The more we move along with the changes of our times, the more we understand that there is no exact destination, only a journey. Host Todd Steinacher greatly believes in this, standing by how modern agriculture is on this ever-moving digital journey, and everyone is simply at a different stage or point of that. He brings to the show the Eastern digital ag field specialist with AgriGold, Jason Carey, to help take us into a deep dive into the digital journey of the agriculture industry. Where is a good place to start moving digitally? What is data, and where do we need to focus? How can a yield map help you make better decisions? Jason answers these questions and more. Plus, he lets us in on a project they had on hybrid plots where they compare using weigh wagons versus digital optional loam.
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The Digital Journey Of Modern Agriculture With Jason Carey
My yearbook quote from high school was, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a flat tire and a broken fan belt.” In farming, we tend to have similar challenges. I’d like to take a deeper dive, not about digital ag or specifically precision ag, but a digital journey. I say journey because it is a digital destination that suggests we have arrived or will arrive. I don’t think in modern ag, there is a destination, but there is a journey and everyone is at a different stage or point of their journey. Sometimes it’s important to understand where we are at so we know where to go.
I’d like to introduce our guest, Jason Carey. Jason is an Eastern digital ag field specialist with AgriGold. In this role, Jason supports customers, key account specialists, and agronomists in East of the Mississippi River with anything dealing with digital ag. Jason has been with AgriGold for years, three of those in a direct sales role as a key account specialist, and the last years were in his digital role. Jason graduated from Purdue University where he studied Ag Business Management and Ag Systems Management. Jason is also a certified crop advisor and a certified precision ag specialist.
Jason, welcome to the show. We’ll dive right into it from a digital standpoint. In your opinion, if a grower reading this whether they’re still in the field, sitting at home, driving tractors, what is their digital fit? It seems like there are many different pieces of digital out there. How does somebody know where they need to start and where they need to take this piece?
Thanks for having me, Todd. I liked the way you lay it out. It’s a digital journey. The way I like to think about it is cellphones. Some of this newer generation did but I know myself, you, our grandparents, and parents didn’t start with an iPhone. It was a flip phone, one of the Nokia bricks, and have gradually moved to the iPhone stuff a little more advanced. We have to look at digital ag that way. It used to be called precision ag. This part of the industry has a lot of buzzwords.
We started with precision ag and we’ve moved to digital ag, which to me means we were so focused on the precision aspect of putting the right product where it needs to go and focused on a variable rate. I am dialing down to things like RTK, autosteer, that kind of stuff and we’ve expanded to digital. To me, digital ag is looking at all the data available to us in the industry whether that’s the weather data, soil data, hybrid information, or plot data, and putting that all together to make some more informed and more confident decisions. That could be a digital fit for somebody. It’s looking at some predictive weather data like we offer and how can that help make my decision.
Part of my job and the real part that I have a lot of passion for is learning about customer’s operations, looking at their needs, and deciding their fit. Some people like to jump in with two feet, go full board to multi-hybrid planner, something with M sets, and start out that way. That’s okay. If you’re ready to make that investment, you’ve done that research, we want to help you. I wrote on the seed side to help you make those decisions, but then others aren’t as comfortable with technology. They’re looking for ways to get there. We can start to take some baby steps, for example, a growth stage calculator in our program, Advantage Acre. It simply looks at GDUs of the product you’re planting, you’re planting date, and gives you some predictions on when that product is going to mature or when it’s going to reach certain growth stages.
That’s a digital touch but it doesn’t require a whole lot of investment and tech-savviness that gets you involved down that path. Some of the things I often look for are, what’s your equipment set up? Do you have the capabilities to dive in and do some of these things? Some other things are how comfortable are you technology-wise? Do you have somebody on the operation that is ready that would be comfortable owning this aspect of your farm? Whether that’s a son or daughter coming back to the farm, a hired partner, or a trusted agronomist that you work with on the farm that could own this.
Another thing I ask is, what kind of relationships do you have in your area or with the companies you’re already working with? Do they have some experts on this stuff? That’s where I fit in for AgriGold. If our sales reps got a customer that needs digital assistance, I like to be that expert and help them find their fit, whether it’s one of our programs works great. If it’s something else out in the industry that I have knowledge of that I feel will fit them better, that’s great for me too. Your equipment dealer, do they have somebody knowledgeable on the precision side of things? Can they help you navigate some of those questions you may have?
