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Farmer Q/A: Spotlight on ag technology ROI

Guy standing outside by grain bin
Jim Kline
How one farmer evaluates tech investments on the farm.

Jim Kline, who owns and operates Kline Family Farms in Hartford City, Ind., has been ahead of the curve and outside the box for decades. How has the rapidly changing ag technology field impacted his large row crop operation?

Kline: We’re focusing much more on finances because of the economic crunch agriculture is experiencing. At the beginning of the year we lay out our budget and make decisions based on where we expect our returns to be the greatest.

Since 2010, a key factor indicative of farmer success is how well we as an industry interpret data and make outcomes work for us. There are ever-increasing software options available that allow farmers to organize this data, ask questions, and get answers.

Farm Futures: How do you allocate resources?

Kline: Currently 50% of our labor is spent in the office, which is probably a surprise. We have a CFO, an on-site agronomist and an assistant agronomist. They’re always evaluating information to help improve our business’ position.

We are still investing in equipment when a need arises. But the primary motivation driving when and where we spend money on equipment is measured by what type of returns that equipment will provide. Our software helps us do that.

Farm Futures: What kind of payback period do you expect with new technology?

Kline: You’re not going to see a significant return in year one or two. For example, we’ve been with Granular five years—since it first launched commercially—and now we are routinely able to collect enough information to make sound economic decisions.

Farm Futures: How has technology helped your business?

Kline: We raise corn, soybeans and seed wheat; we’re transitioning some acres to organic. In an era where the consumer is increasingly curious about farm activities, traceability is key. We now can tell the story of our crop in any given year. We can trace back to each field and know what tractor operated when and where, who the operator was, what was applied and at what rate, and in what area of the field they are applying it.

Merging the technology above, with advances in our personnel and equipment, has also made us better environmental stewards. For example, we now regularly apply variable rate nitrogen; that’s allowed us to use two-thirds of the amount of N that we did a few years ago and get just as good a crop.

Farm Futures: Where will ag technology help farmers in the short-term?

Kline: One issue we originally discounted was the amount of training required with today’s machinery. Often our more seasoned drivers are also our most proficient at operating the machinery. But they run into issues understanding the devices in the cab. The opposite is true with our younger generation of operators, who haven’t mastered operating the equipment but can pick up the technology quickly.

In either scenario, we typically need a season to adequately train operators for today’s equipment. Even then, we still concentrate a large amount of time adjusting machinery for maximum performance.

Moving forward, the greatest opportunity for ag tech is real-time machine optimization. A manager of employees would not have to worry as much about operators who may not have the experience or aptitude to calibrate the machinery. In that scenario, neither efficiencies nor performance would be sacrificed.

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