Nobody can be a true expert on everything, says Craig Houin, which is why heart surgeons don’t operate on brains and plumbers don’t lay foundations.
Houin helps lead the Sunrise Precision Solutions team, one of two divisions at Sunrise Cooperative based in Fremont and Piqua, Ohio, specializing in different facets of agronomy. He says that precision agriculture and customer service complement each other, but separating them lets each type of agronomist focus on what they do best.
The Sunrise Precision Solutions team is dedicated to using technology, like Winfield's R7 Tool, to analyze crop data and prescribe planting strategies for members. The team also manages the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program that uses data to monitor fertilizer application and prevent nutrient runoff into Ohio’s fresh water, halting the formation of harmful algae blooms.
The department’s other team, headed by Vice President of Sales, Bill Bever, is comprised of Agronomy Solutions Advisors (ASA), who are in close contact with producers and act as consultants of agronomy inputs. The teams are like two heads of the same beast—they are most effective when working together. Precision staff use info gathered by the ASAs to make prescriptions, and the ASAs use the data from the precision team to find out what products will work best in a given field.
The perks of precision
The best technology in the world is useless if you can’t use it, and few agronomists understand precision software like Craig Houin, who says he’s been using and testing parts of Winfield’s R-7 tool, a software suite that pulls data from satellite imagery and indexes on plant data, for years.
Houin and his team use the data to break growers’ plots into variable rate management zones, in which each field is managed according to individualized plans that maximize yield.
Houin says growers will approach him, explaining that one field or area of their land yields less than the rest. Houin can use the R-7 tool to look at historical imagery on that area, comparing its yields over several years and accounting for changes in weather, crop, seed varieties and inputs.
For example, the data may reveal that the soil in the problem area is inherently less productive. Houin can then advise producers to plant fewer seeds in that area, so that each seed absorbs more nutrients. Otherwise, “if you overpopulate an area that’s historically bad, you end up with barren stalks because it [the crop] ran out of nutrition,” he says.
Likewise, the software helps him collect data on soil texture, which he can cross reference with data on the highest-performing seed hybrids to find out which seed variety will be best in each field.
Helping the environment with data
The precision team is important to the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program and, as a result, the environment.
A coalition of organizations, from The Nature Conservancy to International Plant Nutrition Institute developed the program to fight algae blooms, a significant problem in Ohio and other states, where excess nutrients, like phosphorous, from animal waste and fertilizer cause cyanobacteria to form in the water. If consumed or inhaled, cyanobacteria can damage the brain and nervous system.
Houin says precision software will prevent growers from either using too much fertilizer or applying it at a time of year when it can get washed away. The backbone of the stewardship program is what is called the 4R system—using the right fertilizer, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. By placing fertilizer strategically, growers can make sure nutrients are available for the crop rather than the water.
Bever says the agronomy solutions advisors are in the business of storing a different kind of data—the details they learn by having one-on-one conversations with growers about their goals and concerns.
Though he has ‘sales’ in his title, Bill Bever says it’s crucial that selling does not come before service.
“If we approach our job as sales, it’s going to be a bad day,” he says.
Agronomists are called solutions advisors because they meet with each grower, one-on-one, and take notes on the challenges unique to their plots of land and their budgets—data that even the best software can’t gather.
“We need to make sure we understand the growers, their goals and how they operate in order to provide solutions that help enhance their operations,” he says.
That necessarily means some overlap between the two divisions, which often share data. In some cases, members from both teams will meet together with growers to conduct a combined analysis.
As margins get tighter for growers and the market more competitive, Bever says this sophistication is necessary to yield more from the same amount of land. That requires not only technology, but communication between growers and co-ops.
“One of the most important things we can do is present a unified front and strategy,” he says. “So the teams aren’t pulling the grower in two directions, but are both focused on understanding what they need and addressing it.”