Jeff Heepke knew he was part of the next wave of precision agriculture when his cellphone rang as he planted corn with his new 16-row planter last spring. “Do you know that row 15 is plugged?” asked the caller.

“At first I was a bit stunned,” says Heepke, who farms near Edwardsville, in southern Illinois. “Then I realized he had to be watching data streaming from my new planter monitor. I asked him if he had noticed that I already had stopped a couple of times to try to fix it.” Heepke, who was piloting Monsanto’s FieldScripts program, was sharing data in real time.

That’s one attribute of the new precision ag-based crop management services offered by Monsanto, as well as Pioneer through its Field360 program, and WinField through it R7 Tool. Although the services differ considerably in what they offer, they all intend to provide growers quick access to precision-ag data and decision aids.

Paul Twombly and Del Unger, farmers who’ve used the Pioneer and Winfield services, respectively, say that the improved connectivity and information access through the programs has helped improve their operations, sometimes in unexpected ways.

 

Experience with FieldScripts

When Heepke signed up for Monsanto FieldScript’s pilot program, available to about 150 growers in 2013, he was gung-ho to add sophisticated variable-rate seeding to his operation. After an unusually good growing season that largely masked variable-rate-seeding yield benefits, he continues to be enthusiastic about the program’s potential.

“Their system and equipment worked the way they promised it would, but the yield did not work out the way we all expected,” says Heepke. “It showed a 1.5-bushel increase compared to standard seeding rate. I believe in the science behind this. I hope this will help take me to another level, production-wise, in the future.”

Heepke notes that his main FieldScript-planted field, which rolls from heavy creek bottom soils to sands and clay hills, yielded 214 bushels per acre in 2013, significantly above its long-term average. In 2011 the yield was 150 bushels per acre, and in 2009, 185.

As part of an equipment update needed to qualify for FieldScripts, Heepke bought a new 16-row Kinze variable-rate planter. He outfitted it with three pieces of Precision Planting hardware required for FieldScripts. These included 20/20 RowFlow for variable-rate seeding and swath control, a 20/20 SeedSense monitor and an iPad with a FieldView Plus app. The iPad app displays planting maps on the go and streams planting data wirelessly to central Internet-connected computers.

After providing yield maps, soils, fertility and other data to FieldScripts, Heepke received prescription maps wirelessly via the iPad for several hybrid options for each field. Having options was important, since some hybrids were in short supply and wet weather forced replants.

“With the new planter, monitors and FieldScripts, I was very nervous about how everything would work out,” says Heepke. “Everything was user-friendly. I was very impressed.”

Heepke was not alone among FieldScripts participants in experiencing less-than-expected yield gains, says Dave Rhylander, who heads the Monsanto program’s launch.

“In many cases, we did not see the yield differences that farmers expected,” he adds. In addition to the impact of exceptional growing conditions, he says the company sometimes relied on yield, fertility and other data that wasn’t of high-enough quality to generate solid planting prescriptions.

“We learned that we have to say ‘no’ if the data isn’t good enough,” he says.

But where high-quality prescription-writing data were available, FieldScripts produced solid yield gains, says Rhylander. “Where we had high-quality data, average yield increases were 5 to 10 bushels per acre,” he says. “We tested FieldScripts this year to learn what we needed to improve for our commercial launch. We look forward to this year’s launch with the upgraded data requirements that provided higher yields for farmers.”

In 2014, FieldScripts will be open to about 1,000 farmers who work through Dekalb dealers, for $10 per acre.

 

Field360 program details

After using Pioneer’s Field360 tablet computer and web-based field-management tools during the 2013 growing season, Paul Twombly gives the tools high marks for helping manage his far-flung farming operation.

Twombly, who farms near Hiawatha, Kan., began using the free Field360 Notes application on an iPad tablet early in the growing season to document crop-management decisions. Later, he used the Field360 Tools app to monitor rainfall by field, as well as field-by-field crop development using growing-degree-day and crop growth stage estimation tools. Those tools also are included in the Field360 Select web-based subscription service, introduced mid-season, which Twombly also uses. Field360 Select, priced at $500 annually, also provides interactive field maps that document variable rate seeding prescriptions, soil types, as-planted and yield maps and more.

Twombly’s farm stretches 45 miles East to West, and 10 miles North to South. So tracking rainfall and crop progress over such a broad area can be time-consuming. “When you are spread out, it is hard to scout everything,” he says. “These tools have been amazingly accurate as far as rainfall and crop-development stage. Typically, rainfall was off no more than 0.1 inch.”

