By James Hoffman, Contributing Writer
Central Valley Ag co-operative (CVA) launched its precision agriculture department more than 20 years ago, turning agronomy from an aspect of their business into their calling card. CVA develops innovative, value-added, tailored solutions for growers that lead to lasting relationships with CVA’s customers.
With 40 agronomy locations across eastern Nebraska, and parts of Iowa, and Kansas, CVA has a diverse and expansive customer base, which requires a flexible core of precision advisors. Advanced Cropping Systems manager Keith Byerly joined CVA 15 years ago as one of three people on the precision side.
They now have 9 people dedicated to the data management side, 3 who work on the equipment side and 2-3 staff agronomists per location.
For the first 8 years, CVA did whatever it could to get precision hardware onto people’s farms, convinced that whoever sold the electronics to a customer, would naturally get the calls for the prescriptions, which was their ultimate goal.
As the co-op found success combining hardware and prescriptions, developing a dedicated staff with specialized knowledge, included a move to fee-based model for billing out precision services. Equipment services are charged by the hour while data management services are billed by the acre.
CVA offers over a variety of precision services, including yield and field mapping, GPS and RTK signal subscriptions, soil sampling and equipment installations, with the majority of their precision revenue coming from data analysis.
Byerly is confident they can deliver 2-to-1 or sometimes up to 5-to-1 returns on investments for customers, and growers parlay those earnings into more spending at CVA.
While precision services are a small percentage of overall revenue at CVA, Byerly says they’re a huge component in helping solidify business with growers and get more intertwined in growers’ operations.
While converting new growers can be difficult, retaining current ones is more important. CVA’s retention rate is more than 90% and Byerly says anything below would be a concern.
“We approach everything from an agronomy-first standpoint,” he says. “The goal is to come up with solutions that not only pay for themselves, but pay for us to talk about the next thing. And not spend all our time on cold-calls and finding new customers.”
Byerly would love to get all of his customers into precision service plans to schedule work more efficiently. But CVA also offers à la carte services to those who don’t sign up for a plan, and many growers prefer to take that option.
That means the precision team is responding to phone calls on the fly, but Byerly can’t risk losing growers just to make sure everyone is on a plan.
“While we have this huge desire to offer [mandatory] service plans and better schedule some of our service calls, it's also been one of our biggest sales tools that we don't,” Byerly says.
He stresses that a single service plan only works for a small geographic area, and different plans must be developed to deal with multiple variables like overlapping planting seasons. CVA offers just two plans now, one for a single-display farm and one for a multiple-display farm.
Lately, the co-op has been tweaking their service plans to make them more attractive, and Byerly says directly asking growers helps narrow down what services to include. It also helps dealers avoid making assumptions about what growers want, need or are willing to pay for.
“We’ve re-tooled it twice in the last 4 years to make things more advantageous as far as the number of hours and services customers get while focusing on defining preseason service and things like that,” Byerly says. “We tried to incorporate training into those plans, where they get a local meeting in small groups.”
Byerly says being patient with customers, customizing plans instead of forcing them and clearly explaining to growers the value of services goes a long way in establishing and expanding relationships with growers.
“We have a lot of people that soil sample and variable-rate their spots, but when you start looking at managing the data in such a way that we're incorporating all of that into our irrigation, multi-hybrid and advanced seeding recommendations, that go deeper than soil types, that's where we haven't got past the early adopters yet,” Byerly says.