Investing in another set of eyes

Finding the right digital tool for your operation

By Colleen Halpenny

In a digital-driven age, companies continue to invest in software upgrades to bring more information back to producers from the field. Through satellite imagery, integrated planting, and harvest data, there are more analytics available than ever before.

However, much like buying a vehicle, there is no one-size-fits-all option. We spoke with producers and agronomists to find out the benefits of a variety of systems and how you could put them to work on your operation.

How they work

Kael Briggs, Xarvio commercial manager for BASF Canada, explains that these tools are crop optimization platforms. Systems will focus on your field-level organization and overall growing throughout the season.

“These are here as an aid to keep growers analyzing fields to make sure crops are on target for their growth stage. The goal is to help improve management practices, which in turn increases yields,” says Briggs.

Collecting weekly data through satellite imagery, your crop is continuously monitored for growth, challenges, and how your yields are shaping up.

Initializing your crop with variety, plant date, location, and soil types, the software of your program will then benchmark growth against the growing season.

comparison of field yield maps
    Pioneer's Granular program takes the guesswork out of scouting fields. - Pioneer photo

For Paul Hermans, area agronomist for Eastern Ontario with Pioneer, their flagship program Granular is designed to take the guesswork out of scouting fields and assist producers in identifying problem areas with increased speed.

“The ability to monitor your entire operation anytime, anywhere through the satellite imagery keeps our customers linked in. Starting with planting, we really want to give producers as much of a positive start as possible,” says Hermans.

Hermans explains that Granular allows you to not only enter your plant date and field location, but can scan the bag tags and planter type to report back the best planting rates based on how the seed size has been drawn through the planters.

What they deliver

Thomas Harrington, agriculture technology specialist with Perennia Food and Agriculture in Nova Scotia, is currently focused on weather intelligence projects to assist producers in their decision-making throughout the growing season.

Harrington works with sensors which monitor irrigation and soil moisture in real time. He explains that in combination with the weather station data, this gives better reporting for optimal spraying, risk potentials and when to watch for pests.

“Previously all this monitoring was done manually, which was not only time-consuming but hard to then translate across for farmers. Now that we can monitor in real time with better software, we are seeing the results come back and being implemented much faster.

“The speed in getting these reports back is the best way producers can get that return on investment,” he says.

Briggs shares that producers should spend time with the imagery prior to spraying. BASF Field Manager software will, based on the most recent biomass picture, identify the highest areas in the field to give growers the option to target fungicide applications.

“The software considers your plant date, crop variety, current biomass, and what the ideal spray timing and weather should be. We’re really looking to guide clients to make best-informed decisions on spray times so the most efficient uptake of the product will occur,” says Briggs.

From the satellite imagery throughout the growing season, weekly emails are sent to give plant health updates across your field. Pioneer’s Granular then establishes scout priorities to assist in time management and identify those areas which need more focus.

Hermans advises clients to head to those sections of your high, medium, and low index areas and take advantage of their yield estimator. Through your camera, the app uses artificial intelligence technology to take up to eight photos of corn cobs to deliver an estimate within the minute.

“It’s great to see the confidence customers have on their yield before the harvester even drives in. Especially for those who are looking to contract some yield, this gives an additional layer of confidence as you go to lock in selling volumes,” says Hermans.

User reports

“There are so many products on the market, preference is definitely individual for what works on your operation and with your goals in mind,” says Michael Zilke, a cash crop operator from Woodstock, Ont.

For Zilke, who first worked with Climate FieldView and has since switched to Granular as it complements their Pioneer crop lineup, they find having the additional eyes on every field a great benefit for those times you can’t physically get to the fields themselves.

“The priority and colour coding makes it easy for everyone to get the same information at the same time. But, in those areas which are marked low or troubled, you still need to go to the field to identify the why of the challenge,” he says.

Trevor Calvert runs a rotation of fall rye, peas, wheat, canola, edible beans and sunflowers over 6,000 acres just outside of Douglas, Man. Having previously worked for an agriculture co-op, he returned home to the farm full-time in 2019.

