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Corn+Soybean Digest

Farmers experiment, build data with variable-rate crop management tools

 Crestline Ohio farmer Rick Niese right and Sunrise Coop agronomist Josh Snyder discuss variablerate crop management options developed with the WinField R7 Tool and accessed through a tablet computer
<p> Crestline, Ohio, farmer Rick Niese (right) and Sunrise Co-op agronomist Josh Snyder discuss variable-rate crop management options developed with the WinField R7 Tool and accessed through a tablet computer.</p>
Data drives crop management tools

After two years of testing data-driven, variable-rate crop management programs on their farms, Rick Niese and Jeff Heepke are planning to continue their efforts in 2015 in hopes of further ramping up productivity.

Niese, who farms about 11,000 acres near Crestline in north central Ohio, increased use of variable-rate seeding to all corn acres in 2014. He relied on agronomists from Sunrise, a Winfield-affiliated co-op, using the WinField’s R7 Tool for guidance. In 2015, he plans to fold soybeans in the program.

Heepke, who farms near Edwardsville, in southern Illinois, is one of about 300 farmers from across the Midwest who worked with Monsanto’s FieldScripts program in 2014. After using the prescription-planting program on several fields over the past two years, he hopes to continue with the program in 2015, although he is uncertain how many acres he will enroll.

"To raise 300-bushel corn, we have to take management to the next level,” Niese says. “Variable-rate programs are important as we try to make this happen.”

“I believe in the technology,” says Heepke. “I am excited about it and the implications for improving productivity down the road.”

Wall-to-wall VR ahead

After getting his feet wet with variable-rate corn seeding using the R7 Tool in 2013, Niese planted all corn acres using variable-rate R7 prescriptions in 2014. Working with agronomists at Sunrise Co-op in Crestline, he also experimented with variable-rate sidedressing of 28% nitrogen.

Niese, who farms with his dad, Jerry; son, Casey; and cousin, Chad Niese, says soils on his farm are highly variable. “We are dealing with a tremendous amount of variability – as many as five soil types in a 100-acre field,” he says. “I think this technology may be more important than in areas where you have only one or two soil types.”

In 2104, Niese varied corn seeding rates from 32,000 to 38,000 seeds per acre. Prior to using R7 Tool prescriptions, his spread was 35,000 to 37,000 seeds per acre. “It was very hard for us to accept that we could drop populations down to 32,000 and still compete,” he says. “The lower populations performed better in the less productive ground in 2014. We were just overpopulating those areas in the past.”

Overall, Niese says that variable-rate seeding boosted corn yields 2-10 bushels per acre in 2014.

Variable-rate sidedress nitrogen also may have contributed to higher yields. Rates were varied by 15 pounds per acre, with higher rates going to more productive areas of fields. In 2015, he plans to vary rates up to 30 pounds per acre.

In 2015, he will add variable-rate soybeans to the program, with seeding rates ranging from 110,000 to 150,000 in 15-inch rows.

“I think many farmers are afraid of lowering soybean populations, but we think we can reduce seed costs and increase yields with lower seeding rates where it’s appropriate,” says Niese. Sunrise tests have shown that reducing seeding rates on more productive areas of fields are still viable without reducing yield, he notes. “Last year, in parts of one field, we were harvesting 100-bushel soybeans. We are trying to get to that 100-bushel mark across entire fields.”


Great years mask benefits

In both 2013 and 2014, Heepke’s main FieldScripts variable-rate test field has produced some of his top corn yields ever. In 2014, the 80-acre field averaged 215 bushels per acre, 35 bushels per acre above its long-term average.

Alternating variable-rate (28,000-38,000 seeds per acre) and flat-rate (33,000 seeds per acre) strips showed a 2-bushel-per-acre yield advantage for variable-rate seeding, about the same as in 2013.

