Ag Retailer Creates Tech Platform Tailored to Growers
March 22, 2019
John Blackwell wants a progressive, future-focused ag retailer who can make it easier to understand new products and services that may benefit his family’s Larned, Kansas, operation.
“We aren’t stupid, but sometimes some of this stuff gets a little above us, and we need a more professional opinion,” says Blackwell, who grows corn, soybeans, and wheat across 6,000 acres with brothers David Blackwell and Mike Yeager.
From its humble beginnings selling fuel in 1959, the Great Bend Co-Op has grown into a full service ag retailer the three men rely on for that insight. Today, the company not only includes eight fueling locations as well as 10 elevators but also offers agronomy and precision agriculture services.
PLOTTING A NEW COURSE
Yet, it wasn’t long ago that the cooperative realized it had to plot a new course to ensure that it continued to add value.
“After a meeting with WinField United, the Great Bend team members felt like they were so far behind when it came to decision ag services,” says Mark Bauer, who is a precision agriculture specialist. “They decided if they didn’t do something fast, other companies would come into their territory and offer these services to growers.”
In 2014, the co-op launched Decision Ag Services. With satellite imagery, variable-rate technology, and data collection, the team in Great Bend, Kansas, is using current technology to help the brothers be more profitable and sustainable.
Initially, this new segment of the business relied on the expertise of a consultant to get the program up and running and then handle all the fieldwork. A Great Bend employee sold the services.
Shortly after joining the co-op in 2016, Bauer brought all of the services in-house so the work could be done more timely and more efficiently. “It would also help ensure that we are truly the trusted adviser for the grower,” he says.
Once in-house, WinField’s R7 tool became the centerpiece of the program. In the beginning, the main focus was helping growers get the most out of the equipment they already owned.
“Many of our customers had combines set up to create yield maps, but not many took advantage of the maps,” Bauer explains. “Helping growers calibrate and understand those maps was the first step in making decisions and understanding the variability on their farms.”
As time progressed, that understanding of variability was used to move growers into zone management. “We might start by taking a field and treating it with zones built from satellite imagery and flat-rate the other half,” he says. “Using the yield data off of that field, we can show growers how cutting back or reallocating their inputs can really affect the bottom line.”
Providing growers with the latest technology means the cooperative is continually evaluating products to add to its toolbox. The first question Bauer asks when considering a new service or tool is how it benefits growers.
“If it can’t help a customer be more profitable, it won’t help us,” he says.
It must also be simple to use. And if there is an API connection to other programs or services it is offering, that means the flow of data is that much easier.
Farmobile and Climate FieldView met all three of those criteria. These tools make data management more streamlined because there’s no dealing with thumb drives or chasing down machines. “I also felt the revenue opportunity to sell data with Farmobile would be of value to some customers,” Bauer says.
Having the ability to benchmark hybrids and perform yield analysis with FieldView has been a great tool in helping its growers and its sales staff place hybrids on the correct acre. The tool is also used in the co-op’s research plots. “Being able to see hybrid/variety performance, yield relative to plant date, and other data points and then share that information digitally gives us a real advantage,” he says.
Although WinField’s Field Forecasting tool is relatively new to the team, demos to growers over the last couple of years have shown decent results. As they move forward and build more confidence, Bauer is convinced it will be a big part of nitrogen application decisions. “Having a tool that confidently models how the crop will react in certain conditions will be imperative to getting the most ROI possible,” he says.
Irrigated acres are a large portion of the cooperative’s business, and conserving water is always foremost in importance to growers. AquaSpy soil moisture probes help ensure they are using water as efficiently as possible.
Truterra from Land O’Lakes Sustain is another new product in its portfolio. “Being able to help growers see how conservation agronomy can help them be more profitable while being good stewards of the land will be crucial for the future,” says Bauer. “Truterra gives us the ability to show how different scenarios will affect a given piece of ground.”
Having a trusted expert who can help apply these products to a real problem and then offer the support needed – throughout the entire journey – is priceless for the three brothers.
“When you farm a field for 40 years, you know the good spots and the bad spots,” says Blackwell. “While we knew what each field yielded as a whole, we didn’t know what those specific areas were producing because we didn’t have a yield monitor in the combine.”
Incorporating Farmobile PUCs into their operation enables the brothers to more precisely track yields and share accurate data seamlessly with their crop insurance agent.
“If we are only able to plant 130 acres of a 150-acre field, I don’t want to pay insurance on acres we didn’t plant,” says Blackwell. “This technology helps us verify those planted acres.”
Because Great Bend is equipping its sprayers with PUCs, the brothers will be able to overlay their yield maps on the application maps so they can make better informed management decisions based on this valuable information.
With growers laser-focused on making it through the season with black ink on their bottom lines, Great Bend continues to tailor its offerings.
“Our services were being offered à la carte, and growers were asking about a bundled precision program,” says Bauer. “I asked growers what they wanted to see in a bundled service. After several discussions, I learned they wanted the option of a multiyear program because it meant fewer decisions they had to make every year.”
In spring 2018, the Premier Acre Program was launched. “We believe with the tools and services we offer, along with our knowledge, we can help give growers the best chance to be as profitable as possible,” he says.
TECH TIP: UNDERSTANDING OWNERSHIP
When it comes to technology, a critical area of concern for precision agriculture users is understanding who owns what data. Contracts with precision agriculture vendors may change data ownership and impact the privacy of data to which farmers believe they have exclusive rights. Understanding these contracts is critical for securing farm data.
BETTER MANAGING MACHINES
As agriculture continues to expand how it tracks every pass in the field, ag retailers are equipping their fleets with technology to improve efficiency.
“Ag retailers are sitting on mounds of data from their equipment that could be used to improve their operations and offerings to farmers,” says Jason Tatge, CEO of Farmobile.
By installing Farmobile PUCs on its liquid and dry applicators, Great Bend Co-Op is able to see in real time where a machine is running and how much that machine has left to apply, which is helpful to its dispatcher.
“It also gives us a chance to have a record of every application we make to solve any complaints we may have,” says Mark Bauer, precision ag specialist at the co-op’s Great Bend, Kansas, location.
With a data strategy that ensures interoperability and transparency, the co-op is taking its business to new heights. “By leveraging the power of data and machine learning to make more accurate prescriptions, Farmobile will allow an ag retailer to use less materials yet earn the same revenue,” says Tatge.