Nitrogen and water are two of the biggest line-item investments associated with corn production. As growers in Nebraska and Iowa strive to optimize efficiency and profitability for their investment in fertilizer and water, Central Valley Ag is bringing together a group of producers to help drive adoption of technology and management at the producer level to meet these goals.
The advisory group, organized by CVA’s Mike Zwingman, agronomy research and development manager, and Keith Byerly, Advanced Cropping Systems manager, held its first meeting in early February. "Keith and I kept coming back to the same thing: In our industry, product development usually occurs from the top down, and only at end of development do they factor in the user experience," says Zwingman. "We thought, why not bring a group of our owners together and help guide us along the way, hopefully to develop and implement technologies that have a high amount of impact on the operation?"
The 17 growers they're working with come from different parts of Nebraska and western Iowa, and a diverse range of production systems, including nitrogen management, irrigation and drainage — from those that apply all of their nitrogen through the pivot to those that apply most of their nitrogen in the form of anhydrous in spring.
"All of the growers that were in the room are doing a lot of things right. But the two challenges are: how do we get the rest of our ownership to catch up to move that curve further? If we get early adopters to do this early on, hopefully we can shift that adoption curve," Zwingman says. "The other thing we have to realize is because of all that diversity, we have to build a system that is rigid enough it makes sense, but flexible enough to accommodate everybody's operation constraints."
This adoption curve includes tools growers have confidence in, like nitrogen modeling tools, as well as tools they are interested in, but aren't necessarily comfortable with yet, like in-field sensors. Byerly says that comfort level is largely driven by the "gut feeling" — whether or not it makes sense to use the technology and if the benefit is quantifiable so the grower knows it's worth his time.
"When you do something that you don't feel comfortable with, we default to our gut," says Byerly. "Models and sensors, all of these tools are going to come into play, but at the end of the day, none can account for local knowledge and history. The only one that accounts for your history is your preseason plan and your gut feeling. More often than not, if we trust those things, we're going to be in the right lane."
Weather and irrigation are also key factors in nitrogen management, and that's why the group is focusing on both nitrogen and water, Byerly adds. "Nitrogen and water are very intertwined," he says. "We have growers that are dryland growers, but they understand the water component is not just about supplementing our field with irrigation. It's about managing tile drainage appropriately and finding opportunities with technology to make sure we work with the water we have in the best way possible."
Zwingman says the goal is to build a common nitrogen program like a chassis — that is, building the frame, putting in the engine and transmission, and letting the growers build off of that chassis to fit their needs and operational capacity. "I think it's important for us to have a basic understanding of what that chassis looks like and how those four or five pieces fit together, and then when we bolt a piece on or when we do something, we have a higher confidence it's going to work the first try," Zwingman says.
One of the advisory group's goals is answering the question: What might this chassis look like? "That's the million-dollar question," says Byerly. "I think there are some parts, but we're far away from knowing what the complete chassis looks like. We're probably sure it's got four wheels and a steering wheel, and that's about the extent of what we know we're going to have so far."