While the Yield Force agronomic service team was already in year 7 with Sinclair Tractor when agronomic consultant Ethan Smidt joined as the fourth member in 2015, the late arrival didn’t mean the service provider was established across the eastern-Iowa landscape.
For every farmer subscribed to their year-long service program, there were a handful of others confused as to whether or not Yield Force was trying to sell them a combine or be an AMS specialist, an occurrence Smidt notes as common to this day.
“Agronomy within a Deere dealership is not very common around here, so half the battle is just getting in front of customers and explaining to them exactly what it is that we’re doing,” Smidt says.
From soil analysis to nitrate samples and planter assessments, “exactly what it is” represents a customized plan for each Yield Force customer, which Smidt describes as a long-term journey to understand each field and find the solutions for soil sustainability, return on investment, and yield improvement.
Providing a Precision Perspective
Starting primarily as a variable-rate prescription provider for planting and fertilizer spreading, Smidt says Yield Force has since transitioned into a full gambit of agronomic services. But the primary focus remains on data analysis and collecting as much information as growers as possible over the course of a growing season.
The calendar year of services kicks off with an annual meeting in January, when Yield Force consultants review data and analytical findings from the previous season with growers. From there, Smidt says customers can get a preview of the upcoming months, from planting season all the way through harvest.
“Once we have yield data, we use it to analyze everything else and pick apart all of the fields,” Smidt says. “From there, we can answer farmers’ questions on hybrid varieties, fertilizer, fungicide or tillage practices in relation to their particular soils or farming practices.”
While the Yield Force team is a division under the Sinclair Tractor’s 11-store John Deere dealer umbrella, Smidt says most longer-term customers view the 3-member team — of Smidt, Brett Gregory (agronomic consultant) and Brent Pacha (agronomic consultant) — as trusted third-party advisors since they aren’t beholden to any brand of seed, fertilizer or chemical input.
“When the sales staff is closing a deal on a planter and trying to figure out whether to recommend spike or rubber closing wheels, we can come in as that complementary presence..."
— Ethan Smidt, Sinclair Tractor
“We don’t care if our analysis indicates that Pioneer is better than Dekalb because we’re not connected to any of those brands,” Smidt says. “We’re free to interpret the data because we don’t have any bias.”
Precision, à la Carte
The standard, year-long data collection service package for Yield Force — which includes prescriptions, data analysis, the annual meeting and hybrid/variety seed plans — starts at $3.50/ac with hourly rates on top of that for more extensive projects. A rising demand for a less comprehensive plan, however, sparked the launch of Yield Force XD: a new program that launched in 2018 offering many of the same services, but on an a more specialized scope
The standard Yield Force XD program includes at least 4 customer visits. One for a planter performance/seeding assessment, then soil nitrate sampling, followed by tile nitrate sampling and then stalk nitrate sampling. Through the Yield Force XD program, those visits are charged differently as individual, fixed fee appointments. Prices vary depending on how many services are utilized, Smidt adds.
“If a grower has different hybrids, we’re going to all of those different places with varying seeding rates to give the grower our most accurate yield estimate, but they may not elect to take a soil nitrate test,” Smidt says. “For customers who prefer only one or two services, it gives them the flexibility beyond the year-long data analysis program.”
Quantifying Agronomic Value
When it comes to justifying the investment in an agronomic department within the dealership, Smidt says the key is open dialogue with customers. Regardless of how valuable a service may be to a grower, they won’t invest unless the value is conveyed in a way that makes sense to them.
Part of demonstrating agronomic ROI comes as a collaborative effort with equipment sales staff, allowing the technological expertise of the Yield Force team to intersect with iron specialists.
Yield Force’s planter performance study in 2015 indicated little correlation between spacing on corn yields, but a considerable one between later emerging corn and yield reduction.
“We’ve seen the benefits of different downforce systems and planter setups, from no-tillers to full-tillage farmers who applied hog manure,” Smidt says. “When the sales staff is closing a deal on a planter and trying to figure out whether to recommend spiked or rubber closing wheels, we can come in as that complementary presence.”
The Yield Force team also conducts internal training for the Sinclair sales and service staff, which enables more employees to answer agronomic questions in the field, and also alleviates the volume of questions the Yield Force team needs to address on a daily basis. Ultimately, it makes it so that one person has 10 phone calls instead of 100, Smidt says.
Grappling with Customer Growth
Over the past 10 years, Smidt says the customer base for Yield Force has expanded from an estimated 3 growers in the opening season all the way up to over 60 in 2017, in-part due to the expansion of Sinclair’s locations. The biggest ongoing challenge Smidt sees for Yield Force is brand awareness.
“We’re becoming more mainstream with people in our area, but there’s still plenty who need us to explain that we aren’t here to sell equipment, but instead help make decisions on fungicide application or plant population.”
The greatest competitive advantage Smidt sees going forward is the number of farmers that aren’t yet utilizing a third-party agronomist/consultant for their operation. While soil sampling services are established in different regions of the dealership’s service area, untapped opportunities remain.
“Certain areas we work in have very strong soil sampling businesses, so we work with them to get results and use that as a layer with the rest of our offerings,” Smidt says. “We don’t have the manpower or time to do soil sampling ourselves, so honestly that helps us with helping growers take that next step with their information.”
As customers collect more usable data in the years to come, Smidt hopes to take a more interactive approach as cropping/disease detection tools continue to improve in accuracy
“The next five years will focus on aerial imagery and the ability to diagnose issues with crop health,” Smidt says. “There’s all sorts of options out there that either we don’t do today or could do a much more in-depth analysis with, whether it’s a field day to showcase different downforce systems or fungicide application methods, for example.”