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Adding an agronomist to your farm team

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What can agronomy companies 
do for you? We profile six companies to help 
you find out

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Cory Willness of CropPro Consulting says that if you’re not doing your own crop scouting, “someone else has to do it.” Photo: CropPro Consulting

As farming gets more complicated a growing number of companies are offering to help out. Some farmers get advice from their local independent retailer, or an agronomist employed by a company like CPS.

But more and more farmers are choosing to pay for agronomic advice. Based on the logo-covered trucks parked at farm shows, the number of farm advisor-led conferences springing up and the increasing demands of modern agriculture, these services will only become more common.

Related: Remember the 4Rs of nitrogen fertilizing in the fall

A growing business

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Photo: Thinkstock

There are at leave five reasons these agronomy advice providers are thriving in today’s farm environment.

1. Farmers like unbiased advice.

While most farmers think highly of their local retail agronomists, there is an underlying concern that they might be pushing the product their company sells. When farmers are paying for advice from an unaffiliated agronomist, they may have more faith that their agronomist is giving them advice that’s fully focused on the farm’s bottom line.

Companies that are mainly in the advice business take concern about bias seriously, with many having their representatives sign contracts stating that they won’t sell farm inputs to clients, or at least that they will disclose their biases clearly.

2. There are many things to know.

The days when farming was a simple profession are long gone. Today’s farmers need expertise in machinery repair, pesticide application, weed science, microbiology, record-keeping, precision agriculture and insect biology, just to name a few areas. If you don’t have expertise in a subject, it makes sense to outsource it.

Ken Greer, president of Western Ag, used the analogy of dentistry. In the late 1800s, he says, everyone did their own dentistry, or got the neighbour to come over and pull a tooth. Now, he says, “a farmer can’t be doing their own dentistry anymore.” Just as we wouldn’t perform a root canal in the dining room, we probably shouldn’t try to pretend we’re experts in every field needed to be successful in agriculture.

And, even if you are an expert in everything, sometimes, says Steve Larocque from Beyond Agronomy, “bringing someone from outside can help you see things from a different angle.” (He did add a caveat: “That person better know what they’re doing.”)

3. There’s more to do.

Remember those days when farmers had lots of time off in July to go to the lake? Our kids probably won’t. These days farmers are spending a lot more time looking for new bugs and disease, and then trying to control them.

Not only is there often too much for the main farm operators to do during the growing season, it might be nice to have a day off from scouting once in a while. As Remi Schmaltz, chief executive officer of Decisive Farming asked, “What’s more free time worth to you?”

4. There’s many people involved.

It’s a rare situation when the people living in the farmhouse are the only people with a stake in the farm business. There’s often a sister in the city, an uncle on the coast, or a grandmother in Florida with a financial stake in the farm business. Having an advisor to set parameters around decisions can help ease some of the tension around differences of opinion. For example, “the advisor said to spray if we have more than five bugs per square foot,” can help justify a farmer’s decision to spend money on pesticide. This can be especially important when it comes to grain marketing, where, as Schmaltz says, “it’s really easy to look in the rear-view mirror” and accuse your sister of selling the canola at the wrong time. If everyone has been in the room with the farm advisor and agreed on a marketing plan, Christmas dinner should be more harmonious.

5. Variable-rate technology.

The rise of variable-rate technology has given a steady income stream to many ag consulting firms. All of the companies included in this article offer computer prescriptions for variable-rate fertilizer.

While it’s not technically necessary to hire someone to program your software to use less fertilizer in some parts of the field and more in others, only very tech-savvy farmers can do it themselves. That will likely change in the future, as the software becomes easier to program. (Remember when you used to need three days and a 15-year old to hook up a new printer?) Digital technology tends to get simpler with time.

Related: Study uses drones to assess hail damage, yield losses

How do I choose an agronomist?

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Photo: File

As the number of firms in this area proliferates, it’s becoming more and more difficult to figure out who’s doing what, and which services you want to pay for. The task isn’t made easier by the companies’ tendencies to trademark their own special terms for their services like Know-Risk grain marketing, Smart Nutrient solution and CropCast planning.

To help you cut through the hype, Grainews talked to representatives from six popular ag consulting companies on the Prairies to find out what they’re offering, what you can expect from them and what it would cost to hire them.

