Bobby Joe Donovan is determined to be the best farmer she can be. She wants her 2,500-acre grain farm near Mossleigh, Alberta, to be something she can pass on to her three children. Strong, self-reliant and well-educated, she is also wise enough to know that in today’s ultra-competitive world she had better not be hesitant to ask for help when she needs it.
“The type of farming we are doing has become very scientific,” she says. “Agronomists take soil samples in specific zones and they give you a prescription of what you need to optimize yield by applying the proper amount of fertilizer and seed for that area in the field.
“Before that it was what my late husband learning from his father. The problem is you can be spending way more money than you need to be.”
In a business with the tightest of margins and astronomical land and equipment costs, wasting money is not an option and since the advent of computer technology, farmers have been employing new solutions to solve age-old problems. Examples include tractors equipped with GPS guidance to ensure fuel, seed or fertilizer is not wasted by overlapping, adopting zero or minimal tillage field preparation to save on moisture while cutting down on erosion and now, computer platforms that gather almost all of the information a farmer needs into one easy-to-access place.
“Anywhere you can save yourself an expense is a gift,” she says. “Grain prices aren’t increasing at the same rate as farmland values and equipment costs so you have to be able to optimize what you are putting into the ground and you can make a decent living.”
Donovan was put in charge of the farm, about 63 kilometres southeast of Calgary, after her husband Eric and 11-year-old son, Wade, were killed in a small plane crash in Saskatchewan in May 2012. To that point she had looked after the business side of things. Her late husband, who had grown up on the farm and learned about the land from his father, was responsible for the rest.
Suddenly, she was a single mother running a farm, growing wheat, barley, canola and peas. She and her husband had also built a trucking business; she has since retired to focus on family and agriculture.
“As a farmer you have to pick what you are expert at,” Donovan says. “I’m actually an accountant and I have a university degree, a bachelor’s in management with a minor in accounting. That is important, too.
“But my husband, he made the planning decisions for crop rotation, chemical applications and those decisions. When he passed away seven years ago, I took over those roles.”
Fortunately, her husband had started working with agronomists, experts in soil management and crop production, as early as 2007. About five years ago, Donovan adopted a broader digital platform provided by an Alberta company called Decisive Farming. It interconnects all the information she regularly uses. In addition to the agronomists' work, she can now also scrutinize data from global grain markets, her financial considerations, and even crop changes on one easy-to-access site.
“What this technology has done for us, I think, is make things way more consistent from year to year with higher yields,” she says. “It is way more consistent rather than ups and downs. I know exactly what yields I can expect.”
“It takes a lot of good timing, but soil sampling is a must. Our farm is spread over a five-mile radius and it is amazing how different the soil samples can be.”
Not only can the soil vary from field to field, but soil conditions can change from part of a field to another. Decisive Farming sends a team of agronomists to her farm, which has been analyzed using satellite imagery. Several soil samples are collected from the different areas and sent to a lab for testing. The results allow the agronomists to make suggestions about which soils are best suited to certain crops, which fields need more fertilizer or no fertilizer at all, and which areas would benefit the most from crop rotation.
Making informed decisions with this information makes Donovan’s farm more resilient to the inevitable vagaries brought on by weather, which is often unpredictable.
“Weather is still a big part of farming and it is one thing you can’t plan for,” she says. “But if you can plan for everything else hopefully you can then overcome a drought and then start getting some decent yields again.”
Weather is still a big part of farming and it is one thing you can’t plan for. But if you can plan for everything else hopefully you can then overcome a drought and then start getting some decent yields again.
If mistakes can be avoided, money can be saved.
“You have to know your cost of production,” she says. “Their software helps you input the cost of your expenses and lets you know what you have to grow to break even. It tells you what prices you have to sell your grain at to break even. It provides the tools to help you be as successful as you can be.”
Decisive Farming’s CEO and president, Remi Schmaltz, says his company has provided an integrated platform for crop growers since 2011.
“It really functions as their primary operating system, (and includes) everything from how to produce a crop more efficiently, or how to improve conditions on the farm and also how to protect margins and ultimately market the crop,” he says in an interview from his company’s headquarters in the rural community of Irricana, about 53 kilometres northwest of Calgary near Alberta’s badlands.
“Within the mix of that you deal with a lot of different factors – economic, social and environmental – that impact how the crop is grown and managed. We’ve seen a lot of benefits on the side from a sustainability standpoint. We reduce greenhouse gas emissions through our technology, but we also have a growing client base of organic farmers that are looking to create added value from how they are growing it.”
To date, his firm services about 1,500 clients across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and has also now expanded into the U.S. market. A key to that success is both a solid understanding of grain farming, as well as regular consultations with producers.
“I’m not a farmer myself, but my family has been involved in agribusiness for the last four generations – the last hundred years,” Schmaltz says.
“Most of the advanced farms are using GPS now, they’ve got the spreadsheets and so on, but they’ve also got the pen and paper out and a lot of the information is in their heads. They haven’t digitized their farms and the data and information is in many, many different places with the different consultants they work with, the agronomists, their equipment dealers, bankers, accountants, or grain elevators.
“Our platform was really designed to help connect all of the different servers and technologies on the farm to give the farmer one place to access and control that information. It helps farmers make better decisions.”
Decisive Farming customizes its program for each customer, often at a per acre cost, making it affordable and beneficial for smaller farms as well as for farms covering more than 40,000 acres. Schmaltz says his average client farms about 4,000 acres.
“There is a fit for every farm size, and we make recommendations for 42 different crop types and over five million acres, so it is a pretty diverse group of crops and varieties being grown across Western Canada and parts of the U.S.”
Schmaltz says many farmers, and indeed some Fortune 500 agriculture companies who use his firm, already worked with several single-skew technology systems that performed well. The problem is that the data was often spread out and could take some effort to find. Decisive Farming brings it together.
He says the program is intuitive to operate but his company also works with an advisory panel of producers that provides quarterly feedback on how well things are working.
“We also have great user base that is pretty vocal as well on what is working and what is not,” he says. “We are in continuous improvement mode. We’ve got farmers who are 70 years old using our system and the young farmer who is 20.”
The company also puts lot of effort into supporting farmers because, after all, farmers are experts at farming and probably not computer programs.
“Because of the complexity of farming there are a lot of moving parts and all farms operate a little differently,” he says. “And the people component in agriculture is more important than ever.
“Our technology enables them to make more money, but it also enables them to have more time to do the things they want to do.”
Donovan can attest to that.
“I think that as a farmer you can only be an expert in so many things, so it is OK to hire someone to help you out,” she says. “Luckily for us we had experts and it has made my learning a lot simpler.”