“It wasn’t a huge difference, but in good years like we’ve had the past two years, everything works,” he says. “In a year like this, this would barely pay for itself. In a more difficult year, the advantage may be greater.”

With that in mind, Heepke hopes to continue to work with FieldScripts in 2015.

Heepke outfitted a new 24-row planter with Precision Planting hardware and software in 2013 to participate in the FieldScripts test program. He says the system, which includes wireless delivery of prescriptions to his monitor as well as wireless uploading of planting and harvest data, has worked well.

“I was very nervous about how all this new technology would work,” he says. “All of it talked together like they said it would. I am very satisfied with the customer service and how the equipment worked.”

Use the cloud to boost productivity

Wireless data transfer that captures planting and harvest data on the go increases productivity at both ends of the crop season, says Jeff Heepke, who farms near Edwardsville, Ill.

Wireless data transfer capabilities, which are being offered by more manufacturers, are built into the Precision Planting monitor system he purchased to participate in Monsanto’s FieldScripts trials. In both 2013 and 2014, his corn planters were pushing on-the-go information to cloud-based computer servers every 10 minutes. “When we used two planters in the same field, they shared information so that the row clutches shut off where the planters met,” he says.

Another plus: Outfitting his Case-IH combine with a compatible yield monitor allowed harvest data to be captured wirelessly as well, which helped determine fall fertilizer applications.

More VR options from Encirca Yield

After pilot-testing its variable-rate Encirca Yield nitrogen-management service with more than 100 growers on about 50,000 acres in 2014, DuPont Pioneer will offer the service to all comers across the Corn Belt in 2015.

In addition, beta tests of new variable-rate phosphorus and potassium management services, as well as variable-rate seeding recommendations, will be in the field in 2015.

“As we pull together more variable-rate management capabilities based on unique management zones within each field, the benefit to the producer could add up to $50-100 per acre,” says Joe Foresman, Pioneer Encirca Services.

Foresman notes that all Encirca Yield variable-rate management services are based on proprietary soil mapping units called Environmental Response Units (ERUs). ERUs, which were developed in conjunction with University of Missouri and USDA soil scientists, are based on traditional soil surveys. They are bolstered with high-resolution elevation data and Pioneer-developed algorithms to define areas within fields that respond similarly to crop inputs.

By late fall 2014, Corn Belt farmers had enlisted more than 470,000 acres in the Encirca Yield nitrogen program for 2015. Although 2014 yield results from beta users were still being analyzed late in the year, Foresman says the beta users in 2013 – with one of the wettest Mays on record – “found an average $5 per acre benefit” from the program.

Pioneer began offering the phosphorus and potassium program in the fall of 2014. “Farmers we worked with this fall have really liked being able to quickly see whether the soil fertility in an ERU should be treated as an asset, or whether they should make an additional investment in fertility,” he says.

The Encirca Yield nitrogen program is priced at $10 per acre. The beta test phosphorus and potassium program is priced at $6 per acre. The new variable-rate seeding recommendation service – called Encirca Yield Stand – is priced at $4 per acre as a stand-alone purchase, but less when bundled with other Encirca Yield components.

In addition to providing variable-rate seeding recommendations, Encirca Yield Stand also uses planting priority tools and risk analysis to help growers make real-time adjustments if weather or other factors interfere.

Pioneer will continue to expand its online information platform in 2015, Foresman says. Its free Encirca View service, which allows customers to take geo-referenced, field-by-field crop notes, was downloaded about 12,000 times in 2014, and its use is expected to continue to grow. In 2015, Pioneer expects a significant increase in the 1,500 on-farm weather stations installed in 2014 by customers of Encirca View Premium, which provides field-by-field weather data plus local cash grain, wholesale diesel and fertilizer prices.


Monsanto focuses on simplicity, integration

After a second year of testing its FieldScripts variable-rate seeding prescription service in 2014, Monsanto plans to extend the test in 2015 with a goal of simplifying the amount of data growers must provide to generate solid variable-rate prescriptions.

