People always ask me how much I know about the soil on our farm, and my answer is: I know more with every passing year.
Together, Dad and I have farmed about 50 crops since 1978 and, over the last five years, we are finally starting to understand what’s happening in the soil thanks to sensor technology that feeds directly into the Crop Intelligence platform, as well as satellite technology we use at Global Ag Risk.
The system isn’t making decisions for us (yet!), but it is helping us with the timing of our decisions which continue to greatly impact and benefit production.
How does the system work?
We have a network of 12 soil probes each having numerous soil and weather sensors in the soil feeding us almost real-time data on soil moisture. We typically keep the probes in from April to October and, this winter, we decided to keep two probes in through the winter freeze so we could be better prepared heading into the spring. The system also pulls in data from John Deere weather stations in the area. The system is able to make general yield predictions based on those variables.
It’s a subscription service that we pay for annually.
How intelligent is it?
Here’s a screenshot of how things are looking on our 30,000 acres in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan. It’s an area that was somewhat spared by the drought conditions across the Prairies last year. We were lucky; I know many farmers lost entire crops by July, without a drop of rain during 30+ degree temps. However, you can see on the left-hand side, that we actually got rain during June, July and August.
What we really like about using the Crop Intelligence system is that during the growing season we can actually see the plants wicking moisture down into their roots. We’re shown the daily use of moisture, which is a level of detail we never had before. By the third week of June, the plants will already be drawing moisture down into their roots. I can pull up this data on my phone while out in the field and see projected yields changing day to day, and sometimes by the hour, depending on the weather.
The data and insights also help us make decisions when it comes to fertilizer application – will we need to top-dress, how much, and when should we apply it? Based on moisture levels, we will tweak the prescription accordingly. Fertilizer is to plants what calories are for humans, so this is a key metric that greatly influences production.
Our goal is, eventually, for this technology to help me make decisions at least weekly, if not daily. I tell stories of farming having its own probability cheat card like BLACKJACK, where every day we are given the odds on the decision we are about to make before we make it.
Spring 2022 conditions and predictions
Right now, we’re heading into the 2022 seeding season with really good moisture levels thanks, in part, to the amount of snowfall we had over the winter. The soil moisture has been re-charged and we are forecasting a normal crop. If all goes well, we have the potential to grow an above-average crop this year. Although the yield predictions are for the average parts of the field, we can see variability depending on topography, salinity, etc.
The increasing cost of seed, fuel and fertilizer are other key considerations this growing season. An average cost of production in the black soil zone is $400 an acre, but it’s estimated some producers will see that rise to $550 an acre or more because of the cost of inputs. The current price of nitrogen is 150% higher than when we purchased it last year and potash is almost 300% higher, then add on fuel, equipment and labor all adding to the inflating cost structures for farms..
One strategy we use at HGV is to carefully manage our working capital through some unique financing strategies. This allows us to have an aggressive pre-purchasing strategy on fuel and inputs when we feel there are opportunities. It can occasionally be a bit riskier as no one can predict future prices, but having such a strategy this past year, as well as storage infrastructure, has been a big win.
Risk of early frost or drought conditions could negatively affect our best-laid plans and projected yields, which is why we still must have a robust risk management plan (a topic for a future blog). Needless to say, we’ll be watching weather conditions closely over the coming weeks and try to adjust as necessary.
Wishing you all the best for #Plant2022.
“The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.” — Will Rogers