“I’ve worked with a variety of platforms before, but even now am struggling to make the price justifiable. The satellite imagery is a useful tool, but you still need to go walk the field. They can’t yet identify the why of the problem,” says Calvert.

In a time when input prices have increased exponentially, Calvert acknowledges that this is an area that is easy to cut on cost.

Wyrich Farms in Oakbank, Man. is run by Dan Wyrich and his brother. Even with 5,000 acres to keep track of, Wyrich has continued to put his time into his basic on-farm recordkeeping and notepad in the cab.

“We ran into software issues, and during the busy times of the year it was hard for me to validate extra hours dedicated to a program compared to time in the field. We also run a variety of equipment brands, so finding a system that could talk to each piece of machinery was another hurdle,” says Wyrich.

farmer looking at his mobile phone
    Jodie Aldred photo

“Between the weather apps, mould and spore forecasts, pest identifier from OMAFRA, and spray health apps, I’m spending anywhere from eight to 10 hours a day on my phone,” says Darcy Smith, owner of Laurentian Valley Grains in Pembroke, Ont.

For Smith, it’s about the balance of finding extra time in the day for data entry. Acknowledging the roadblock isn’t so much the user friendliness of the software, as much as entering the data correctly and on time.

Having additional employees to train on software can also be a challenge. Smith shares that he keeps the notebook in his head always running, so while he may be planting and entering data on Field B, he’s also then catching up for Field H which a team member planted last week.

“Our employees all wear two hats. They can be a driver and mechanic, or a driver and excavator. But we’re getting to the point where if the farm continues to grow, I need to find someone who is a driver and very IT-savvy. Having someone who is literate in that computer and coding world to solve some of those data-entry holdups would definitely improve what we may be able to utilize from the tools,” says Smith.

For Calvert, Smith, Wyrich and Zilke, they all agree that the sprayer is the one job they won’t give up. Ability to cover each field corner to corner, visualize problem areas, and be up front and centre with the crop continues to be their best source of crop data.

Next steps

Hermans says that the technology is about more than an aerial view of the field. Instead, view it as a way to keep everyone on your team in the loop. Question what you are seeing in the field, and what you can do about it.

“With the amount of investment that companies continue to put into the software, we recognize that we need to adapt and use it more effectively. Having everyone on the same page and streamlining communications on what happens next for the crops is going to be a big time-saver. When you can have the whole fleet integrated, syncing back to the main office and having those data transfers happen instantly to your phone, making those increased accuracy decisions should lead to better end yields in the future,” says Smith.

Briggs knows many can’t see the value in the digital software right away. Instead, he suggests, “stick with the programs through the end of the season, take the data and analyze and compare your gains and losses across varieties. These tools aren’t just about how much you might bank at the end of the season, but how much time you save throughout the year while still being able to make accurate and decisive decisions on your fields.

“What is an hour of your time worth? Our goal is to make the lives and decisions of growers easier. You already have the support of your agronomist – these platforms can help you add another layer of data and decision drivers when the season gets busy.”

Zilke appreciates the integrated operating centre of their mainly John Deere lineup. Being able to visualize what was planted, the variety types, and spray data all tracked and recorded straight from the cab.

“At harvest, we then enter the field data into the combine so we can see those variety differences in real time as we take them off. There’s good and bad to all systems – it’s finding what works best for your individual setup,” he says.

drone flying in sky
    Drones have multiple uses, Harrington says. - Olha/ photo

Harrington suspects that the abilities of drones to scout and capture more up-close views of the fields will become more and more popular in the years to come.

“Drones can be used for so much more than just an overhead picture. You can capture normalized difference vegetation indexes to compare treatments, site evaluations to gather elevation maps and overlay with ground collection data, and obviously cover those larger parcels effectively while getting that up-close view of the plant and what it’s experiencing.

“Industry standards have come a long way as well in working to have more brands be able to communicate across these systems.

“We are moving away from those producers who have 12 years of harvest data on the combine monitor but never pull the SD card to integrate it with the other system results,” he says.

Briggs and Hermans both agree that the industry wants to deliver the easy button for producers. They feel that these systems are continuously making advancements toward better and more useful reporting, and hope producers know the value of the agronomy scout in their back pocket. BF

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