Validating Variable Rate

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In a tight farm economy, many growers are searching for ways to cut costs and limit investment in new systems, such as variable rate. However, others are moving forward and even expanding their VR strategies — locking in significant savings along the way.

When Terry Aberhart ran the numbers on a 200-acre field he harvested last fall, a smile spread across his face.
The Langenburg, Saskatchewan farmer and Agri-Trend Agri-Coach farmed 40 fewer acres on this 200-acre field, and pocketed an additional $2,800. Hard to believe? Read on. Indeed, it is possible to farm 20 percent less land and make more money.
His secret? Profit Maps, which overlay three key measurements — cost per acre, yield per acre and estimated price, to reveal average profit per acre.
“The big thing is that when you do them, you see the acres you’re losing money on so you can take them out of production,” says Aberhart, who creates his Profit Maps using Agri-Data Solution.

In this example, Aberhart took 40 acres, out of production in a 200-acre field. “We could see from using PowerZone and the Profit Maps that some areas of the field were not very productive,”
he explains. “Also, those same areas were a big nuisance to farm — either they took longer to dry out, there was a big risk of equipment getting stuck or it was something else. In each case, there was an impediment.”
Instead, he opted to put those low-producing areas into hay so they would generate some revenue, while producing fewer headaches. “It’s about letting go of acres that are costing you money to farm. This is the first time I’ve quantified it with a dollar value, so now we will be evaluating all the fields on the farm.”

The benefits are threefold, he says: better returns, less wear and tear on equipment and from an environmental standpoint, less stress on the soil. “These were areas that are waterlogged at times and by continuing to farm them, by not getting them drained, we aren’t improving the issue,” he adds. “And it doesn’t make sense to me from environmental standpoint to be putting fertilizer, chemicals or seed on this land.”

Profit Maps are based on yield maps, generated when the combine monitor captures detailed information, which is linked to GPS coordinates, to help growers better understand exactly what the field produced.
Yield encapsulates several factors, including weather, seed, fertilizer, and crop protection decisions as related to the crop. It is vital information— but it is not the entire story.
That’s because yield alone fails to tell farmers what it took to reach that yield. In some cases, a lower yield that is the result of lower input costs may actually make the farm more money than higher yields tied to high input costs.

Aberhart’s case study proves that Profit Maps help growers expand their view beyond just yield by adding crucial financial information to the equation, filling out the entire picture to reveal true profit.

Where Precision Ag Meets Variable Rate

When it comes to discussing precision ag and variable rate technology, the U.S. Director of the Agri-Trend Knowledge Team starts by challenging one of the most common myths in precision ag — i.e. that PA is the same as VRT. Precision management strategies may include Variable Rate Technology, but it’s only one aspect of the overall plan, says Markus Braaten.
Often in the agriculture industry, PA and VR are used interchangeably. Also, many growers assume that adopting a precision strategy means immediately switching to VR nitrogen, for example.
This may be the way to go, but first the grower must determine yield variability across the field, by answering the following questions:

-Does this field have significant yield variability?

-What’s driving that variability?

-What’s the most appropriate course of action to address this variability?

Until these questions are answered, it’s impossible to determine whether VR application will pay off. For example, maybe this analysis will reveal that a section of the field shouldn’t be farmed at all (as in Aberhart’s experience). In that case, VR would be a waste of money — but growers need some precision ag tools in order to come to this money-saving decision.
Ultimately, Braaten says understanding yield variability is key. If it ranges from 20 to 120 bu/ac across one field, precision ag strategies will pay off more than in a field where the yield variability is next to nil.
With limited time and resources, growers must make choices about when, where and how to use them. But in all cases, the effort extended on each zone will depend on its yield potential. Zones that could produce 160 bu/ac deserve more attention than those with a capacity to grow a 20 bu/ac crop regardless of interventions.

Easing into Variable Rate

According to Michael Martinez, Director of Marketing for Trimble Agriculture, recent surveys show that adoption of variable rate is approximately 30-35 percent in the U.S. Midwest, but much less than that across the country. “A lot of that has to do with the crop type and crop value,” says Martinez. “Farmers growing higher value crops may not be as financially constrained and thirsty to save 5-10% of their input costs by employing variable rate practices.”
He predicts the trend will continue to grow, as more and more farmers experience the financial benefits of variable rate.
“If they start by easing into it, they get hooked,” he notes. “They see what VR did to improve their bottom line and now they understand the systems needed to do it.”
Martinez says the key components to VR implementation include:

-VR Planning

-Precise Application

-Recording the Application

-Data Management System to Track Results

“Right now we’re working to tell the market that these systems are not that scary, they’re not that expensive,” says Martinez.
For growers wanting to ease into variable rate, Martinez recommends starting with some basic, entry-level hardware options that are easily scalable if the grower decides to move forward with a more comprehensive VR strategy.
For example, Trimble’s Field-IQ Crop Input Control System — which features variable rate application control— is an easy-to-install first step to VR, says Martinez. “That same system is then scalable if you want to add automatic section control, boom height control, and spinner speed control for applying multiple products with multiple rates,” he adds. “If someone wants to jump in, they probably want to see some sort of ROI and in order for that to happen you really need data management software. That’s where our Farm Works software and Connected Farm data management solution comes in,” says Martinez, adding that it allows growers to view and print maps with legends; build a list of clients, farms, fields, supplies, and other details; displays and prints guidance paths from supported precision farming devices; and is compatible with a wide range of precision farming displays.
The grower feeds his prescription into the Field-IQ system for application, and Connected Farm can then wirelessly send the application map back to the office where the farmer then has a record of what’s been applied, says Martinez. “Our connected farm system is tracking expenses as well, so you can see the field’s profit at the end of the day.”
Back in Langenburg, Saskatchewan, Aberhart acknowledges that some growers are still skeptical about the value of a variable rate strategy, but says they should keep an open mind.
“When we have the right zones and the program is backed by strong science and agronomic support, it is a very profitable endeavour and we are seeing results over the long term,” he says. “It’s important to measure these results over multiple years as every thing we do from a agronomic standpoint not only affects results in that year, but also many years to come — especially when it come to fertilizer applications.”

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