In the digital world space, there’s software and hardware for every little piece and facet, but you made one interesting piece as related to the GDU tracker, a digital touch. Depending on where you’re at in your journey, maybe you don’t want to dive all the way in but you want to make some slightly better decisions for your crop. I liked how you referenced that as a digital touch. It gives a grower the opportunity to see how technology can help them make better decisions. To be quite honest, working with growers, I use that digital tool for the GDU tracker and helping to understand not necessarily when to plant because we’re going to plant when the opportunity is there, whether it’s going to be 7 or 14 days before the corn seed comes up.
The next question is, by planting early with this information, what type of risk is associated with this crop? If you are going to do an in-furrow or 2×2, how long will some of that starter fertilizer be there? If we’re following the planter with the herbicide application, we know that herbicides break down sunlight organic matter. How much of that is going to be there for when aggressively growing water hemp is going to be emerging? These touches can help provide a lot of information and insight to make decisions. I greatly appreciate you bringing that up. The other one I liked was you reference it to cell phones. I still work with some good growers who still have the old school flip phone.
It’s hard for some people who have a comfort level for that flip phone versus going to a smartphone, but I found when guys do make the jump to the smartphone, they’re like, “I can get my email on this. I can get the weather on this. I can get these deals on it.” Sometimes we’re standing at the edge of the cliff and we don’t want to jump, but once we jump, we’re like, “This is great.” Have you had any experiences with growers who were at that ledge that scared to jump but they did it and they enjoyed it on the backside. Do you have any stories that you could tell us about that?
Most of those on the edge and then a real excitement after that are emotional reactions. One thing growers love and it’s probably the most popular thing in the industry is viewing data in a cab. Tools like Climate, MyJohnDeere, and Farmers Edge to name a few or regular yield monitor that comes in a combine or you’re monitoring the tractor. People love viewing that data in real-time whether it’s placing hybrids and what’s my simulation throughout this field. They’ll send pictures of it at 99.8%. They’re freaking excited about it doing so well. For yield data, you get the same thing. You had pictures of a product doing well or something is going wrong and there’s a problem there. Growers enjoy that instant reaction of, “How is my crop doing? How is this hybrid performing next to this hybrid?”
It’s a process to get them there to make the investment to have some of these technologies. It’s a learning curve. Adapting to setting up, “This is the field I’m harvesting. This is the field I need to select.” Once they get that gratification of viewing that information, it’s an instant emotional reaction. What’s cool is after the season. Once they have all that data collected and in an organized fashion, they can start to make some decisions off of it. That’s where I see the light bulb go off. There are a lot of growers that I’ve worked with through the past that get set up with this kind of technology.
We think that gets them over that cliff. They get that instant emotional reaction, but then they don’t follow that up to using that data looking through it to see how products perform in certain areas. They’re doing a side-by-side trial if you’re talking about starter fertilizer. Those types of technologies are great to track trials and to follow those up at the end of the year to see what exactly happened here and why did it happen. That’s where I get the reaction that keeps them hooked and keeps them coming back year-to-year. It does take some investment to go through that data. You start getting on some of these larger operations. There’s a lot of fields, information, and hybrids. It takes some investment from them to get to that point where they do see that payoff.
You led into a good segment of the topic. It seems like any time there’s a fertilizer rate going across, we’ve got a stall sampling crew, planting, spraying, and harvesting. Now, we’ve got aerial drones and imaging. We get the word use route data. Data is being collected. Can you tell us what is data? How it’s being collected and what forms of data do we need to be focusing on?
It’s all around us now. We’ve got sensors in our home. It tells us when the door is open. We’ve got motion cameras on the outside of different places, all kinds of stuff. If you think about it, that’s data. One of the most popular systems is a Ring Alarm System whether it’s a camera or on the doors. I have it on the doors and windows at my house. If one of those sensors is tripped, that’s a data point. It’s similar in agriculture. We’re collecting data points, whether it’s in a combined monitor. If we go to the animal side of the industry, there’s sensors and trackers on livestock that growers can then use QR codes to pull up all their history and medical information. That’s all data.
If we want to get real nerdy and interesting here, there’s metadata inside of data point which is the details of that data. If you take a yield point, it has a latitude, longitude, date tied to it, and time, all kinds of information. There’s moisture, wet weight, dry weight, and all kinds of stuff is in that one data point. It’s easy to see how we can quickly become bogged down on this side of the industry. That’s why it’s important to find the right fit of what platforms simplify that to help me get to the conclusions I want to be. You need help to do that. We hope that we provide in this industry the help to take all that information digest it to make some decisions off of it.
Some of the data points that people may want especially if they’re starting out. The first is to start tracking where you’re placing products. When I was in my direct selling role to a customer and it was a trial, I was trying to get on their farm and I asked them, “Once we get to harvest, where do you place those twelve bags?” They didn’t necessarily remember. They had a good idea of what field it was in but they don’t know exactly where it was. They said, “It did okay compared to what I was next to.” I understand that from the aspect of springtime. It was good weather, they were busy, and plant it. It’s hard to keep that information.
