The (Surprisingly Simple) Reason Behind the Variability of Returns of VRT
By Mike Preiner, 08.05.2015

One of the biggest stories in agriculture in the last 5 to 10 years has been the development of variable rate technology (VRT) for planting and the potential economic gains that it enables.  An enormous amount of attention has been placed on both the hardware that allows variable placement of one or more hybrids and to the writing of VRT recommendations.

Programs focused on making seed recommendations often cost anywhere between $5 and $15 per acre for the prescriptions alone, suggesting that there must be a significant upside for the farmer using this kind of technology. But there are few discussions about the elephant in the room: the fact that what happens in the field is often very different from the plan.

“Fluid” is the word we hear most often to describe how plans change at the very last minute.  Riding in a planter that had just entered a field last spring, one of our product designers asked the operator, “Is this the right seed for this field?” His reply: “It is now!”

To make things worse, once the seed placement is changed on one field, there is a series of cascading effects. For example, if you had planned to put Seed A on Field 1 and Seed B on Field 2, but at the last minute put Seed A on Field 2, you are now probably going to have to change the plan for Field 1 also, since you are now short of Seed A. At this point, you may begin to wonder why you spend so much time carefully planning out varieties and rates in the first place. At Granular, where we work with some of the country’s best farms, we’ve seen that the actual seed placement is commonly different from the initial plan, often on as much as 40% to 60% of a grower’s acres.

Eventually you may also begin to wonder what you can do to increase your odds of getting the seed where it is supposed to go.  We’ve seen a few ways in which the right farm management software can help growers improve their ability to get the right seed on the right field.

1. Know your plan. This may be obvious, but the first step is to make sure your entire team knows what the plan is in the first place.  Having an up-to-date (to the minute!) planting plan that can be quickly viewed by every manager and operator via a smartphone or tablet is a basic best practice

2. Minimize false starts. Many “changes to the plan” originate because someone showed up to plant a field that wasn’t ready.  While you can’t eliminate this completely, using up-to-date weather information and “workability” models before you drive to the field will reduce how often you end up a field that is still too wet or cold to plant.

3. Manage changes to the plan. Due to the cascading effects mentioned above, an entire planting plan can fall apart after a few initial hiccups.  Using real-time tools that link as-applied records (what actually happened) to your seed inventory can allow you to react to changes in a way that minimizes the disruption to the rest of your planting plan.

While it seems that a lot of fundamental operational challenges are often ignored in the excitement about variety placement and VRT seeding, we are seeing that farm management software is enabling farmers to do a better job of managing their operational plans, and thus start to realize the benefits of the other technology investments they’ve been making on their farms.

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