Mitchell Hora is the seventh generation Hora to farm on his family’s no-till operation near Ainsworth, Iowa. At 26, he says he plans to remain in agriculture, but says increasing reliance on bottom line profitability and data driven decisions will be the key that helps him survive and thrive in the future.
Mitchell farms with his parents, Brian and Theresa, under the name Precision Partners, on 700 acres, including 40 he purchased about the time he graduated from Iowa State University in 2017.
In 2020, the enterprise produced corn, soybeans, cereal rye, malt barley for brewing, and mustard. The farm is heavily invested in the use of cover crops and an extensive use of the Haney Test to determine the effects of soil microbes on nutrient availability throughout the season. In addition, Mitchell operates Continuum Ag, a new company which serves clients in 40 states and 11 countries with a growing database of Haney Test results aimed at benchmarking soil health decisions.
“Looking forward 10 years, data is going to be vital to farm survival and vitality,” Hora explains. “Land prices and inputs likely will continue to rise, labor will continue to be a challenge, and rather than race towards low margins in the commodity markets seeking top yields, producers who survive will have to increasingly rely on data to improve profits and reduce inputs.”
Hora says while growers have focused on yield data for 20 years it has gone underutilized.
“Data on inputs, production practices, yields, and environmental successes will become critically important in the near future as farmers seek to capitalize on carbon markets, sustainability initiatives, and traceability for consumers,” he says. “Once growers have that data, they can tell a positive story to consumers about their products and practices which will have massive potential for profit in the future.”
Long Range Planning
Hora says his own family’s operation is using farm data to reduce costs, from fertilizer and pesticides to what tractors they need to own. That information plays a big part in regular planning sessions the Hora’s conduct on their business.
“In addition to annual plans of what we’ll be planting where and how we plan to market what we produce, we sat down and outlined a 7-year plan of where we wanted to be,” Hora explains. “We used that and worked backward and forward to determine what we need to be doing, and when, to reach those goals.”
Hora says such planning is an on-going process for both him and his dad, and says it will help them over the next 10 years as he begins to take on more decision-making chores.
“Dad will be in his late 60s by that time and we need to be planning continually to stay abreast of how we scale our capital and land holdings to meet the production requirements of the future,” he explains. “As land becomes available in our area, we’ll need the capital and labor to access those acres. That requires continually taking stock of where we are and where we want to take the operation.”
“Looking at long-term economical sustainability with production data and what we know about our farm we recently moved from a Magnum 290 tractor to a Magnum 240,” he explains. “Using load and power requirement data from our tractor, we realized no-till and cover crops had mellowed our soils. We didn’t need the extra horsepower, so we were able to capture a number of efficiencies by downsizing the tractor.
“We’ve also made extensive upgrades to our 12-row Case planter and found through the use of cover crops and regular use of the Haney Test for soil health we can fine tune our fertility program for a 50% cut in total synthetic fertilizer needs,” he explains.
Planter upgrades include electric V-drives, pneumatic downforce on the row cleaners, a Delta Force hydraulic down pressure system on the row units, and an in-furrow starter fertilizer system. The planter is capable of planting two hybrids simultaneously and carries two nutrient tanks for separate fertilizer programs.
“The flexibility of being able to control plant populations and fertilizer application rates from the cab has allowed us the capability to conduct our own research,” Hora explains. “This year we used it to test 16 different starter programs in replicated scientific trials over 80 acres. We’ll use that data going forward to further fine tune our nutrient program.”
He credits the planter’s row-cleaning ability and downforce system as vital tools for providing dependable, timely stands in row-crop residue.
Hora says by tracking soil biological action he’s learned to apply dry fertilizer early in the spring to kick off microbial activity, and by monitoring that activity as it works with cover crops (which include legumes), he’s able to apply reduced amounts of synthetic fertilizer more precisely throughout the season. His fertilizer schedule includes the spring dry fertilizer plus planter and sprayer applications, a post-emergence pass with herbicide and a nitrogen dribble, if needed, in late season.
“Our spring application of dry fertilizer feeds the microbes, then as the season progresses, we add only the nutrients necessary according to soil and tissue sample testing. Our legumes are fixing 50 units of N per acre, and the microbes make that available throughout the season,” he says. “We’re applying less synthetic nitrogen every year even though we’re applying nutrients more often.”