With some of these technologies, it makes it a lot easier in cab to record where things are and then makes you more efficient throughout the end of the year when you look at results to see how products did. The first one is recording that information of the initial planting layer and then also harvest data. I usually tell people if you don’t have both, you’re not going to get a whole lot out of it. Having harvest data is okay, you can see how something did but unless you have that layer to compare it to from the beginning, you’re not going to get as good of information and insights as you can. Those are the first two data points. Another one is not necessarily needed the digital industry to look at but that’s basic soil information.
SSURGO data was a dataset created many years ago. It never intended to do precision ag and to get precise but it’s still a good dataset to get our baseline information of, what’s my soil types organic matter? You can then take that a step forward with something functional soil mapping which we offer through Advantage Acre which take your several data, applies topography, and the way water functions across your soils, and gives you a little bit more in-depth functional map. You can take that a step further with some other soil information like basic soil testing and some of the other technologies out there like Verus. You can get in-depth with the soil information, but I tell people, “Start with that basic SSURGO information because that’s going to get your drainage and that kind of stuff.”
The first one is soil data, having the baseline of how a field is going to perform and how it may function. Have a planting layer or as an applied layer so we can record what we’re putting down, where that’s at, how different decisions may affect their outcome, and then your yield data so you can analyze those decisions. Those are the three that I would say to get started out with and to get rolling down this process.
That’s a great insight there, Jason. It’s important to start with that soil data. In modern days, we don’t focus a lot agronomically on soil anymore. It seems like some good agronomy has left the decision table. From a seed standpoint, we could take the best hybrid and put it into the wrong scenario of a field setting and have somewhat of a disaster. All that could go back to water-holding capacity, how well these lower lining areas are impacting root systems in certain hybrids that can’t handle wet feet, or we have hybrids now that are nitrogen faux because they want nitrogen season long and late season. We’ve got certain fields that have low lining areas or heavy water-holding capacity. We might not be able to have that supply when we need it. To me, knowing our soils and placing hybrids right is a huge step. I’m very glad that you highlighted that one.
Another one I forgot to mention is your satellite imagery whether that’s NDVI or true color information. It’s something that’s simple to get if you’re working with these different platforms. Some satellite imagery got a bad rep in a lot of things in the precision or digital space. Sometimes they get high expectations to be tell-all, be-all. We can’t look at these tools that way. They all work together to help us evaluate things throughout the season. I like satellite imagery from the standpoint throughout the summer. It gives me a gauge of how a crop may be doing or where my problem areas are in a field.
You have to couple that with scouting to go see why there may be a difference out there. Those types of maps aren’t always direct correlations to yield, but they’re often close. One interesting way I’ve used satellite imagery was helping one of our customers, our yield masters, with his NCJ entry. We had a field he wanted to harvest. He had some areas blocked off of where he wanted to pull his entry from. We use satellite imagery to see where those better areas look like from the map. We went out to scout those areas and that gave him a playbook on where he wanted to look at potentially pulling his entry from, where he wanted to do his skips over, however many rows over. I’m not well versed in that type. You can probably tell how many passes you have to skip over. It gave us another tool to build that playbook before he went out to pull that entry and hopefully, made him more confident.
I want to hit from a yield map standpoint. It seems like a lot of growers are using them. We’ve got a lot of insight from them. Most growers have been using yield maps for quite some time, but I can still remember agronomists that trained me once. He jokingly said that from an accounting standpoint, his customers didn’t know where to put the cost associated with the GPS puck, yield monitor to the digital screen, because they weren’t doing anything with it. They didn’t know whether it should go under the parts and services or entertainment, because it was mapped. They got some enjoyment out of it for a while, but eventually, they threw it off to the side and didn’t do much with it. We spent all this time grabbing data and we have a yield map that gives our scorecard for the season. What can somebody do with that scorecard or that yield map to make better decisions for the coming years?
We often get bogged down with so much yield data. Through Climate or MyJohnDeere, you’re getting deal maps. One thing I told the growers not to do is, “Do not stop at that summary that shows you all your hybrids, your farm average, and then gives you a rank of your hybrids. That’s great information and a great way to boil it down.” The story necessarily doesn’t stop there. We need to dive into what fields does that product in, how many acres of that product did I plant, or did one product rise to the top because I was doing some fertilizer trial that was successful on that product. Make sure you’re considering other variables when looking at that summary sheet. The better answer to your question is I would look at yield data with a variable in mind.
