Kettle Lakes Cooperative
Agronomy Manager Josh Schladweiler says for all of the technology in modern agriculture, growers and co-op employees still make important decisions by meeting at kitchen tables. Over coffee or breakfast, they will plan what seeds to use, what soil to plant in and what fertilizer to spread.
Schladweiler works at Kettle Lakes Cooperative in Random Lake, Wisconsin. He says his co-op started using precision agriculture software relatively recently, but that technology doesn’t replace a strong understanding of these “basics.”
“If we have the best frosting without the cake, it doesn’t do us any good,” Schladweiler says.
Between seeds and soil, many options
When devising a plan for growers, Schladweiler and his agronomy team need to know how growers are rotating their crops. If a single crop, like corn, is repeatedly planted in the same field it can harbor diseases or attract pests like rootworm, which the USDA says causes $1 billion a year in lost revenue for corn farmers. Schladweiler says rotating crops also creates a mellow seedbed, making it easier for roots to extend into the ground and take hold.
Though farmers throughout the Midwest typically rotate from corn to soybeans to wheat, Schladweiler says some farmers, particularly dairy farmers, may not have this option because livestock require huge quantities of corn for feed. Kettle Lakes will suggest seeds, products and planting methods to help dairy farmers who grow their own feed avoid pests.
Schladweiler says matching the right seed genetics to the right soil type is important for reasons beyond pest control. For instance, a single farm can have soils that are tightly or loosely packed, sandy, clay-filled, or rich and dark. For each type of environment, the co-op sells a seed designed to thrive.
Growers must figure out how much they’re willing to invest in each type of seed and try to predict how much those investments will return for them come harvest time. This can be tricky because different seeds thrive with different amounts of heat and moisture.
Similarly, growers rely on the co-op to help them sort through their soil fertility options. Schladweiler says that next to seed selection and placement, knowing when to spread fertilizer and how much to spread has the biggest effect on crop yields.
For example, Schladweiler says one of the takeaways from a recent meeting with growers was that because they had favorable weather and high crop yields last season, their soil was likely depleted of nutrients and would need extra fertilizer for the coming season.
"You have to increase what you put in this year to make up for what you took out last year," Schladweiler says.
Technology makes the basics easier
Fertilizing hundreds of acres can get expensive, though, and this is where Kettle Lakes isn't afraid to rely on precision technology to help customers get the most out of their resources.
The co-op uses software like WinField's R7 tool to calculate exactly how much fertilizer a grower needs and on what parts of the field. The R7 tool uses satellite imagery as well as data from the Normalized Vegetation Index (NVDI) and USDA soil maps to analyze the fertility and previous yields in each section of each field on a grower's farm.
The R7 is user-friendly and affordable, he says, because it doesn't require soil testing and can be used right away, which saves growers time and money.
Schladweiller says his team has been training with specialists at WinField to learn new uses for the tool. Last year, the co-op offered, for the first time, a variable rate nitrogen service where nitrogen fertilizer could be spot applied rather than ubiquitously applied.
Kettle Lakes introduces new products like the R7 throughout the year and discusses them at every grower meeting.
The co-op’s agronomy staff holds one large meeting during the winter and another during the summer for growers who apply fertilizer and crop protection products. Schladweiler says these meetings are critical because they tell the co-op whether growers are even interested in using precision technology.
“We introduce new products and ideas during meetings and either growers take [it] from there it or they don’t,” Schladweiler says.
Schladweiler says he never pressures farmers to try methods they’re not comfortable with because their trust is important to him.
“We would like to be partners on the land for years to come,” he says.