Reducing costs and increasing yields with data

Christy Bauer stands in a field of a corn on a windy day and examines a corn cob.

Environmental Initiative recently helped Dakota County gather input from farmers, community members, and other key stakeholders to shape a voluntary plan to protect groundwater from agricultural pollution as part of the County’s overall groundwater protection efforts. Excess nitrate, pesticides, and chlorides from agriculture can contaminate groundwater sources of drinking water. Dakota County’s Agricultural Chemical Reduction Effort is a voluntary plan to reduce these pollutants from drinking water.

Agronomist Christy Bauer is helping Dakota County farmers design nutrient management plans that meet their needs and protect drinking water.

She has a large toolbox of seed, chemical, and fertilizer products and precision agriculture application services that she uses to help save farmers money and reduce the environmental impact of their operations.  

“It’s making sure it’s the right product and the right timing,” Christy explained.  

Christy recently shared what a few programs that she offers entail and how precision and data can help increase yields and profits for farmers.  

Zone mapping is one of the services Christy provides farmers. Through this, fields are split into different zones based on factors like crop yield potential and soil composition.  

To map this out, she conducts grid sampling to get an idea of what a field is like, including the pH, nitrogen, and phosphorous levels.  

The detailed information about sections of a field allows Christy to create more specific plans for each zone that can help increase fertility. The plans, which offer advice on topics like seeding, fertilizer, and irrigation rates, are based on what the farmer’s wants and needs are. It could involve maintaining or changing rates depending on the area and yields over time.  

“The more data you have, the more detailed you can be with planning,” Christy said. “The goal is to be the most cost effective and not do anything we don’t need to do.” 

This kind of detailed planning can help growers make sure they’re putting down the right nutrient source for their crops in the right places at the right time of year and rate. This kind of work is considered the “4Rs” of nutrient management and is being promoted in the Dakota County Agricultural Chemical Reduction Effort (ACRE) that was recently adopted by the Dakota County Board.  

“Growers that are following the 4Rs, either through individual planning or work with an agronomist, can reduce their nitrogen loss by up to 15%,” Ashley Gallagher, senior resource conservationist with the Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation District, said. “We realize that completing nutrient management plans to follow the 4Rs can be costly for growers. One of the high priority tactics in the ACRE plan is to provide incentives to growers that, either individually or with the help of an agronomist, complete nutrient management plans.” 

River Country Cooperative, where Christy works, has a precision complete program with tiers that range in detail and support to help growers choose what works for their needs and budgets. Although the upfront costs can be a barrier, the plans can greatly help reduce overall costs.  

One of the biggest ways the plans help a farmer reduce costs is by breaking apart when applications are applied. The plans help spread out when different parts of the field should be fertilized, seeded, and irrigated and details how nutrients should be applied in each area. When inputs are applied all at once and at the same rate, there is a higher chance of leaching and inputs running off fields and into the environment.  

“If you break it apart or only apply when you need it, you’re going to be much more efficient,” Christy explained. “These plans help farmers, they help us, they help everybody.”