Multiple Pathways to Profitability

May 10, 2019

By Barb Baylor Anderson • From Spring 2019 American Soybean

Today’s farm environment requires greater creativity. With slim margins, soybean farmers must look for smart ways to improve profitability. With innovative thinking and a sensible level of risk, farmers may find that soil, technology and customers can be pathways to success.

Rocky Bateman moved from a conventional, high-yield approach to 100-percent no-till, and the decision continues to pay off for the North Dakota producer. Photo courtesy of Rocky Bateman

Net income mindset for better soil health

Rocky Bateman’s family homesteaded near New Salem, N.D., in 1897 on rolling and rugged land that annually sees only 14-16 inches of rain.

Facing challenging economics in the late 1990s, the fifth-generation Bateman took a fresh look at the farm and chose a new production strategy grounded in better soil health.

“Going 100-percent no-till was the first step. Crop diversity and incorporation of cover crops was the second,” Bateman said. “We moved from a conventional, high-yield approach to a net income mindset, and it continues to pay off 20 years later.”

The Batemans have increased organic matter from one percent up to 4.5 percent. Erosion is no longer a problem. They see improved water quality and water-holding capacity, and proven yields have tripled for spring wheat and corn.

“A true no-till system gives you all of this for free,” he said. “As soil health improves and the biology above and below ground come back into balance to where they were as native prairie sod, there is a reduction and even elimination of weeds and pest management needs.”

Multiple crops help. “I do not use a business-as-usual rotation. I dynamically vary my use of soybeans, peas, oats, spring wheat, durum, corn, sunflower, canola and alfalfa,” he said. “Cattle apply the fertility to the soil as they graze crop residue.”

Bateman soil tests annually and follows up on areas that need special attention. He then uses cover crops to speed up biological time and restore soil to a more productive state.

“I use 10 or more warm and cool season grasses and broadleaf plants,” he said. “My goal is to mimic the native prairie’s ideal soil profile and restore its attributes. Since eliminating tillage, we have created a year-round food supply for wildlife in this area.”

So passionate is Bateman about his efforts, he helped develop a soil health mentoring program offered through the local soil conservation district. “Shop Talks” are held at various farms so neighbors can compare notes with each other and with soil health experts.

“The results of a good soil health program adopted on a farm-wide basis are undeniable,” he said. “This is a long-term process we will be working on for generations to come.”

Technology with ROI potential

Joshua Stutrud of Barton, N.D. farms with his dad and grandfather, raising barley, wheat, canola and soybeans. He also is passionate about identifying and trying various precision agriculture technologies that will improve return on investment and operation efficiency.

“You have to be willing to push the envelope, especially as farmers must increasingly address customer demand,” Stutrud said. “There is growing pressure to meet their expectations, including production sustainability and crop quality in the same marketplace. Precision agriculture can reduce your environmental impact and increase your profitability.”

The Stutrud family employs full-farm variable rate seeding and input application practices. With use of Normalized Difference Vegetative Index (NDVI) imagery, they make maps during different stages of crop growth to evaluate crop health and identify production zones for soil testing to build and maintain fertility, especially for phosphorus.

Todd (left) and Joshua Stutrud try various precision agriculture technologies that will improve return on investment and operation efficiency. Photo courtesy of Joshua Stutrud

To improve accuracy and efficacy of herbicide applications, they use an intelligent nozzle control system that delivers better coverage and consistent droplet sizes. Their com

bine has cameras on the clean grain and tailings elevators to show crop samples in real time and make any necessary adjustments in the sieves and fans to maintain cleanliness, keep samples consistent and increase bushels harvested. The combine also can adjust for moisture levels throughout the day. The Stutruds use temperature and moisture cables to rehydrate soybeans and add test weight.

“We also have an on-combine Near InfraRed (NIR) analyzer that measures protein, fiber and

oil in real time, taking samples every 6-11 seconds,” he explained. “During winter, we take the data and evaluate it to see if we need to make changes in zones to manage quality the next season.”

In selecting technologies, the Stutruds always study potential return on investment first. “Everything has to meet our ROI and efficiency focus,” he said. “There has only been one or two times when technology we tried did not pan out as expected.”

Stutrud encourages other farmers to be innovative about trying new precision ag tools.

“Don’t be afraid to ask your dealer to consider carrying a product you want to try. That is what we did with one technology. In return, I agreed to share my data so the dealer could show other farmers how it works,” he said. “Keep your eyes and ears open to change and try new things.”

Food-grade customer niche

Bob Sinner’s family business, SB&B Foods, Inc., Casselton, N.D., has been in production agriculture since 1906 and diversified into food-grade product processing and marketing in 1990. They never stop innovating to attract new customers and maintain established relationships.

“For generations, we’ve been adopting new technology, embracing new techniques and perfecting them,” he said. “Our most distinct and valuable trait is our ability for small-scale, service-minded thinking. Each of our customers has unique needs to meet.”

Bob Sinner’s family business, SB&B Foods, Inc., has been supplying food-grade soybeans for more than 25 years. Photo courtesy of Bob Sinner

SB&B, which includes fourth and fifth generation family members, has been supplying food-grade soybeans in the U.S. and Asia for more than 25 years, expanding facilities as needed.

“Times were tough when we started in the late 1980s. Our company had the flexibility to allow me to travel to Asia and develop a direct-to-customer business,” he said. “We had pride in the product we produced, but listening to what customers needed in a specific variety was critically important. We put together a business that made sense for us, making certain to concentrate on an effective breeding program.”

SB&B added its own research capabilities to evaluate food-grade soybean varieties for different food uses. The goal is to identify beans that support both customer and producer objectives.

Sinner encourages those with a passion for the food industry to explore the numerous opportunities available. Food-grade soybean production requires a stronger attention to detail to capture the benefits, but he says producers interested in direct marketing can be successful if they have good support on the farm. Sinner advises that international travel builds customer relationships and trust.

“There is nothing magical about marketing. Develop and maintain a reputable relationship and business will happen,” he said. “Growing food-grade soybeans really creates a personal feeling of production with a purpose.”