“What we are working on for 2015 is simpler and less data-intense,” says Anthony Osborne, vice president of marketing for Climate Corp., Monsanto’s umbrella business that oversees Climate Corp., FieldScripts and Precision Planting. “The data requirements in 2014 were pretty significant. A lot of farmers didn’t have the yield history that allowed them to participate.”

Beyond 2015, FieldScripts will include new features that allow farmers to dial in their predictions for in-season weather, as well as the level of protection they prefer against production risks if growing conditions deviate from long-term norms, he says.

As in 2014, in 2015 FieldScripts will be limited to about 300 growers as the company further refines the prescription-writing software engine. Growers paid $10 per acre for the service in 2014. Prices for 2015 have not been set to date.

Monsanto is still crunching numbers on FieldScript yield performance in 2014. “Our customers were very satisfied with how prescriptions were delivered from a logistics standpoint, but with the way the harvest came in, we haven’t been able to quantify the number of bushels per acre FieldScripts added,” Osborne says.

FieldScripts is in the process of being integrated into the broader Climate Corp. service lineup. In 2014, that included Climate Basic, which provides online tracking of field-by-field precipitation, humidity, wind speed, radar, field workability and growth stage. For 2015, Climate Corp.’s advanced service, Climate Pro, also will be available. For $3 per acre, it includes features that track in-season N availability as well as in-season satellite imagery to assist with guided crop scouting.

“Our core strength is bringing in data, analyzing it and providing insights to farmers,” Osborne adds. “If we can help farmers plan for weather anomalies through more information and analytics, we can help them increase productivity.”

Long-term, he says Climate Corp. hopes to improve weather forecasts to help farmers to adjust cropping plans. “We have increased our investment in climatologists,” Osborne says. “We have to get better at predicting the weather and measuring its impact on the crop. In time, all this technology will get better.”


R7 Tool faster and friendlier for 2015

In 2014, WinField increased the frequency of in-season satellite imagery and added new map analysis capabilities to its R7 Tool. In 2015, it will focus on software upgrades that will make the online crop management tool faster, friendlier and available on a broader range of tablet computer platforms.

Also for 2015, a new grower version of the R7 Tools will provide access to some of R7’s capabilities to qualifying growers. “Our largest and most loyal customers have asked for this, and we are responding,” says Dave Gebhardt, director of data and technology for WinField. The grower R7, which will be available through participating co-ops and retailers, will include mapping functions and the ability to preview in-season imagery, but growers will continue to work through retail agronomists to develop field prescriptions.

Variable-rate seeding and/or fertilizer prescriptions were made on about 10% of the 17 million acres covered by the R7 Tool in 2014, Gebhardt says. He expects use of the R7 Tool to increase in 2015, in part because WinField is dropping the price for participating co-ops and retailers.

“Industry pricing of ag technology tools appears to be reduced for 2015, so the number of acres farmers enroll in R7 and other similar tools should increase,” he says.

The biggest change for the R7 Tool for 2015 is a rework of the software to enable access by virtually all mobile platforms, including Android and iPad tablets and mini-tablets. The mobile-enabled platform also will include access to more Answer Plot and tissue sampling data, which had been available only through the web-based version running on personal computers.

In 2015, WinField also will test a crop monitoring dashboard function that will allow agronomists to track multiple fields at a glance. “This will allow agronomists to get a snapshot of daily satellite imagery and identify fields that are performing poorer than expected and may require quick follow-up,” Gebhardt says.

In 2014, WinField dramatically increased availability of high-resolution, in-season crop imagery for targeted crop scouting, he says. In 2013, on average, six in-season images were provided for fields enrolled in WinField’s satellite imagery program. In 2014, that jumped to 11 images. “There are still places that didn’t have the success we wanted because of the weather,” Gebhardt says. “In 2015, we will continue to improve in-season satellite imagery performance.”

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