The tablet-based Field360 Notes and Field360 Select web applications also help him communicate with his agronomist and suppliers, who he’s permitted to access his online notes and field management and performance data.

“I can take a note and share it with whomever I want,” he says. “I can put a GPS marker right on the spot where I want my agronomist to look.”

Twombly looks forward to efficiencies he thinks he’ll see using Field360 Select, which will provide a field-by-field repository of as-applied and yield maps. “I will have all my prescriptions at my fingertips,” he says. “It will be easier to evaluate what we have done in the past and determine what we can improve in the future.”

Pioneer recently announced new capabilities for Field360 services, including tools to help growers analyze yields based on different field environments. It also announced a collaboration with John Deere to enable wireless data transfer directly between Field360 Select and John Deere GreenStar 3 2630 displays using Deere’s JDLink and MyJohnDeere.com.

In a 2013, Pioneer also kicked off a pilot program to provide in-season remote-sensing imagery through Field360 Select. The service is offered through BlackBridge, formerly known as RapidEye.

 

Experience with WinField R7 Tool

Although WinField formally launched its R7 Tool web-based precision planning system in time for the 2012 planting season, Del Unger has worked with bits and pieces of the system for the past half-dozen years as WinField began developing the program.

Unger, who farms in southwest Indiana near Carlisle, credits several aspects of the R7 Tool for helping boost yields. The program’s variable-rate seeding recommendations and satellite imagery have been especially helpful, says Unger, who is chairman of the board of Ceres Solutions, a WinField-affiliated co-op.

It’s not uncommon for Unger to have seven or eight soil types with production swings from 250 bushels/acre to 120 bushels/acre in a 60-acre field. “We needed to look at our soils and fertility more carefully, and find hybrids with the flexibility to turn up the population on the better ground and down on the hilltops,” he says.

“These tools have taken us to the next level by allowing us to be more consistent,” says Unger. “We still have wide yield discrepancies from our poorer to our better ground.” But it has made both soil types better, too, he says. “Overall, we have watched our corn yields ratchet up from 7 to 10 bushels per acre using these tools.”

Early in the 2013 season, Unger ordered weekly satellite flyovers through the R7 Tool to generate infrared imagery to identify nutrient deficiencies on early planted corn. The corn, which suffered from cool, wet weather following planting, showed a range of nutrient deficiencies, including N, magnesium and sulfur, corroborated by tissue tests. He followed with multiple applications of these three nutrients to the tune of $60 per acre in unexpected expenses.

“We had to do something; if we didn’t turn something around, we were looking at 150 bushels per acre corn instead of 250,” Unger says.

Since its launch, the R7 Tool has gradually expanded with new services. Two new 2014 enhancements are designed help farmers evaluate input performance and field profitability. The new field response and profitability maps spatially correlate actual yield map data from the combine with the input-prescription map, including costs. A new iPad app available to WinField retailers will allow them to more easily carry data to the field as they work with customers. Also, WinField’s parent company, Land O’Lakes, purchased Geosys, a global technology firm that provides satellite imaging and insights used in the R7 Tool.

Beginning in 2015 crop season, the R7 Tool will integrate Monsanto’s FieldScripts variable-rate seeding prescription capabilities. Initially, R7 FieldScripts will be limited to Dekalb hybrids. It will be expanded to include WinField Croplan hybrids the following year.

Related new announcements

As this issue went to press, more companies, in addition to Pioneer, announced ties to John Deere’s MyJohnDeere.com platform. Dow AgroSciences announced that this agreement will help customers take advantage of the company’s products through optimal placement of technology into specific environments based on a farmer’s field conditions. Bringing together production information with analysis from company experts and channel partners will enable specific product recommendations from a broad portfolio of corn hybrids.

The goal is “to optimize producer returns while honoring the foundational principles of data management and stewardship,” says Pat Pinkston, vice president Technology and Information Solutions, John Deere. No timeline for implementation was given.

BASF also announced its partnership with Deere. As part of the agreement, BASF will offer a new service for field scouting and agronomic decision support. John Deere will provide a new application for sprayer setup as well as integration of field data that will enable growers to better manage their farm operations.

“By integrating BASF’s agronomic expertise with field-proven John Deere application expertise, we will provide a comprehensive management platform, open to other partners as well,” said Christoph Wigger, John Deere vice president sales and marketing, region 2. The goal is to launch the first joint-integrated tools by the end of 2014 in key agricultural markets with additional markets to follow.