While it’s important to make sure you hire a company that’s offering the services you need, it’s also true that you’re going to need to have a good personal fit with your advisor. “You pick the person,” says Steve Larocque of Beyond Agronomy, “and it might come with a company.”

Of course there are several more large-scale agronomy companies in Western Canada that aren’t included here, and many small independent agronomists offering excellent advice to clients in localized regions. There isn’t enough newsprint on the Prairies to include all of these businesses, so we tried to choose a representative sample of companies to give you an idea of what’s out there.

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1. CropPro consulting

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CropPro Consulting uses an on-the-ground method to analyze every area of its clients’ fields. Photo: CropPro Consulting

Cory Willness started CropPro Consulting in Naicam, Sask., in 2003. He began as a crop consultant and is now president of a company that employs agronomists from southern Manitoba to Drumheller, Alta.

Primary focus: If you’re not doing your own field-scouting, Willness says, “someone else has to do it.”

CropPro Consulting offers two main services: crop scouting and variable-rate fertilizer and seeding services. Their website says, “If you want frills that come with the excess marketing, the high prices and the cookie cutter approach that services the mass market, don’t call us.”

Offerings: CropPro Consulting’s scouting service is a “season-long crop scouting service,” Willness says. If you’re using this service, you have “an agronomist on retainer,” from “when the snow goes to when the snow flies.”

CropPro agronomists will advise you about the best time to spray a fungicide, scout for weeds and swath your canola.

During the growing season CropPro’s agronomists are in your field “as often as they need to be.” This could be 50 or 60 times during the growing season. “The farmer doesn’t really have to look at his field,” Willness says.

The bulk of CropPro’s business comes from their variable-rate fertilizer and seed service. In this area, Willness says, “we’re doing things differently than everyone else.” While some agronomy companies base fertility plans mainly on vegetative indexes from satellite images, Willness considers soil maps, water drainage and field topography when he makes field prescriptions. “It’s a combination of inputs,” Willness says.

After seeding, CropPro agronomists go to the farm to assess plant stands and emergence patterns. “Areas can be low-yielding, but what’s the problem?” Willness says. “Not every problem can be fixed with fertilizer.”

Your return? Willness finds it hard to put a dollar estimate on the value of good agronomic advice. “Mostly,” he says, “it’s just an accumulation of little things all year long that add up to big things in the end.”

It’s also hard to put a dollar value on increased net profits from using variable rate fertilizer. But, “if you’re removing fertilizer from areas that aren’t going to really respond to it, and putting it in areas that will respond, you’re going to have a net return.”

The price: For agronomy and field scouting services you’ll pay $4.75/acre.

If you want CropPro consulting to set up a variable-rate program for you, costs will vary by farm size. First-time customers pay $7 to $10 per acre. In future years, once your field is mapped, the cost of sampling will be $2 to $3/acre. There is another $1/acre annual fee for prescriptions.

Is there bias? CropPro is not affiliated with any retail outlets.

Call them if: You’re good at cash management and grain marketing, but you’re not staying on top of the latest news in bugs and disease.

More information: www.croppro.ca

Related: Diagnosing herbicide injury

2. Farmers Edge

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The Precision Ag Institute named CEO and president of Farmers Edge, Wade Barnes, its crop advisor/entre- preneur of the year for 2017. Photo: Farmers Edge

“We always believed in big data,” says Marina Barnes, head of marketing for Farmers Edge. Farmers Edge helps its clients use data to make decisions in all areas of their business.

Farmers Edge began as a variable-rate technology company in Manitoba in 2005. Since then, it’s grown to be a company with 450 staff working in many aspects of technology and agronomy.

Primary focus: Farmers Edge offers its clients a “complete data package.” This includes everything from installing a weather station on your farm (one for every 2,500 acres), to putting their own CanPlug telematics solutions in all of your machines. “All the data we can possibly collect is collected,” says Trevor Armitage, global head of field operations.

All of this data, plus satellite imagery, goes into the Farmers Edge FarmCommand software which clients can access from their phones, tablets or desktop computers. Clients can work with the data on their own, or have an agronomist visit their farm to help them go through the data.

“The farmer can be as involved in his program as he would like to be,” says Armitage.

