Farm by Farm, Field by Field

Consulting group brings its ‘A’ game to soybeans, corn, peanuts, grain sorghum, wheat, rice and cotton to help Mid-South growers increase profitability.

05-14SScvrBy Carroll Smith Editor

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 2008, a consulting group was established in the Mid-South whose primary goal was to create a model to help growers be more profitable. Since that time, Southern Ag Consulting Inc. (SAC) has added several members to its consulting team and provided services that include precision ag technology and financial risk management. Although the group mainly concentrates on soybeans, corn and peanuts, they also consult on other commodities, such as grain sorghum, wheat, rice and cotton.

Alan Blaine was part of the initial development of a verification program modeled after Arkansas’ verification program that Mississippi coined the SMART program (Soybean Management through Application Research and Technology) during his tenure at Mississippi State University (MSU). Mitt Wardlaw and Brian “Bozo” Ward, who worked under Blaine as graduate students, incorporated many of the SMART program concepts into the consulting business in which they are partners today. The SMART program based its soybean production philosophy on elements like variety selection, earlier planting dates relative to the 1970s and ’80s, earlier maturing varieties and irrigation scheduling.

“By planting about 30 days earlier than many farmers are used to, to some extent we can avoid late-season drought and insect pressure,” Blaine explains. “Also, 20 years ago, we were planting 5, 6 and 7 maturity groups, and maturity group 5s and 6s represented 90 percent of that portfolio. Today, we are planting 4s and 5s, and 90 percent of those that are planted are 4s, which represents a significant shift in soybean maturity groups in the Mid-South.”

Cradle-to-grave approach

“We are in constant contact with our growers year round – cradle to grave from a production standpoint,” Wardlaw says. “We’re in on all of the agronomic decisions related to the farm. After harvest, we sit down as a group to go over variety trial data we have collected from several sources, including on-farm data. We discuss what varieties did well, what varieties did not do so good on specific soil types. We take all of that under consideration. By late fall, we will have variety selection taken care of.” Blaine adds, “In the end, we go to our clients with a good variety selection portfolio, and we think it pays off. We spend a lot of time in this area.”

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Also at those initial meetings, Southern Ag consultants make fall tillage or burndown recommendations. Moving into the first of the year, they start looking at burndown applications going out in January and February, and then begin thinking about planting dates and variety placement on specific fields.

“From there, we move into the in-season consulting protocol: weed, disease, insect management; irrigation scheduling and crop growth and development,” Wardlaw says. “Later in the season, we concentrate on harvest aids, crop termination and harvest timing, which is very critical on peanuts. Once harvest is complete, we address fertility needs and start the process all over again.” Blaine notes that earlier planting dates and earlier maturing varieties have become producers.

“We are planting more of our soybean acres on higher fertility and better-drained ground and utilizing more crop rotation,” Blaine says. “Mainly growers have begun to ‘farm’ beans like we have traditionally farmed cotton. We have had the opportunity to observe several situations that have exceeded 100 bu/A over the last couple of years. We’ve consistently produced 80 to 90 bu/A on lighter soils for the last four to five years, so land capability is a big part of this successful equation.”

Brian “Bozo” Ward notes that each of SAC’s consultants/partners has his own acres that he tends to. In addition, SAC works closely with MSU and has independent “specialists” on staff in different areas, such as fertility, plant pathology and irrigation. These resource personnel are available as needed.

“If a question comes up, and we need a ‘go-to’ person for an answer, we have access to them,” he says. “We arrange meetings in the winter with the various chemical/seed companies in an effort to keep up with new products and technologies that will help make our clients more profitable. These meetings allow us to glean more in-depth knowledge of products and varieties. Being in the field every week during the season allows us to be on top of things and know exactly what is going on. We don’t make frivolous decisions and don’t overspend. We do what we need to do to make money for our growers.”

