Harry Siemens talks with Cory Willness about his great presentation at St. Jean Farm Days – Field Mapping and much more

Slide courtesy ED White Western Producer

CropPro Consulting began in 2003…

with Cory Willness, primarily focused on Crop Management Services and on-farm research with local farmers. As one of the pioneers of independent consulting in Saskatchewan, Cory has fined tuned services and gained a lot of experience working on a large acreage base. Cory was also chair of NARF and the Project Agrologist for the Saskatchewan VRT Project from 1998-2002 with a group of leading-edge farmers in the Melfort area using variable-rate technology.

Presently, we have a great staff and also offer MAPS variable-rate services and TEC custom mapping and software. We didn’t just adopt a piece of software with a process developed somewhere else, we developed our own mapping methods and systems that match the agronomic needs of farms in Saskatchewan. We own and operate an excellent consulting software package and file sync system that keeps our field operations efficient and backed-up by the minute.

CropPro has always focused on fair prices, meat and potatoes services, low infrastructure and costs, and frank advise without bias. We treat every customer uniquely as everyone has their own approach to risk and equipment. 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. If you want someone that works the dirt with low fees every day and knows what is really happening in the field, contact us.

Cory Willness – Oh, my presentation was on foundation principles for variable rates, fertilizer, and seed. Two components to that. One component is making the right zone map, number one. Number two is, once you have the right map, applying the right fertilizers to those zones.