Offerings: Farmers Edge is mainly offering digital support tools and data — they no longer provide crop scouting or other “boots on the ground” agronomy services.

The base package includes variable-rate fertilizer prescriptions and access to your data.

Satellite photos are an important part of Farmers Edge’s services. Starting in November 2017, Farmers Edge clients will have access to daily satellite images during the growing season. (Although, Barnes explains, it takes 24 to 48 hours to process and load an image so there is a delay, and you won’t be able to use images taken when it’s cloudy.)

With its focus on data, Farmers Edge uses a model based on seeding data, heat units and environmental conditions that will “tell a farmer which stage the crop’s in without being in the field.” If you do have a problem in the field, for example cutworms, you can get an pre-programmed automatic notification when the vegetative index on your satellite imagery is going backwards (that is, when there is less vegetation in an area than there was earlier).

Farmers Edge also offers clients the ability to compare yield data from specific crop varieties grown by other clients across Western Canada (individual client data is kept confidential).

Your return? Armitage says that if you want to know for sure if your switch to variable-rate fertilizer is paying off, “we can put checkstrips in your field.”

The price: Farmers Edge’s integrated data package, which provides you with a weather station, CanPlugs, software and tech support, costs $2/acre.

For all of that, plus soil sampling and a basic prescription maps, you’ll pay $2.50/acre.

For $5/acre, the full-service package includes the above, plus zone-based soil sampling, variable-rate technology and a profit map (to tell you which areas of the field are the most economically profitable).

Is there bias? Farmers Edge itself doesn’t market other farm input products, but the Farmers Edge rep you choose to work with may also be selling another company’s farm input products.

Call them if: Your idea of a good time is pouring over detailed yield maps and other data to figure out exactly which decisions are making your more money.

More Information: www.farmersedge.ca

Related: Tiny satellites from Edge of the Planet

3. Decisive Farming

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Decisive Farming’s Croptivity app helps farmers keep records, schedule farm tasks and streamline farm communication. Photo: Decisive Farming

Decisive Farming was launched in Alberta in 2011, when chief executive officer Remi Schmaltz and his brother added new ag technology services to their family retail business, DynAgra. In 2012, they sold DynAgra and focused on Decisive Farming and what they see as “the next era of agriculture,” the digital farm.

Primary focus: “We look at all of the key decisions that occur on the farm,” says Schmaltz.

Decisive Farming offers an app for crop scouting and record-keeping, as well as desktop software that can help you with budgeting, making crop plans, tracking profit margins and keeping track of positions and contracts. This software automatically pulls in data from your field machinery and allows you to process all of your yield data so you can analyze your profits and losses. They’ll be launching an inventory management component soon.

Decisive Farming works with clients to optimize the use of the equipment they already have, based on what they want to do agronomically, and considering individual constraints like machine power, labour and time.

Offerings: “We’re a full-service company,” Schmaltz says. They offer farmers a mixture of software and technology. They don’t offer crop scouting services, but they do offer software, variable-rate fertilizer technology, and grain marketing support.

Decisive Farming’s grain marketing services help clients develop sales strategies. This is an area where there is a lot of potential for family conflict, especially where there is an older generation and a younger generation working together. Decisive Farming brings in all the stakeholders to help clients “build a plan that’s custom-tailored to the farm.”

Your return? There are no guarantees, of course, because Schmaltz says, “we’re dealing with weather.” Instead, “it’s about increasing your probably of success.”

“We’re seeing about a $20/acre net profit increase for our clients,” he estimates. “That’s the quantitative piece, but there’s a whole bunch of qualitative things that occur as well.” Schmaltz cites examples like being able to combine faster with more even crop maturity, or having more free time.

Is there bias? Decisive Farming does not sell other crop inputs.

The price: The price varies, depending on your farm size and service package. If you have an average-sized farm, the complete suite of options would cost $8 to $10/acre. Schmaltz says, “that would be end-to-end,” including annual soil sampling and grain marketing support.

If you only want to use the Decisive Farming app and software, you could do that for $500/year.

Call them if: You’re not sure you have the right combination of machinery on your farm, and you’d like someone to help you figure out if you’re doing it right.

