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Patient Advance

August 6, 2014
By: Ed Clark, Top Producer Business and Issues Editor
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A finalist for the Top Producer of the Year award, Jay Myers and his full farm business partner, Cara, reward employees who stay through the busy season with an incentive pay system.  

Jay and Cara Myers take farm to new heights with test plots, data

This day in late May is an anomaly. Conditions above the expansive, flat and fertile Red River Valley are warm and dry. Jay Myers is behind in planting corn, the latest he’s ever been at this point in spring. The quiet and patient confidence he projects and his acceptance of farming’s biggest challenge—the weather—would make you think planting season were over rather than just being underway. 

Jay is the fifth generation to farm near Colfax, N.D. It is the 11th hour for planting, and another crisis looms; a university researcher is planting test plots for research Jay sponsors and has misplaced some products. He deals with the problem with focused intensity on reality rather than accusation and frustration. Five minutes and three phone conversations later, he arranges for his wife and farm partner, Cara, to deliver the products so the research can be completed.

Jay is like that: cool, centered, solutions-oriented. He doesn’t let emotions get the best of him. Part of that confidence comes from lessons hard-won when he started farming amid the 1980s farm crisis. 

"We still can get a good return," Jay says wryly. He’s sure despite a corn-planting cutoff date nine days away. Less than two weeks later, both corn and soybeans are planted on time. A new 24-row planter enabled 50% faster completion.

That’s one side of Jay. Inside the tractor cab, where he controls a caravan of planting and fertilizer equipment, a different side emerges. An attentive Jay eagerly watches four monitors showing real-time data for planting and fertilizing and identifying problems in need of correction. The monitors provide detailed information not only on this field near his home place but also on operations at fields up to 20 miles away. 

Striving to Improve. Although he is a seasoned farming veteran, Jay constantly looks for ways to be more efficient and profitable. For example, though he’s banded fertilizer for years, preliminary research convinced him to band fertilizer on both sides of the rows this year. He will compare the results against those of single-banded rows in a test plot. Jay wants his own farm’s data before he makes the practice permanent.

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Delegation of responsibilities and adoption of Big Data are two keys to the Myers’ business success. Cara is a certified public accountant who previously worked at Microsoft. "Cara’s experience gives her a good eye on financial issues," Jay explains. 

Fusing technology with field scouting is critical. A monitor for his Precision Planting unit provides real-time readouts on both seed spacing and plant population. The display connects to his iPad in the cab and to Google Earth. The system allows him to troubleshoot. While planting this spring, an alert on his iPad revealed light plant populations around a disk. Further examination uncovered a bouncing 1.25" ribbon of silicon that had kept the machine from planting correctly. He immediately fixed the problem, which would have produced erroneous test results during the season. 

A lifelong learner, Jay holds a degree in agricultural economics from North Dakota State University. He is in constant motion and seeks to run the farm as a tightly managed manufacturing plant. Rigorous testing is a big part of that. This year, six different test plots will allow him to compare competitive fertilizer and seed products. Although company and university trials can provide important information, there is no substitute for replicated tests on individual farms and fields. 

"Salesmen have a vested interest in selling seed and fertilizer products in their lineup," Jay says. 

His research has found yield differences up to 15 bu. per acre between competitive products that supposedly have the same ingredients. "In reality, products that are supposed to be the same are not," he says. 

It might not be the active ingredients listed that are different but differences in heavy metals, pH and salt index that can impact fertilizer quality and ultimately yield. "For one product, we replicated the trial three times on different parts of the field," Jay explains. "Our testing program is a lot of work, but it’s also one of our comparative advantages."

In addition to conducting rigorous on-farm tests, Jay sends fertilizer products to independent labs for analysis with sometimes surprising results. For example, some products have poor quality that can harm the crop. They can set back or even reduce crop emergence. The experience is like driving an inexpensive car versus a Cadillac. "Cheaper products sometimes are far more costly than a premium product," he says. 

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