UTICA FARMER USES HIGH TECH DATA TO IMPROVE FAMILY FARM

Justin Durdan is a younger farmer, father of four, and volunteer farmer leader for the Illinois Corn Growers Association.  Numbers, data and analysis get him really excited about the future of his Utica family farm and what he can leave for his children. 

ME: Hi Justin!  Tell me a little bit about you and your farm.

JUSTIN: I’m working a multi-generational farm in LaSalle County.  My priority tasks on our farm are to handle relationships with our banks and landowners, and also to handle our finances and our books.  Of course, during planting and harvest, I’m definitely taking my turn on the tractor or in the combine as well.

My wife and I have four kids.  I’m working hard every day because I love it, but also because I’m hoping to build something I can pass off to them someday.

ME: I hear that you are a numbers guy.  What sort of analysis are you doing to benefit your farm?

JUSTIN: Weekly, I’m looking at budget to actuals – which means that I’m checking to see if we applied the budgeted amounts of inputs or if we’re over or under.  And I’m also watching to make sure that we’re recording data during the growing season that will be valuable to us later.  If every pass through the field isn’t recorded, I can’t analyze it later and make us better farmers.

ME: Tell me more.

JUSTIN: As an example, during the growing season, we’re recording every fertilizer application on every field.  We’re applying variable rates, which means that each location within the field is going to get a specific amount equal to what that location needs.  If, when I’m applying fertilizer, I’m not recording that or there’s an error with the technology, if leaves a gap in my data.

ME: Pretty high tech.  What other sorts of data and analysis are you doing?

JUSTIN: Now that we’ve been recording all our information for long enough, I’m able to check out our fields, applications, management and such on a year over year basis.  What gets interesting is to group three or four years of information together and get a good feel for productivity and profitability on a farm.

ME: How do you think these pieces of data change the way you farm?

JUSTIN: I think that every time we’re making management decisions for each field, we have information telling us what fertilizer to apply, how much to apply, what the seed density should be, etc. 

Basically, we have all this information now that helps us make better decisions.  Before the data was available, we made the best decision we could make based on our memory of the past year.  Now, we can see hard data on the productivity of this specific section and how much fertilizer we applied there for the last four years and we make a very informed decision about what to put on that section this year.  Our farm management is much better informed.

ME: Do all farmers operate this way?  Are all farmers using and analyzing the same data?

JUSTIN: There’s a lot of room to grow here and I think suppliers could provide more service in this area to help other farmers acquire the data, analyze it, and apply it to their fields.  We are lucky because on our family farm, this is just something that I really get into and I really focus on.  But not every farm has a data geek. 

ME: What’s agriculture look like down the road with this data and even more available?

JUSTIN: I think having all this data available makes farmers more competitive locally.  As an example, if you’re a young farmer looking to expand your farm and rent more acres, you can get an estimate of soil productivity and gage what your budget and potential cash rent offer could be without even setting foot on the farm.  That gives you a leg up. 

Knowing all this without seeing the farm is also scary.  But this is the world we’re living in now and I think we can either ignore the data available or we can use it to our advantage and get better.  I hope I’m helping our family farm to get better.

I also love the idea that I’m leaving digital records and data points for my kids, if they want to take over the farm.  When I started farming, there was just no way for me to pull everything in my dad’s head out and to make use of it.  Now, I have digital files for my kids to pull and analyze.  I think having this knowledge will make them better when they are ready to take over the farm and set them ahead of where we started out in previous generations.

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