Cooperative Elevator Agronomy

Promoting efficient production in Michigan’s Thumb
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Drew Taylor

The only constant in agriculture is change. Changes in pricing and input costs, along with technology make it a difficult field to navigate at times for farmers. In Michigan’s Thumb, a rich, agricultural region with fertile soil, sprawling fields, plentiful rainfall and temperatures moderated by Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay, Cooperative Elevator Co.’s Agronomy Division (CEC Agronomy) is hard at work in the field and the testing lab to ensure the big job of feeding the world is a little easier for producers.

Based in Pigeon, Michigan, Cooperative Elevator Co. (CEC) has been a longstanding landmark, supporting regional producers for nearly a century. “Cooperatives like ours are few and far between in Michigan – we’ve been doing business since Nov. 15, 1915,” says Pat Anderson, president and CEO of CEC, who has worked for CEC for 30 years. “We are farmer-owned by 1,110 current members.”

CEC is the largest cooperative in the state with 14 locations. The agronomy division covers 10 locations, serving more than 1,000 produces across Huron, Sanilac, Tuscola, Lapeer Bay, Genesee and Saginaw counties. CEC Agronomy is made up of more than 50 full-time employees, including field agronomists and specialists.

A diverse agricultural landscape

Every year a wide range of major crops come out of Michigan’s fertile Thumb. “The Thumb is home to a diverse cropping area; we produce dry edible beans, white wheat, soft white winter wheat, sugar beets, corn and soybeans and there’s also a large livestock influx so there is a lot of alfalfa grown in our area as well,” outlines Dan Armbruster, agronomist with CEC Agronomy. “Our cooperative focuses most of its time on dry beans and sugar beets – those are a large part of what we do on a day-to-day basis.”

Ambruster says farmers across all crop types face similar challenges. “A large part of what we’re facing today is lower commodity prices and higher input prices and how to manage this,” he explains. “Adapting to new technology and learning what type of record keeping and data tracking farmers should do is another obstacle. Keeping up with technology is going to be really important moving forward because it’s a different ballgame than it was 10 or even five years ago. The structure and face of ag is constantly changing. Today, farmers are even more so in the public eye with more focus on sustainability and traceability.”

Ensuring productive, sustainable operations

With the pressure on growers to produce more and do it more efficiently, CEC Agronomy helps ensure each operation is as productive and sustainable as possible. CEC Agronomy offers fertilizer, certified seed, crop protection and custom spraying and spreading. “We raise all of our own dry-bean seed, which we process and treat and the same with winter wheat,” says Ambruster. “Our farmers grow these varieties here from certified seed and we process and sell to farmers so we know we have good quality seed and can ensure what we’re doing for the future.”

All 10 of CEC Agronomy’s locations employ in-house agronomists, doing much more than data analysis. “Our agronomists are out scouting, talking to farmers in the field and they’re able to troubleshoot and work directly with the growers,” says Armbruster. “We have an advanced agronomy department, which uses GPS soil sampling to make fertilizer application recommendations based on variable-rate soil samples.”

CEC Agronomy’s team pulls samples from the field and sends them off to the lab. Once the results are in, in-house agronomists perform all of the equations to determine how much fertilizer is needed in certain areas. “The Thumb area is surrounded by water with Lake Huron on all sides within the Saginaw Bay watershed so water quality and sustainable ag practices are very important to what we do,” says Armbruster.

“80 percent of our farmers use variable-rate technology, which ensures that we’re putting fertilizer in the ground where it needs it and that helps avoid run off,” he continues. “In the last several years, our fertilizer usage is trending down per-acre, yet we’re gaining more yields every year; that’s the ultimate goal of sustainability – something that works for the land and is cost-effective for the farmer. The way the trend is moving now, I see 100 percent of our farmers utilizing GPS sampling in the next couple of years.”

CEC Agronomy also works with producers to plant research plots. “We do our own plots of different varieties,” says Armbruster. “We’re looking at the best yielding hybrids, wheat varieties and more and then we pull that research together on our website. Rather than searching 10 different websites, farmers can find all of the information they need on ours.”

This kind of knowledge is powerful for producers. As an information source, CEC Agronomy has a sense of duty to be the best stewards of the land, making it possible to feed the world for years to come. “We take pride in our diverse production here in the Thumb,” adds Armbruster. “And we want this region to remain a hub of agriculture for years to come so we really focus on reducing the carbon footprint on every acre by being as efficient as possible from seed to commodity.”

Since 1915, Cooperative Elevator Co. and its Agronomy Division have supported generations of area farmers, offering the service and support that make Michigan-made crops built to last.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Bayer CropScience