More information? www.decisivefarming.com

Related: Blackleg management and agronomy

4. Western Ag

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Western Ag uses a unique soil- testing method to analyze clients’ soil nutrition needs. Photo: Western Ag

Ken Greer is Western Ag’s president and chief executive officer. He says “You can’t have healthy food without having healthy and sustainable soil and that only exists when you have healthy and sustainable farm businesses.”

Agriculture is not always glamorous, Greer says, “it really does all begin with the soil.”

Primary Focus: Western Ag’s specialized soil-testing technology, the Plant Root Simulator, is the heart of its business. The PRS soil test differs from traditional soil tests in that it claims to measure plant-available nutrients, rather than simply tallying nutrients in the soil.

Western Ag has added to its soil-testing service by developing specialized software that combines soil test results with algorithms that predict yield based on nutrients, soil, and weather. Clients can use the CropCast software to make sure they’re optimizing profit with their input dollars.

Offerings: Once your soil test results are added to Western Ag’s CropCast software, you can look at scenarios based on your fertility plan and the weather you expect. The software lets you see profit scenarios based on different levels of moisture and fertilizer and 17 different crop types.

If you’re a new customer, you won’t be able to use the software on your own, you’ll have to wait for a visit from your Western Ag rep. “They’ll sit down and go over the results,” Greer says. In your third year doing business with Western Ag, if they’re working with 75 per cent or more of your farm, then you can use the software on your own, but only for the year — you can’t keep the software if you stop using Western Ag. This is because, Greer says, your fertilizer prescription changes year over year.

If you were a client, midway through the growing season, your Western Ag rep would look at a “MidCast” with you — allowing you to reset your expectations based on real events. This could help you decide to build new bins or maybe cancel that new grain bagger purchase.

“After the combine rolls, that’s a very important time for us,” Greer says. Then, they review your year and see how successful the plan was. They use that same software and “BackCast” — input the actual fertilizer used and real weather data, to make sure their software would have given the right yield result. This serves as a check on the software and gives them a chance to make continuous improvements. Greer says their goal is to have the software get it right within 10 per cent of actual yields 90 per cent of the time.

Western Ag’s CropCast software is based on the theory of diminishing returns on investment — keep adding nitrogen (or any nutrient) and eventually you’ll hit a point where an additional dollar spent nets you less than a dollar in profit. “If you apply that to your whole farm, you’ll do better,” Greer says.

The software looks at potential yields, but doesn’t keep records of your past cropping or input application history. Western Ag does not offer scouting or grain marketing support.

Your return? With the high price of inputs, Greer says, “what do you think guessing is costing you now?”

Using their software, Greer says, “we can virtually go back in time.” After harvest, your rep can enter actual weather conditions into the software and compare estimated yields from the fertility program you used before you started working with Western Ag to your actual yield. “We can actually prove our value.”

Is there bias? Western Ag’s services are delivered by reps who may have other roles, including scouting or perhaps retailing ag inputs. However, Greer says, “We don’t allow any conflicted sales.” If your Western Ag rep is also retailing inputs, they should let you know. “We try to keep it very clean,” Greer says.

The price: The standard service price for the soil tests, the software and the meetings with reps is $4/acre.

Call them if: Soil is your main concern, but you also appreciate spending some time with a hands-on computer simulation.

More information: www.WesternAg.ca

Related: Business is booming for agrologists in Alberta

5. Agri-Trend

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Rob Saik Photo: File

Rob Saik started Agri-Trend in Red Deer, Alta., 20 years ago, with the goal of helping farmers make better decisions around crop input purchases. Now, Agri-Trend has 103 ag advisors (they call them “coaches”) from B.C. to Mississippi. These advisors have a group of 32 ag experts (“senior coaches”) they can call on for assistance.

Agri-Trend was privately held until 2015, when it was purchased by Trimble, a U.S.-based precision ag company. Agri-Trend operates as a division of Trimble now.

Primary focus: Greg Smith, Agri-Trend’s network manager, says Agri-Trend’s focus is to “allocate scarce resources that the farmers have, in the right areas, to maximize what they get.”

There is no “flavour of the day” to Agri-Trend’s advice, Smith says. They’re just trying to help farmers make more money per acre.

Offering: Agri-Trend offers a wide range of services: agronomy consulting, precision ag assistance, farm business management consulting and grain marketing advice.