I want to see how this particular hybrid performed or look at why didn’t this hybrid perform as expected and then start to build on, what fields was it in? What kind of soils did it go across in these different fields? Was there a weather impact? Was there something different I did with my fertility program? We have to simplify it by thinking of variable whether it’s hybrid or planting date. I’ve got to grower work in Northern Indiana. Half of his farm is North of Highway 24 and half of it is South. For some reason, every year, the Southern farms get more rain than the Northern farms.
When we looked through his yield data, that’s always something he points out that South of the farm seems to get more rainfall every year. You can’t look at your yield data as summary in that rank of hybrids and stop there because you may be making some decisions that aren’t necessarily true. Break it down to the field level, product, or a decision you made that was different for that year. Once you do that as you’re comparing apples to apples, that’s when you can start to rank those hybrids out.
That’s an awesome information, Jason. That leads us to another interesting topic. Over the last couple of years, the agronomy team along with the digital ag specialists have been working on projects trying to validate from understanding performances of hybrids and plots whether still using weigh wagons versus a digital optional loam to validate a lot of this. A good information came out of it. If you could hit some of the highlights as growers are deciding how to use technology to pick hybrids that they’re going to deploy on large acres of their farm in the future. Tell us a little bit about that summary from that project.
We had a project where we looked at our hybrid plots. We wanted to compare if we collected data digitally. That’s with a regular monitor and the CAD, through Climate Field View, or MyJohnDeere, compare to the old fashioned method of weigh wagons. We went through this process a couple of years ago where we were optimistic we can get rid of weigh wagons away buggies and not have to haul those all over the countryside and take the time to weigh plots. What we found is that may have been a little overzealous, not quite so true as we compared these two methods. The main point is we took all of our plots and we compare it digitally using the weigh wagon.
The weigh wagon was 4.3 bushels higher, which you may think, 4.3 bushels is not that much. As you said, when you’re making decisions on hybrid and products you put across your farm, that could be a significant difference. The other thing and the most important factor that stood out to me was once we did that, we started to rank all of our hybrids. We ranked them if they were harvested digitally or if we weigh them with the weigh wagon, what was number 1 through 10? The most alarming part to me is the rank changed between the two methods.
That could be because of test weigh of how the seeds hitting that plate in a combine when you’re weighing it digitally compared to being weighed and taking a test weigh sample. Could it be more sure of differences? There could be many factors. Oftentimes, when you’re talking to growers and you’re talking about calibration or let’s weigh that side-by-side. The answer you often get is it’s all relative. It’s off for every hybrid or across the whole farm. What we found is that may not necessarily be true and that’s why we feel calibration is important when you’re changing crops, when conditions change, or moisture levels are drastically changed. When we looked at that rank of hybrids, it changed significantly.
The top five, only two of them were the same and the other three of the top five were different. That could give you some false information, especially when you’re deciding products to put across a lot of acres on your whole farm. I will mention, hybrid pods aren’t full header width. We play hybrids in 4 or 6 rows, different things like that. We did break it out to see what was the difference between those two and the full header width was only about 1.5 bushels difference and the partial width was about six. We did see a difference there so that does have an impact but we still don’t want to be going forward looking at harvesting hybrid plots without weighing them because we want to make sure we’re doing the best we can to use the tried and true method to make those decisions and collect that information.
I have a lot of conversations with growers on this specific topic. I’m glad we took the time to go through this and provide the information. At the end of the day, we use this information to select hybrids for profitability moving forward. It bothers me when we use information, not to the highest degree or the most accurate data to make those decisions because we want our customers to be successful the best we can. That was on the harvest so we’ll back up in the season to think about from a planting standpoint. There’s a lot of talk around varying populations throughout a field or even varying the hybrid across the field. What’s your take on those topics?
That’s a hot topic. I like both methods in the right situation. That’s where it goes back to finding your digital fit. Do I have a need for varying populations if I’ve got one soul thrives through the field, and it’s pattern tiled consistent across the whole field? Most likely not and they think it can be set for varying my hybrid across that field. There are a lot of situations where those two factors can be a tool for your yield master journey. That goes back to finding your fit, what are my needs, seeing varying populations and different soil types, elevation changes, and how water affects this certain field.
It also goes back to hybrid which is where AgriGold comes in to help with that conversation. We’re seeing an advantage there and that’s something we continue to test year-over-year. We’re testing again in 2020. We’ve got digital trials out doing a fixed rate strips versus variable rate strips. Multi-hybrid is the next step for those growers that have varying soil types and conditions in different fields. If we think about that, as an agronomist talk, different products, they’re fit, what we’re looking for, whether it’s different characteristics on drought or soil types. This is a better ground hybrid or a rougher ground hybrid, those types of things.