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Another service that SAC provides involved expanding its equipment efforts. “We have a precision ag equipment and service division in which Justin Prather and Phillip Hays service the needs of our clientele,” Wardlaw says. “A lot of our growers expressed an interest in using tools like autosteer, yield monitors, variable rate and other equipment/precision ag technology but didn’t quite know how to get into it. Our goal is to help guide them in that direction. Plus, it helps us be better consultants if we have access to data gathered with these tools, such as a yield monitor, for example.

“Now we can sell the equipment, provide installation and service, calibrate when needed and analyze the data,” he adds. “We want to increase our growers’ comfort level in using this type of equipment, which increases our decision-making tools, and, in turn, increases producer profits.” After harvesting is complete, data is imported into Southern Ag Consulting’s data management program to be analyzed and compared to many in-field variables, including variety/ hybrid, soil type, soil fertility, etc. “We also assist farmers with variablerate fertilizer applications,” Wardlaw adds. “With fertilizer, for instance, we pull soil samples and design rates to make sure we are putting the right amount of fertilizer in the right spot. Your fertilizer bill may not necessarily go down with a variable-rate application, but it does ensure that the money is being spent in the right place.”

Another service that Southern Ag Consulting offers its clients is topo mapping and design. The benefits include:

  • Agronomic knowledge of proper field design
  • One-on-one consultation with their design specialist and SAC’s crop consultant
  • Expert knowledge of the software that is required to design the project
  • Quick turnaround for short notice or time-sensitive projects.

Research and development

Another area in which Southern Ag Consulting is growing is its Research and Development (R&D) program. According to Blaine, SAC has in-house R&D that evaluates as many new products as possible to get an idea of product placement potential when it hits the market. “We want to look at these products to try to determine where they will work and where they won’t work,” he explains. “Our R&D program for different companies includes seed treatment trials, in-furrow and foliar fungicide trials and herbicide and insecticide trials, to name a few.” “Companies oftentimes are looking for a very narrow scenario to test a product,” Wardlaw adds.

“Our R&D equipment is mobile, and we can generally find multiple locations with a specific criteria for evaluation within the acres that we have access to. We go to the problem, put out a test and gather the data. This segment of our company is growing every year.” In taking a step back and looking at the big picture that is Southern Ag, Wardlaw points out that the “whole premise behind everything that we do is to try to increase profits for growers. Our goal is to pool all available resources to help our clients make more money.”

Managing Financial Risk

As Southern Ag Consulting Inc. (SAC) developed its plans to help growers manage production risks, they came to realize the importance of providing a way for growers to manage their financial risk successfully. To facilitate this goal, SAC partnered with Alliance Ag Risk Management in 2009 to provide their growers an opportunity to take advantage of Alliance’s resources if they are so inclined. According to Brian Montgomery, Alliance CEO and president/risk management specialist, “We want to work with growers to figure out where they are the most vulnerable financially, then put together a plan to help manage that risk. We are a completely separate business from SAC although we are considered a ‘sister company’ under the same roof. There is no pressure for SAC clients to do business with Alliance, but we do let them know that we are available if they need us and are dedicated to servicing their account. “We are more than just a ‘crop insurance’ company,” Montgomery adds. “We have designed proprietary software that is not tied to any particular company or organization. Using this software, we can look at a grower’s marketing plan, plug in his crop insurance, plug in budgets and look at the crop mix he intends to farm in the coming year. Then we can determine the best way for the producer to have the least amount of risk and the most upside potential in his operation.” Montgomery points out that producers also are looking to him as their risk manager to help make upcoming Farm Bill decisions. “We have to decide whether to pick up Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) or Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and determine how to use changes in the insurance program in the following year to maximize opportunities,” he explains. “We are working with the companies that we do business with as well as the university to implement some of the decision models into our software. By doing this, we can make that very complex decision easier. This one-time decision, once made, cannot be changed during the life of the 2014 Farm Bill.” To learn more, visit

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