Green Power Farms maximizes production with precision farming

June 10, 2021

It is with a knowing eye, a lifetime of experience, and an iPad that Todd Schrankel considers how to optimize healthy crop production at Green Power Farms near Shell Lake.

His iPad—and phone—are integral tools in his precision farming practices.

“Precision farming is a way that we utilize technology to record data and make decisions off that data and place our inputs where they’d be best utilized.” Schrankel said.

Technology is used more extensively now than it was when Schrankel was raised next door on the farm still owned and operated by his parents, Herb and Linda. Back then, it was a dairy farm. Now his dad has some beef cattle, and between father and son, they manage about 4,000 acres, some of it rented, making theirs one of the biggest farms in the area.

They have 500,000 bushels of grain storage. Corn is contracted with Jennie-O Turkey Store out of Barron, and soybeans go to Wheaton Grain in the Chippewa Falls area, where they are loaded directly into shipping containers and exported.

“We need to have that global market or I might as well go get a job bagging groceries,” Schrankel said. “Because if we can’t, we won’t be able to make a living, without a market.”

His lifelong farming was augmented with a dozen years of also working off the farm after he graduated with an agronomy degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

He worked at Rice Lake Farmer Union out of college, in sales and doing application and fertilizer recommendations. Then he worked for Kohel Power Equipment (now Tractor Central) selling GPS equipment and precision farming equipment and later large equipment.

By 2014, with Schrankel getting busier with building up his own farming operations, farming more acreage with this dad, and raising his family with his wife, Marie, he wanted to work closer to home. The part-time farming had begun to feel like a full-time job, in addition to his full-time work off the farm, so he took the self-employed route.

“I got to the point where I was getting too stretched out on both sides that one of them had to go, and I felt that with my experience and knowledge, working for myself predominantly, I would grow more equity in my life. You’re working for yourself.” Schrankel said.

He is convinced the easy part of farming is the planting and the harvesting.

The business end of it is more difficult.

“We’re buying inputs or contracting at different times based on the market” Schrankel said. “Same with the fuel, same with the seed. The seed discounts with most companies are maximized usually starting in September for the next year. It varies between companies, but 10% discount on paying cash at that point for your seed, well, when you’re talking about a bag of corn being between $250 to $300 for a lot of these companies, if you talk 10% of that, that’s $25 to $30 a bag, and a bag of corn plants approximately 2 ½ acres.”

Schrankel rotates corn and soybeans, plus rye as a cover crop. He raised a couple hundred acres of wheat until the market crashed several years ago.

Rye is becoming more popular across the region.

“A lot of guys around here are using cover crops at varying levels, different mixes” Schrankel said, “We’re using rye because its cheap and easy, and its winter hardy.”

He plants rye in the rotation as a cover crop on a majority of the acres coming out of soybeans to loosen the soil structure and control erosion runoff. He has been cropping with the rye for about five years, and by the second year, the downforce the corn planter needed to sink the seed was distinctly less.

“It’s telling me that our soil is more mellow, its loose, less compaction,” Schrankel said. “Roots can grow faster, the water can infiltrate quicker instead of running off.”

The benefits of cover cropping were confirmed when he rented land across the road from his fields and it look 100 to 150 pounds more downforce to plant that field than the ones he managed for multiple years.

“It was kind of an eye opener, it was a surprise,” he said. “So that’s something that showed me that what we were doing was making a difference. So now the different part about that is how do we keep doing that without having the penalty of affecting our yield?”

One of the problems is killing off the rye at the right time. The last couple of years the rye was too small when planting began and too big when planting was done, creating the potential for the extra decomposing mass to steal away some of the nitrogen from the corn. With this year’s lack of rain, moisture taken up by the rye, has led to uneven corn germination.

With those complications, Schrankel is on the fence about whether to continue with rye or try the less aggressive winter wheat or triticale.

Testing and experiment are an inherent part of his work; planting different crops, adjusting fertilizer and seed rates, varying plant spacing, putting in new and current hybrid seeds trials and evaluating them for Legacy Seeds.

Schrankel changed from a 30-inch row of corn to 20 inches, and he found the narrower spacing reduced competition between the plants and placed them where they make better use of the broadcast fertilizer. The biggest gain was more efficient water use.

The corn does mature later in the fall, however, due to less air movement and a cooler canopy, Schrankel said.

He inputs prescriptions for the seeding so the plant adjusts the seed population based on whether each section of ground can sustain a higher or lower population. Schrankel records the yield data off combines and compiles that with data gathered since 2008.

“When we went to 20 inch rows, the one thing that was very noticeable was I didn’t have as much fluctuation going across the field as we did in 30-inch rows,” he said. “The poor yielding spots weren’t as poor, they got better. The yield improved on the lower yielding spots of the field, more than the yield improved on the higher yielding spots in the field.”

Schrankel’s crop removal rates based on the yield maps help guide him when fertilizing, along with data from soil sampling based on GPS. Employing his iPad or phone, he zone samples a field and logs the sample point. The lab results are input into the Soil Test Pro program out of Kentucky. Then the results are accessible through his phone, giving him immediate info for any particular fields when he wants it.

“I use that data to make corrections” Schrankel said. “We variable rate our line. I do variable rate fertilizer when needed. And then I also vary the rate of fertilizer, when I’m doing it myself anyway, based off of what the potential is or what the yield is on certain areas of the fields, to basically maximize or be more efficient with my fertilizer and place it where I’m going to get my most return.”

All of his equipment – sprayer, fertilizer, spreader, the planters – can adjust their rate on the go, controlled with a monitor.

As Schrankel considers the data, he is always questioning what led to those results.

“If you’re not asking yourself why, then you’re not learning or progressing is I guess the way I see it. I’m always asking myself why. Why did this happen or what’s going on here?”

All that analysis points him toward the best return on investment.

“I feel there’s a lot of (technology) stuff that came on that was a good return on investment” he said. “There’s a lot of other technology directions that they’re trying to implement. But it’s “What’s the payback on it?”

That is one of the questions now in an experiment this year using satellite imagery for crop scouting. He has the satellite images, and five times this season drones will scout for weeds, insects and diseases.

Besides the cropping, Schrankel has diversified by leasing a sprayer to cashflow it while taking care of the land he crops and custom spraying neighbors’ land, about 11,000 to 12,000 total acres annually. He custom combines, does some planting, and sells seed for Legacy.

“I’m kind of maxed out as to what I can do for the time I’ve got,” Schrankel said.

Still he continues to integrate more ways of balancing potential and rate of return. Sometimes that means delving into another technological advance or trying a new process.

“We’re kind of always trying a little bit of new stuff,” Schrankel said.

And then seeing if it really is worth it.

Copyright article – reprinted with permission from the Spooner Advocate

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