Hora says over the next 10 years he wants tools to help him on both the expense and income side of the equation.
“We’re striving to optimize biology within our farm management. Soil biology is so important because it drives soil chemistry,” he explains. “Soil chemistry is also affected by weather so we can’t make fertility decisions based solely on chemical analysis, there are just too many variables in a living system. Better tech and data – in the form of real-time sensors — will allow us to work with the trillions of microbes in our fields that make nutrients available and that will allow us to make more informed decisions on the expense side.
Hora says future sensors will provide real-time data on pH, NPK, organic matter, local weather conditions along with soil moisture and temperature measurements, which will allow growers to make better-informed and precise management decisions. He thinks such data-gathering equipment will become integral parts of tractor, implement and harvester systems.
“I’d encourage equipment makers to concentrate on providing data systems that will help optimize production and marketing decision making. We don’t need more data for data’s sake. We need pertinent data to help us fine tune our ROI on every purchase or practice.
“We’re also facing an immediate need for better tools to economically quantify soil carbon along with more precise carbon sequestration models,” he explains. “Carbon needs to be more valuable if carbon markets are going to work. The value of carbon to a farmer needs to be more than what it costs to sequester that carbon, and we need the tools now to set those values.”
In the revenue column, Hora says he’s looking to use his knowledge about his crop production management and soils to tell a better story to consumers. “This will allow us to open up new markets and collect more of the food and fuel dollars with customers we attract,” he says. “The ability to trace production methods of products from field to market helps add value for consumers who are increasingly concerned about the origins of their food.”
Hora says he plans a pilot a project with local hog producers that would help document increased feeding values of his corn.
“If I improved the feed efficiency and mineral nutrient content of my corn by only 2% that would provide a direct gain to hog producers who now have to buy those minerals as feed additives. Also, if a grower can feed less of my corn for the same gains and not have to purchase minerals, many of which are imported, my grain will become more valuable,” he explains. “By leveraging on-farm production data with feed quality assays, I think I could drive a price premium of at least 10%. If I could get 20-30 cents per bushel over market that would be a big deal, but I’ll need data to be able to convince hog producers my corn is worth it.”
Hora says producers need data to become more economically resilient and environmentally sustainable.
“We are running businesses and those of us in production agriculture are becoming a smaller minority each season. We have to manage better to be more productive, but we also have to be smarter about developing new business opportunities,” he says. “Currently we are spending about $20 per acre on production data collection, and about $10 per acre on soil analyses, but as we bring new customers to our marketplace – like the hog producer I mentioned — our customers will help us pay those costs.
Hora says growers cannot rely solely on equipment and ag tech developers to provide the tools for their survival. He says they must take responsibility to generate and use their farm’s data.
“For years growers have relied on university fact sheets and variety trial tests, all based on a limited number of test sites and research projects — some conducted miles away from their operation,” he says. “With today’s precision technology and data collection systems growers now have to realize everything they do on their farm has to become a research trial.
Equipment makers are developing equipment to provide ground-truthed, local, independently-collected data on hundreds of thousands of data points across a farm, he says.
“With a uniform base layer of calibrated field data and remotely-sensed outcome data (yield results and digital images) we will better understand what’s happening on every acre. From that we can fine tune specific local decisions — with ROI as a major variable — for every field. What is the best rotation, hybrid, fertility rate, seeding rate and date, etc.
“On-farm data collection is capable of providing much more precise decision-making information than a handful of research sites across a state or region,” he says, adding that successful growers over the next decade must develop what he calls a “researcher’s curiosity” based on increasing amounts of farm data they generate throughout the season.
Profit is Key
Hora says it’s great to grow new crops or incorporate new management like cover crops or relay planting, but he says the next 10 years will require management decisions to be profitable even in the short term.
“Everything we do between now and 2030 must be a business decision, and increasingly that will be playing toward consumer interest,” he explains. “That’s where the market is going, and while we’re steadily moving away from the traditional production agriculture model, whatever we do has to be profitable and it must fit logistically into our farms’ current systems.
“It’s important to start any new enterprise small and scale up as markets and production expertise improve. It’s not all about super low-cost production. We have to optimize inputs and find ways to be competitive in the market at the same time we develop new markets.”