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  • Writer's picturePrecision Ag Reviews

Precision Profile: Mapping a Profitable Path to Smarter Farming with Detailed Data

Name: Jeff Lakner

Farm: Lakner Farms LLC

Location: Wessington, S.D.

Size: 5,000 acres

Crops Grown: Corn, Soybeans, Wheat and Forage along with a 400 head cow/calf operation

Valuable Tech Tools: MZB (now part of FieldReveal); Precision Planting: 20l20 (Gen 3), DeltaForce, vSet 2, vDrive, mSet, vApply, EM FlowSense, FurrowForce, Conceal, FurrowJet; Yetter Mfg.: SharkTooth Row Cleaners, 2940 Air Adjust; Climate FieldView

Precision Pain Point: Leveraging Reliable Data to Make Smarter Management Decisions

Mapping a Profitable Path to Smarter Farming with Detailed Data

Walking corn and soybean fields with his grandfather and father, Jeff Lakner vividly remembers both of them taking visual inventory of the operation’s most and least-productive areas. At the time, an intuitive eye and tradition were often enough to validate operational decisions - for better or worse.

But Lakner, who became CEO of the family’s Wessington, S.D., operation in 1981, came to understand and implement a more data-driven plan for decision-making, rooted in strategic, yet aggressive investment in ag technology.

“When I was younger, my grandfather and father would take me into the field and say, ‘This is good land, this is poor land,’” Lakner says. “I realized we were spending too much time relying on what others in my generational farming family were telling us without very much evidence, or any at all. Today, we’ve got a lot better data to make economic decisions than they did.”

Lakner farms the 5,000-acre operation with his wife, Myrna, and their son, Drew, and acknowledges that if his predecessors had access to today’s techniques and technology, they would have likely made different management decisions. But that early experience helped shape the fourth generation farmer’s modern vision, which has contributed to double-digit, per-acre savings on input costs in a “pretty wild part of the world to farm in.”

Changing the Landscape

With thin topsoil, variable subsoil structure, a short growing season, inconsistent annual rainfall and weather extremes, Lakner says smarter management of inputs started with creating a reliable, detailed understanding of the highest, lowest and marginally-productive areas of the farm.

In 2011, South Dakota Wheat Growers cooperative (now Agtegra), on which Lakner currently serves as a board member, acquired an emerging field-mapping firm, MZB Technologies. Lakner enrolled in a pilot project for MZB, mapped a small section of the farm, and saw enough promise in the initial data to commit 3,000 acres to the program.

Veris EC (electrical conductivity) carts mapped each acre, and collected two layers and dozens of data points in 12 management zones. The data was then broken out to identify yield potential in each zone, and compiled to allow for year-over-year comparisons.

“We went all in, and at about $15 per acre, it was a substantial investment across 4,000-plus acres,” Lakner says. “But the initial mapping of those management zones on a quarter-section of a field and the ability to identify 3-4 economically feasible areas, we could see very clearly the return we were going to realize on the entire operation.”

‘Game-changing’ Results

To capitalize on the potential provided by the early data, the Lakners adopted variable-rate seeding, variable-rate fertilizing and dual-hybrid planting technology - a $10,000-$12,000 investment for each system.

They retrofitted their 16-row John Deere 1770 planter with a suite of Precision Planting technology, pulled by a Deere 8430 tractor. The Lakners variable-rate applies 28% nitrogen, along with 10-34-0 (liquid ammonium phosphate) in the row at planting and Agtegra custom-applies in-season nutrients with a 6-bin variable-rate dry spreader.

“We had a lot invested in our equipment upgrades, but we knew the MZB platform was going to be a game-changer for us because we had the hard data to make better management decisions within those zones that were going to make or save us some money,” Lakner says.

He was right. When Lakner calculated the return on investment across the 160-acre quarter-section of his farm, he estimated variable-rate seeding saved $7-$8 per acre, variable-rate fertilizing saved $8-$12 per acre and the dual hybrid system saved $15 per acre.

Some of the most surprising savings came from making smarter input decisions on the farm’s marginally-productive acres.

“The trick was identifying the point of diminishing returns. We could apply more fertilizer, adjust our variable-rate, but odds are, those plants were not going to realize their potential. That was a real eye-opener for us,” Lakner says. “In our more marginal zones, we adjusted our fertilizer or seeding rates up or down by $2-3 per acre, based on the MZB recommendations. Then we went out and ground-truthed the areas, and knew we made the right decisions, because we had the data to validate them.”

Half the Acres, Double the Money

In 2022, the Lakners upgraded to a 24-row Harvest International planter with LaserPro row units, Yetter SharkTooth floating row cleaners, 2940 Air Adjust and Mudsmith gauge wheels.

The new machine will be fully-equipped with Precision Planting technology, including the mSet multi-hybrid system, vApply liquid fertilizer rate control and FurrowForce two-stage closing system.

The investment continues their commitment to maximizing row crop production, but the Lakners are also leveraging data to improve the efficiency of their 400-head cow/calf operation.

In summer 2021, they began a partnership with Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, mapping high-saline areas of their farm and seeding 60 acres with a salt-tolerant grass developed by South Dakota State University called Elkjer with other forage crops for grazing.

“It’s early, but our data validated areas where it’s far more productive to seed grasses vs. raising 280-bushel corn every year, just to break even,” Lakner says. “Economically, corn and soybeans are still our game, but we also need a feed source for our livestock, so there is a benefit.”

Lakner, who was recognized as one of the Fertilizer Institute’s 2022 4R Advocates, views the operation’s continued investment in ag technology as the key to turning a piece of 40-year-old advice into a reality.

“When I started my farm career back in 1981, a guy told me, ‘Jeff, I want to farm half the acres and make twice as much money.’ I laughed at the time, but we now know that precision ag can make that goal attainable, if it’s pursued in a smart, responsible manner,” he says.

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