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.

SCORE ONE FOR FARM SUSTAINABILITY

SUSTAINABILITY: A WHOLE FOOD SYSTEM APPROACH

I’m in the food business. Like you and everyone in the food supply chain, from farmers to ingredient processors to brands and retailers, I want a sustainable food supply. That means food companies work with farmers to set specific sustainability standards and source ingredients based on those standards.

Dirk and grandson

LOW SCORE WINS

The Fieldprint® Calculator app helps farmers measure and track environmental impact. I grow corn, soybeans and wheat on my farm in central Illinois. After harvest each year, I input data into the calculator and it gives me a score based my estimated carbon footprint. The scoring system is similar to golf – the lower the score the better.

The score is based on a variety of factors including:

  • Trips across the field (fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions)
  • Fertilizer used (when and how much)
  • Pesticides used (when and how much)
  • Biodiversity
  • Soil conservation
  • Water quality
Fieldprint Calculator

CALCULATING CHANGE

Next, I review a “web graph” that represents my sustainability performance compared to state and national averages. I use the results to think critically about what I could improve on my farm next year. Personally, what I value most is being able to see how my farm compares to my neighbors because they have to deal with the same weather, pests and soil that I do.

Soybeans growing in corn and cover crop residue

DATA DRIVES DECISIONS

Before this calculator, I used soil conservation practices including cover crops and minimal tillage, both of which help prevent erosion and increase organic matter in the soil. When I first began using the calculator, I was happy to see that my score was already low and I was doing excellent work in many categories. There was, however, one category that I didn’t score as well in: fertilizer use.

I applied the same amount of fertilizer to all areas of my fields at the time, but looked into other options once I knew there was room for improvement. Now, I apply fertilizer at a variable rate, meaning my field is split into sections and I only apply as much fertilizer as each individual section needs based on soil test results. It’s like each acre of my field has it’s own prescription. Giving the soil only as much fertilizer as it needs reduces waste and has improved my score in the Fieldprint® Calculator app.

WE ALL NEED TO BE PROFITABLE

To me, sustainability is about conservation practices, but it’s also about profitability. I believe the two go hand-in-hand. After all, a farmer can’t keep using sustainability measures without succeeding in their business. The calculator app is a great way for farmers to benchmark change and justify conservation methods that can improve their land and their bottom line.

DIRK RICE, IL CORN DIRECTOR and ILLINOIS FARMER

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY POSTED AT WATCHUSGROW.ORG

A FARMER’S HOLIDAY WISH LIST

Dear Santa,

I worked hard all year growing crops and caring for my land, so I hope I’m on your “nice” list this year. There are only two things I want this holiday season, but they are pretty technical, so you’ll need you’re most tech-savvy elves to do the job. I promise it’ll be worth it, though, because these two things will help me farm more sustainably and safely next year!

A Bird’s Eye View

We already use drones on our farm keep an eye on our fields when the plants get too tall to walk through, but the newer drones have higher quality cameras. Being able to see more detail would help me spot stressors like bugs, weeds or disease in our crops earlier than I can now. Spotting these things early means I can use less invasive measures to solve the problem before it becomes a bigger issue.

More Precision

Also, I’d like a new planter – but not just any planter, a multi-hybrid planter. You see, we have great soil here in Illinois, but it still varies, even across a single field. A multi-hybrid planter would help us plant not only the right amount of seeds in a section of the field, but also to plant specific varieties in the area of a field where they will grow best based on information we get from soil tests. Just like Mrs. Claus probably has her favorite varieties of apples or tomatoes, certain varieties of corn and soybeans grow better under different conditions, and we’re really good at growing corn and soybeans here in Illinois.

Thanks for taking the time to read my letter. I’ll leave some grain and water outside at my farm so the reindeer can get a bite to eat before you fly off to other farms and cities. And, of course, some milk and cookies will be by the Christmas tree for you!

MATT BOUCHER

ABOUT MATT

Heather and I are proud parents to three of God’s greatest gifts, and we thank Him every day for the joy they bring into our lives. Outside of farming, we like to go camping, go to movies, stay involved in our small town (as we encourage everyone to do), as well as other local committees and groups.

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY POSTED AT WATCHUSGROW.ORG