Agri-Trend clients work closely with local consultants (“Agri-Coaches”) to determine which services they need. The average coach has only 10 to 12 customers.

If it’s what the client wants, the coach will be “on the farm, looking at the field.” In the case of high-input crops like canola or hemp, some farmers are willing to pay for fertility advice, spraying advice, scouting help and soil analysis, Smith says.

For farmers looking for variable-rate fertilizer prescriptions, Smith says, “we’re sitting down with the farmer and coming up with a plan for that field.” They don’t solely rely on digital tools.

Through Trimble, Agri-Trend offers software solutions for farmers looking for record-keeping technology. Farmers looking for grain marketing solutions have access to market information.

For new clients, Smith says, the discussion with your new coach will be “almost like you’re talking to a financial planner.” The advisor will ask questions like: “What are you comfortable with? How much money do you want to invest in your farm?”

Your return? “We don’t have a promise,” Smith says. Instead, they tell clients about farms they’ve worked with in the past (keeping names confidential, of course). Smith says a lot of their business comes from word of mouth.

The price: “Our prices are determined by our coaches,” Smith says. He described it as similar to the arrangement when you go to see a lawyer: fees are based on the services needed. Prices are “negotiated ahead of time, before the services are offered.”

When pressed for a ballpark figure, Smith says clients pay “$4/acre all the way up to $15/acre,” for the agronomy services. That higher-end figure would include full assistance with a new crop like hemp or soybeans.

Grain marketing assistance costs from $2 to $5/acre. Prices for working with business coaches on projects like succession planning or farm expansion decisions are set on a case-by-case basis.

Is there bias? Smith says Agri-Trend coaches must sign and agree to a code of ethics, and agree not to sell or promote any products.

Call them if: You want to work with a company who can give you advice on everything from when to spray your hemp to how to set up your farm succession plan.

More information: www.agritrend.com

Related: Are you ready for the future?

6. Beyond Agronomy

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one of Beyond agronomy’s specialties is setting up controlled-traffic farming. Photo: Beyond Agronomy

Beyond Agronomy is run by Steve Larocque, an independent crop advisor based at Three Hills, Alta. As well as providing advice to clients, Larocque operates his own first-generation farm. He uses his own farm to conduct research projects, and to implement controlled-traffic farming.

Primary focus: “I’m a systems guy,” Larocque says. “I’m really into equipment, logistics, efficiency.” For example, Larocque works on matching a client’s equipment to their fertility program.

Larocque tries to help his clients become low-cost producers and do things as efficiently as possible. He sees himself as a service, not a product. With that mindset, Larocque says, “you really have to pick your clients carefully. I don’t take just anybody.”

Offerings: While most of Larocque’s work is close to home, he also works with farmers across the Prairies and has a few international clients. “It doesn’t matter where you go,” he says, “we’re all challenged with similar issues.”

Larocque helps his clients with agronomy, as well as fertilizer strategies, purchasing, controlled-traffic farming, variable-rate fertilizer, logistics and equipment decisions.

Only a small percentage of Larocque’s clients are using variable-rate fertilizer technology. “We focus on the big fruit,” he says, which means getting the rest of your agronomy right before you add variable rate. Where his clients do use VR technology, it’s generally because they have a lot of variability across their farms.

Larocque does not provide record-keeping software or grain marketing services.

Your return? “I don’t promise a return on investment,” Larocque says. “I promise to help them make better decisions.”

It’s not usually easy to put a dollar value on good decisions, but there are times when it’s possible. Last summer, Larocque advised some clients not to spray a fungicide when neighbours were spraying. His clients saved $75,000, and didn’t see significant yield losses.

The price: “It’s all over the map,” Larocque says. Customers can choose a lighter packages that includes phone calls, emails and text advice for $1 to $1.50/acre. Clients needing a lot of service could be spending “upwards of $7/acre.”

Or, you can get in the door by subscribing to his weekly newsletter for $220/year.

Is there bias? Larocque says he has no bias. “I’m very clear on that,” he says. He’s not selling anything other than this service.

Call them if: You want someone to bounce ideas off, and you’d like to conduct some on-farm research.

More information:
 www.beyondagronomy.com

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