from those Undercover applications, the rest is in the hands of the weather from here until crop maturity. It's easy to get sucked into daily struggles and our work towards the next objective and not appreciate how well we did in getting the work done in a way we can all be proud of. The plans were followed and, when necessary, we improvised. Tempers remained mostly cool. Costly mistakes were minimal. No one got injured, and breakdowns were fixed quickly. It is rewarding to think about, and I believe it is important to do to avoid the hamster-in-a-wheel effect of never feeling like our work is done with the next thing to do always looming. The bad news? One severe thunderstorm, one freakishly early frost, and all our hard work to make the "perfect crop" is negated. Love it or leave it, that is the business we're in.
Every year I say this to myself. Every. Single. Year. "Boy, I really pushed the envelope last year, trying new things and taking on a big workload. It could have caused catastrophic failures! Next year will sure be nice, when I can keep most things the same as last season."
There can only be two possible truths:
1. I am a pathological liar.
2. I am addicted to the pursuit.
Now, I can objectively say that I am not a liar. So, we are left with one undeniable answer: I would be bored, unsatisfied, and would feel like I was moving backwards if I was not sprinting forward at full thrust.
In my February blog entry, I wrote about my new attempts at managing variability through management zones. That effort is still a go. I wrote about using the new software product from 360 YieldCenter called Commander to write some prescription seeding and fertilization plans. Still a go. Now, I am going to install vSet Select from Precision Planting. It will allow me to carry two different hybrids on the planter and change which one is planted where based on a prescription. Totally new territory. Game changing, really.
Since I own and operate a 360Yield Center and Precision Planting dealership (Sprout Ag Enterprises), I believe in both of these companies' products and will have the necessary training and knowledge to personally install and support them as well as anyone. That provides me with some comfort. However, I will not personally be operating my planter. Instead, it will most likely be a 22-year-old college intern whom I've just met. I'll be watching the planter's performance, via remote view, on one of two iPads mounted in my tractor and/or sprayer. Why two iPads? Well, I need one to monitor and troubleshoot my and Dad's planter, and the other to monitor and troubleshoot all my customers' planters, when the need arises. All this while keeping my 16-row strip tiller applying my early-season nutrient cocktail at 9 mph, making sure my supply tanker has the right juice on it and has picked up the necessary amount for the next field or the rest of the day, and monitoring radio traffic to untangle logistical knots that occur everywhere else in the operation when plans change on a dime due to weather and whim.
Speaking of plans, the dual-hybrid concept totally throws my seed plan out the window. The tender must have the right amount of each hybrid on board when the planter calls for him-no more dumping 50 bags of whatever is handy and rocking. AND after strip tilling ahead of the planter is done, I will run to the sprayer and cover each and every acre with pre-emerge/burndown herbicide and a little broadcast nitrogen. And, of course, I need to plan for some side-by-side comparisons of our new practices, which my young intern will play a large part in executing. Ohâ€¦and my wife is due to give birth to our twin boys around May 10, which I cannot miss.
It's all totally doable... right??
If you read this and think I am a little insane, please know that I agree with you. I am scared of what could and could not happen if something REALLY goes wrong. More than that, though, I feel like the Spartan soldiers in the movie "300" must have felt when facing nearly certain death against a massive Persian army. They reveled in the chance to put their unique skill set, honed since childhood, to the test against a nearly insurmountable challenge. They laughed as a cloud of arrows rained down on them and as they gazed at the million-man army that confronted them. I devilishly grin at the mental and physical demands of the spring.
One crucial difference would be that my odds of death are far less likely.
So, as the calendar turns to March, we stand with about six weeks to complete work on about 12 more customers' planters. We need to install vSet Select on my planter, ready all of our equipment including converting the strip tiller from dry to liquid, create and finalize all seeding prescriptions, including the dual hybrid ones, and get seed, chemicals and fertilizer to the farm. Then, God willing, we will have 12 to 18 days that are suitable for fieldwork to complete the plan. This may involve all-nighters. It will definitely involve 120-plus hour weeks. There will be physical exhaustion that aches, sleep deprivation that tests our will, physical wounds that smart, and mental exhaustion that pushes our limits.
If it works, it will all be worth it. We will be smarter and more skilled than we were last year, and that is our goal. An ambition worth testing our limits.
It is more than a little difficult to believe that the 2015 growing season is bearing down upon us! More than any other year in my memory, it seems we just recently finished harvest '14, and yet here I am putting the pieces in place for another crop. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. In fact, my personal paradigm has shifted since I heard about Howard G. Buffett's book and movement called 40 Chances, and I am embracing another opportunity. Basically, 40 Chances is the theory that in our professional lives we each have roughly 40 years (not a big number!) of productivity to leave our mark-to change things for the better-so that our existence was a net positive for the human race. Since Buffett and his son, Howard W., are also farmers, this really resonates with me. I truly look at each year as a sacred and precious chance to practice and attempt to perfect my craft.
This year, one of my efforts focuses on managing the variability that exists in all of our fields-sometimes to a severe extent-for maximum efficiency and productivity. For much of my career, I have kicked around the idea of how best to manage this. There were what I perceived as overly simplified answers to this question-like varying our seeding rates per soil type-but then I could be missing variables related to soil fertility and drainage.There are also questions in my mind about how accurate the soil-type maps we have are. There were overly complex answers, like giving all my data (soil sample results, yield history, first born, etc.) to get a corporation's solution that I think used good agronomy and algorithms. But that cost some money to do and only gave me seeding recommendations. What about fertilization? And how best to soil sample? If I truly want to maximize an area's productivity, surely I must know what that soil in that area can supply to a crop.
So, this year I am testing a "homemade" solution. Using yield history, I drew management zones over the top of a normalized yield map. I reason that nothing can tell me the productivity of an area like the plants themselves can. I then split those zones so I never have an area that is bigger than 3 acres. I then soil sampled each of those areas separately. After importing those results, I fertilized P and K based on those tests last fall. This brings me to where I am currently. I need to develop a corn-seeding plan, based on these management zones. I will work with agronomists from the seed companies who will supply me with seed to try to optimize population in each zone. Later, I will develop a variable-rate nitrogen plan. An option for this that I am leaning heavily towards uses a new software product from 360 YieldCenter called Commander. Using soil, weather, hybrid, seeding rate, and timing information, they claim to be able to predict what optimum rates will be for the zones I created.
Will this work? That's the several thousand-dollar question. I will leave "static" strips in multiple locations in an attempt to quantify any gains or losses through this new practice. Whatever the case may be, I sure am having fun trying to solve this riddle.
Until next time...