Digging In

SHP Early-Season Field Checks

By Dustin Brucker on Thursday, 30 July, 2020

This planting season, the SHP field managers have a new tool for delivering valuable data to our growers by observing periodic field checks at key intervals in the season. Our team of experienced and knowledgeable agronomists worked tirelessly to build and deliver a standardized protocol for our field team to use to collect data. By standardizing our readings, we are more closely able to use objective information, rather than subjective observations, to describe what’s happening in our more than 200 farmer trial sites across the network.  

Using Technology to Optimize Soil Health

Using highly-functioning yet easy-to-use survey apps from the ESRI ArcGIS platform, our team is quickly able to download our fields, input data into the survey, and instantly upload the completed survey from our mobile devices at the field.  GPS-enablement features allow for precise location identification for each reading and enables users to revisit the same spot throughout the year for spot-specific trending. 

The SHP data team continues working to evolve the survey and capabilities of the app to ensure the most useful data is collected and delivered to both our growers and our own data team.  By using spot-specific data points, our data team can observe soil health trends over the months of the season for as long as the plot is in the program. 

New Field Check Protocols

The Agronomy Team put together a uniform and comprehensive field book for our Field Managers to standardize our in-field readings.  The key soil health notes we are looking to capture for our early season readings include cover crop stand, cover crop growth stage, ground cover residue, 4-inch soil temperature, weeds, insects, and disease pressure. Then, we take cash crop measurements, including plant growth, seed depth, and stand count, in our post-planting readings.  Standardizing measures, including tools and training, have aligned the team to return the best data for our growers and data team.

Preparations for taking Field Check observations had been completed and distributed right on time for spring planting! However, the actual task of taking the readings this Spring was not as successful. Since our difficulties with stay-at-home orders and limited travel restrictions, many of our early season activities had been delayed or cancelled for much of the Midwest. Our newly minted Field Check protocols require 4 visits a year: 

  1. Post-harvest/cover crop establishment
  2. Pre-planting
  3. Post-Planting Early
  4. Post-Planting Midseason. 

Travel restrictions limited our pre-planting Field Checks to only a few select locations where travel restrictions were more limited, including Western Iowa.  

Field Visits

I was able to complete a large majority of my Field Check #2 this year because of the loose restrictions, but I took all necessary precautions when traveling, including packing lunches, minimizing extended travel, and limiting personal contact.  Keeping an open dialogue with my growers as to when I’d be out at the location was very helpful. As much as I want to meet with my growers to continue to develop our on-going relationships, I fought to keep everyone safe by keeping safe distances. 

Visiting the plots and taking observations was a great opportunity to finally get out into the field to see how things are progressing. Talking with growers is very informative, but walking the plot really puts it all together.  Each field is unique as far as layout, cover crop establishment, topography, and other agronomic conditions. Instantly, I was able to get a real picture of the challenges and successes each of our growers competes with in every growing cycle. 

Soil Health Data Delivery to Farmers

After the data collection was complete for each plot and the data was sent to ArcGIS online, I was able to print out a concise report of each point where I’d collected data. Complete with images of cover crop landscapes and single-plant growth progress, the reports are QC’ed and forwarded on to the growers to keep them up to date on the plot’s progress. Several growers commented back on some of the interesting bits like cash crop stand counts and cover crop establishment. 

The major success from this year’s rollout of the Field Check operation is attributed to our Agronomy team and our Data Management team. The Agronomy team created extensive and detailed field books for Field Managers to reference and conducted thorough training sessions to drive home key ideas. The Data Management team needs commending for finding the right apps, fitting our needs in a clear and concise format, and continually improving these creative tools to capture and report the best data. I continue to be amazed by the teamwork and creativity the SHP team brings in our continued efforts to deliver value to our growers.