Harry Siemens – Obviously, a lot more work goes into that.
Cory Willness – The first part is the key thing. If you don’t have a good zone map then you can’t apply the fertilizers in the right spot. I think maybe the industry’s been fairly challenged in understanding what the right zone map means. Most people want to take it from what I call the end result approach, which is building a yield potential map, which is useful, but you can’t ignore what I feel is the more important starting point, which is soil, water and topography models.
I mean, you need to know where the water is in the field. You need to know what the soil properties are. Textures and organic matters and those things all relate to how fertility’s going to vary and how yield potential’s going to vary.
Harry Siemens – You work with farmers on a regular basis.
Cory Willness – Yeah, we only work for farmers. We’re an agronomy services company. We do crop management services, variable rate fertilizer and seed for farmers. That’s it. That’s all we do.
Harry Siemens – How many of the farmers are getting the variable rates right and are really benefiting from it?
Cory Willness – Well, I guess my answer’s going to be biased because we do it significantly different than most of the industry. I feel our clientele is doing a very good job. Is the industry doing a very good job? No, I don’t think so. I guess it’s just kind of a hearsay answer, right? I mean, I think my customers are doing a good job and getting good value.
Harry Siemens – What are all the things that you do differently?
Cory Willness – Well, the primary difference is this soil potential map versus yield potential map. Anyone and everyone’s getting yield potential maps. That’s yield data and satellite imagery. Those things are giving you a good indication of what yield potentials are. 95% of the industry does nothing to get a soil potential map. That’s what we do. That’s where we start. We have to model water so we need hydrate elevation maps either with RTK GPS or a drone or lidar. It has to be [inaudible 00:03:07] C type stuff so we can model water.
We also collect electrical conductivity data. That gives you information related to soil textures, where the water’s moving, salt levels. It gives you an indication of the soil properties that are happening within the top few feet of your soil. Those two layers are really important for us to build a basis for what’s going on with soil, water, and topography. That’s sort of our … That’s our patented zone map method that we soil test from and develop prescriptions from.
Harry Siemens – Then obviously the farmer’s getting better yields, better efficiency. What’s the benefit he’s getting?
Cory Willness – Well, I would say for starters the easy thing to sort out is fertility levels vary in the field. For example, areas that I would call high and dry areas maybe corroded knolls or hills in the field. They’ll be lower in organic matter. They probably had erosion so they have thin topsoil. They traditionally haven’t had as much growth on them. For reasons such as those, they have low fertility. They’re low in phosphorous. They’re low in sulfur. They have low mineralization of nutrients like nitrogen and sulfur.
Conversely, you can look at depressions in a field over time the eroded soil is probably ended up down there. There you typically have very thick topsoil. It might be a couple feet thick. It’ll have higher percent organic matter because the water’s moving there. Mobile nutrients will move there, like nitrogen and sulfur. So they’re typically just high in phosphorous, sulfur, chloride and things like that.
That’s a starting point is to understand how the nutrients vary in the field.
Harry Siemens – Describe then for me, if I’m a farmer, do you have stages that you offer to the farmer or is it one price for all the services you have?
Cory Willness – We have the offer the two services. Front management services, that’s a farm’s personally agronomist for weed end check and disease scouting and advice all season long. Sprayer coordination. It’s like your personal farm agronomist, it’s 475 an acre.
We only do complete farms. Our variable rate fertility program, in the first year we charge $5 to $7 to map their farm and build the zone maps. That’s just a one time fee.
The other part of the service is soil testing, writing prescriptions, building a fertility plan coming to the fields twice during the year to access things like plant stems and maturity and things like that.
The other part of the service varies from $2.75 to $4 an acre. People retain us long term. Every year they want us to come back and soil test the zones and do the rest of our variable rate agronomy, it’s $2.75 to $4 an acre.
Harry Siemens – Okay, so there’s a basic to get them up to speed so that you can actually help them the best you can with the services that you offer, right? Then after that, it’s kind of an ongoing.
Cory Willness – The first year it’s a lot more intensive. A lot of … we have to do the field mapping part. You have to literally drive to the field and map it, right? That specialized equipment and takes a lot of time to map the field and stuff.
Harry Siemens – I’m in my 45 plus years in farm journalism. I’ve talked to lots of farmers and lots of people like yourself. The farmers that you service, are those the one that already doing the things pretty well, or they there to get up to speed?
Cory Willness – We’ve been doing this commercially since 2008. We have a lot of farmers that have been doing this for 10 years. Those farmers, I would say, are well into the process. We’ve experienced lots of different weather cycles. We’ve done it with all crop and monitoring their fields for a long time. I would say in their process, there’s not a whole lot left to learn where we pretty much go things nailed down.
If I came to your farm specifically, it’s a process. It takes a few years to learn the fields. You might try the same strategies on different fields. Your seeding rate strategies and there might be fields that it worked perfectly on, fields that need to be tweaked.
Yeah, so its, probably I would suggest people be patient for two to three years until we get all the kinks worked out. Then after that, the conversation should be pretty free-flowing between the farmer and the agronomist because you’ve learned the fields and-
Harry Siemens – You’re then really part of that farmer’s operation.
Cory Willness – Yeah, most people they try a field or two in the first year and then most of the time it’s them deciding whether they’re all in. Some people, whatever, for financial reasons or they don’t have their equipment quite ready to go yet. It might take them several years before they decide to do their farms, but most people are just testing it for the first year and then they say, “Yeah, this all makes sense to me,” and then they do their whole farm.
Harry Siemens – How far afield, pardon the pun, do you work? Are you in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta or where do you focus?
Cory Willness – Well, we started in Saskatchewan. I started at the CropPro back in 2003. The largest part of our market is eastern Saskatchewan. All the way from the north right to the US border. That would be probably 80% of our business.
Manitoba’s been really good for us. Last two years we probably have about 30 farms we’re working with here now. That’s growing really well. Manitoba looks like it’s going to be a really strong area.
We have 22 staff and two of them are in British Columbia. We only have one in Manitoba thus far. We ended up with the farmer at Pilot Mound that insisted that we get his farm done as soon as we started working in the area and mapping. It turned into 25 farmers. Usually, it’s word of mouth is our biggest marketing program.
Harry Siemens – Obviously, somebody knows you or they wouldn’t have invited you to St. Jean Farm Days.
Cory Willness – Well, we’re working with some really good consultants. I guess we like to work with … find really good consultants and down in that area, CropPro works with Brunel Sabourin of Antara Agronomy in St. Jean, as well as Jason Voogt and Troy Turner of Field2Field Agronomy based in Carman.
We’re doing just the mapping for them and they’re doing all the soil testing and the agronomy.
Harry Siemens – You’ve worked together with these guys.
Cory Willness – Yeah, and then we have a lot of consultants that we do that with. I mean, what we specialize in is our mapping process. We do a great job of that. When we get into some of these other areas, it’s really nice to work with people that know the local agronomy. They know the crops really well. You can really work closely with them. When you add their expertise to it and their experience and sort of with the local agronomy. It just really helps things to work well.