Monroe County family finds savings using data analytics

Jan Shepel
Norwalk dairy farmer Walker Rynes sits in his farm office looking at data on his fields and potential crops yields generated by information from the Farmers Business Network. The network takes data put into the system anonymously by almost 8,000 farmers across the United States and Canada and allows farmer-members like Rynes to see how various input choices will likely perform in their fields.

NORWALK, Wis. – Walker Rynes is a dairy farmer who is just as happy crunching numbers as he is milking his cows or mixing feed for them. He loves nothing more than sitting in front of the two huge computer screens looking at data in his office just off the farm’s new milking parlor.

With several of the family’s deer mounts looking on from above, he’s happy to look at numbers all day—data on his family’s 640 cows and on the crop inputs that they will use this spring on their 1,200 acres—some owned and some rented, in the scenic hills and valleys of Monroe County, just east of La Crosse.

“I love looking at data, at numbers,” says Walker. “I can make decisions that are for the best interest of the farm.”

Rynes is thrilled that they made the connection with the Farmers Business Network (FBN) when account executive Dawn Burroughs stopped in at the farm one day. “She came prepared. I can go on their website and the data they have there is unbelievable,” he said.

Walker, an All American in the sport of Cross Country, who graduated last year from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with a degree in Ag Business, farms with his dad, Mike Rynes, and his grandfather, Bob Radke. Dairy Comp 305, a computer program that tracks information on dairy cows and young stock, is a part of Walker’s daily life as he helps manage the large Holstein herd which carries a rolling herd average of 29,000 pounds on three-times-a-day milking, with a somatic cell count of 130,000.

Their cell counts have been as low as 90,000 since they moved into a new double-12 parallel parlor about two-and-a-half years ago, adds Bob. Cell counts had been higher in the old facility—up to 600,000—and everyone is happier in the new parlor. “Everything’s a lot easier now,” Walker said.

The family had decided to make some changes at the farm when Walker voiced interest in coming home to become part of the business. “Years ago I never gave it a thought that I’d be able to farm with my grandchildren,” says Bob. “But we enjoy doing things together.”

In high school, Walker wasn’t sure what he wanted to do but once he went to college he was driven by the idea of being his own boss on the family farm. “And working with grandpa is a dream come true really,” he adds.

Walker also has a sister, Zoey, who is majoring in dairy science at UW-Platteville, and a brother, Tanner, who will graduate from high school this spring. Both are interested in becoming part of the family’s farming operation.

The next generation’s interest in farming makes it all the more important for him to find the most efficient way to operate, says Bob. “The value of everything on the balance sheet is so much less now,” he said.

To add insult to the current injury they are experiencing in the dairy economy, their Hawk High Dairy was one of the farms in western Wisconsin that had a barn collapse in March due to snow load.

Their older freestall barn, which was built before the recent expansion, had some trusses that gave way, trapping some cows and falling on others. “Those people in Nebraska with their troubles from flooding sure have our sympathy,” says Bob, because he knows what it’s like to deal with an unexpected disaster.

Oldest cow

That older barn housed 250 cows when the middle trusses collapsed. Three cows got hurt, but amazingly all three are still in the herd. That trio included the oldest cow in the herd. She is about to reach a lifetime production record of 300,000 pounds of milk this year. (The new facilities include bays to load semi-trailers and they ship about a tanker load of milk per day.)

The day of the disaster they had to free the trapped cows and clear debris because they needed to continue using the barn. “Where are you going to put 250 cows if not back in their barn?” Bob said. More pieces of tin have come down since then as they worked with contractors to decide how to shore up the structure.

The repair project may involve replacing all of the trusses in the barn.

With a huge and unexpected repair project like that, and milk prices that remain pretty bad, Bob says that making decisions about fertilizer and seed purchases are important. “It’s a matter of survival.”

Walker Rynes farms with his family near Norwalk in Monroe County. They milk their high-producing Holsteins three times a day and ship a tanker load of milk to Grassland every day.

Once Burroughs showed Bob and Walker the information on their current seed and fertilizer purchases and how they could save money, they were interested. They figured they have saved their operation $70,000 on seed this year, in addition to savings on farm chemicals. They decided to forego the “bells and whistles” of traited seed corn and will plant conventional varieties based on FBN data analysis.

“The data is showing us that we can get the same yields using these varieties so we are going to try it,” Walker said. The operation has also saved 95 cents per gallon on their starter fertilizer.

"I’m willing to be one of those people who tries something first,” Walker said.

Walker loves that the data helps him make decisions, looking at weather, soil temperatures, soil maps, yield potential. The FBN has 45 million data acres and their analytics can virtually place a given seed variety in his fields, he explained. “That really comes in handy when we’re trying to choose a variety for a rented field,” Walker added.

Jason Hawkinson, who handles FBN accounts in Wisconsin and offers agronomy advice, said their variety seed finder helps farmers see when there are different seeds being marketed under different labels and allows them to realize savings based on their choices. They just want farmers to have the best information possible, he adds.

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Different labels

“You find out that the same bag of seed corn can be $20 different in price under a different label. Knowledge is power,” Walker said.

Burroughs notes that FBN doesn’t spend a lot on marketing itself. “We feel that word of mouth from satisfied farmers is the best advertising,” she said. The staffers at FBN also do clinics, get referrals and make cold calls on farmers. That’s how they met Walker and his grandfather.

There is an annual event in Omaha in December for FBN members and some of them have formed their own social media groups to keep in touch. As for the data on the FBN, Hawkinson says that it is all anonymous—members can’t see who other members are.

“The majority of FBN employees grew up in agriculture and believe in the FBN mission,” says Hawkinson. “We can definitely sleep well because we know we’re helping someone. The smiles we see, the relationships we are building are very gratifying. Farmers want to hear about it.”

Burroughs and Hawkinson both said they see themselves as being part of their farmer-member’s operating team. They stressed that they don’t care which products farmers buy, as long as they are making informed decision.

Walker and his family decided to purchase seed from F2F Genetics, an offshoot of the FBN this year based on the performance data Walker saw in the analytics.

Farm origins

Bob bought the nucleus of this farm in 1989 from the Wisconsin Farmland Conservancy. It was then 223 acres. He started the farm with that original land on the ridge top which included a 60-cow barn. “It was a good farm with a lot of good neighbors,” he said.

The family added cows and barns to house them over the years, expanding to 100 cows. They decided to put a parlor in the old barn and have kept expanding the operation from there. One good neighbor wanted Bob to own his land and allowed him to buy it on a land contract. They have continued to expand their land base as they expanded their dairy herd.

About 40 percent of their all-Holstein herd are registered animals. Walker has expressed interest in expanding the herd to 1,000 cows, Bob said.