With multi-hybrid planting, we don’t have to do that by field. We don’t have to do that farm-by-farm. We can do that down to the field level or soil level. That takes us to the next step. I’ve got growers I work with on that aspect that I’ve seen a big bushel swing between their offensive and defensive areas. I like that, but that comes with an investment to get started with that program and we understand that. That’s why it’s important. As we talked about earlier, have those local contexts whether it’s through precision, equipment dealer, or me if you’re working with AgriGold or Alison Hartstack who’s my counterpart in the West.
Let’s look at your farm if we see this as being an advantage there. Also, hit on soybeans real fast. There’s a big advantage even more so over the corn to variable rates soybeans. If you think about it, it makes sense. With soybeans, we’re making larger swings in population. It’s a larger amount of seed whether we’re going from 175,000 down to 100,000, we can start to pinpoint our better ground areas, lower that population, and still have the same yield levels or a yield advantage. We’re also saving a lot more on seed costs.
If somebody was thinking about taking a deeper dive to the digital journey, what are some general recommendations that you would say between now and planting next spring, here are some goals and some tasks for you to start investigating?
I’m glad you said that between now and spring because it’s always important with this set to start early. Let’s not wait until March to try to get some of this setup. Let’s think of these as winter projects. The first thing I do, if you know a grower in your community that’s doing some of this stuff, talk to them. Oftentimes, growers get better and truthful information from their peers. If you’ve got a good relationship with them, ask them how it helped their farm and if it’s something they enjoy. There’s no way around it. You got to do your research on this stuff whether that’s online or talking to somebody. The next step is let’s look at your equipment and see what’s compatible with what you already have because from there, we can start to talk about something like, “A Climate Field View is compatible here. You’re set up to do variable rate planting, why aren’t you doing that yet? We can use Advantage Acre to help you get some wrecks and do some tests on a field or two to see if you see an advantage to variable-rate planting.”
Let’s look at your compatibility. If you’re not compatible to do those things, you’re interested in, let’s start looking at some cost and investment to get you where you need to be to try out some of these technologies. We always encourage growers to get in touch with their equipment dealers because they’re the experts on the equipment. Let’s find who they have, their digital expert, and make sure we have a conversation with them as well. I’ve got examples. I’ll go with the grower. If I’ve got a good relationship, I’ll set it up with the dealer, we’ll all meet together, and talk about what our goals are from the seed side and helping them do. The equipment dealer can then tell us what’s possible and what it will take from there.
Do your research whether it’s through your peers online. Let’s check your equipment and see what you’re compatible to do. Talk to those representatives from those companies, whether it’s equipment, dealer, precision planting if you’re looking into getting into the hardware space. I’ll turn it back to where we started, Todd. Don’t be afraid to start taking some of those baby steps. In Advantage Acre, we’ve got our eleven-month forecast or weather timeline and we can start doing some predictions of what next year looks like. We can look at the next growing season as we sit here and we can do some of those GDU calculations, and growth stage calculations. Those are some baby steps we can start doing to get you more comfortable with some of this technology.
As I sit back, reflect on our talk, and we’re moving forward, every acre is challenged to produce more bushels. Every farmer is challenged to produce more bushels as well, profitably. As the markets are more challenging and volatile, we need to make higher-level decisions that can positively influence yield. Whether it’s understanding our soils or the limitations of our soils but collecting data and how we can make better decisions. That starts with understanding where we’re at in our journey and where we want our journey to go. Once you have those two, you can start understanding what questions to ask people. You can start figuring out what type of products I need and what type of information I need to collect.
To me, it sets the stage for collecting data to make better decisions moving forward. This episode is not necessarily about a digital ag or precision ag, but that digital journey. Everybody has a digital journey because there is no destination. If you’re going from no yield monitor to a yield monitor, you’re not going to stop there. If you’re going from a flat rate to multiple populations and hybrids, I guarantee it, your destination is not going to stop there. You’re going to keep ongoing. Hopefully, this episode has opened some opportunities and doors for you. If you have questions and answers about your digital journey, as long as you’re within the footprint of AgriGold, feel free to reach out to us. We’ve got two great digital ag specialists on staff, as well as the agronomy team in our cast who is willing and able to help out on your journey. Jason, I would like to thank you for your information and good luck with the rest of your season.
Thank you, Todd. I think you wrapped that up well. If you’ve got trouble piecing together how this digital journey makes sense and fits together, reach out to us. We can help you piece that together and get you on your way.