Mike Cornelissen and his family are nominated for the most innovative arable farmer search because they make variable rate work. Starting with a simple yield monitor in the late 1990s, the Cornelissen family now uses variable rate technology in almost every part of their business.
The landscape is diverse in rural Ontario, Canada, and the farms are no different. Together with his brother and parents, Mike Cornelissen operates a multi-faceted farm business featuring a greenhouse pepper operation, poultry barns, and over 2000 acres (810 hectares) of grain production – specifically maize, soybeans, and winter wheat, or what farmers in the area refer to as ‘cash crop’. Their business is based near a town called Watford, which is near the very southern tip of Lake Huron.
Like many farmers in Southwestern Ontario, Mike’s family arrived in Canada from the Netherlands in the decade following the Second World War. They began as grain and dairy farmers, though continued to change and diversify the farm business until the present day.
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Mike Cornelissen says the overall idea, then as now, is to increase profitability by improving efficiency. Incorporating variable rate (VR) technologies seemed like an obvious choice. - Photo: Matt McIntosh
Ag Leader yield monitoring system
On the arable farming side, this included adopting different in-field management strategies like no-till (beginning in 1987) and strip-till (in 2007). Their first data-technology was an Ag Leader yield monitoring system attached to their combine in 1998.
Mike says he and his family have never delved too heavily into new arable farming technology, opting for a slow and steady approach when it comes to changing their management strategies.
However, they long saw opportunity to manage inputs, and their associated costs, more precisely. This came in part because of the variety of fields in which they grow their crops – some of it is quite productive, while other fields are much more challenging.
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The strip-till fertiliser unit in the field. 2019 marks the first year where every input has been applied with variable rate technology. - Photo: Mike Cornelissen
Incorporating variable rate (VR) technologies
Mike says the overall idea, then as now, is to increase profitability by improving efficiency. Incorporating variable rate (VR) technologies seemed like an obvious choice. Their first foray into variable rate began with maize seeding in 2013. That year, the family began working with Veritas Farm Management, an agricultural data-service company based in the nearby city of Chatham, to gain a true understanding of each field’s fertility through smart-grid soil sampling; that is, where nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous were and were not abundant.
A different nutrient management system could make a noticeable improvement to the land’s potential
Overall, Mike says, they noticed a clear, measurable gap with their nutrient management on each location. He adds they were perhaps most surprised at how many areas were actually deficient in one nutrient, while simultaneously having an abundance of another. “There were even differences on old pasture ground. A different nutrient management system could make a noticeable improvement to the land’s potential,” he says.
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The Cornelissen’s customised strip-till fertiliser applicator. It’s a 12-row shank-style unit featuring three fertiliser tanks with a total capacity of 12 metric tons. Each tank also has its own variable rate drive. It can apply up to 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of fertiliser per acre. - Photo: Matt McIntosh
2019 was the first year where everything on the farm was done variable rate. - Photo: Mike Cornelissen
Adjust seeding rates in each zone
Because it could be overlaid with fertility information, this was the first time the decades of accrued yield data really made an impact. Combining all that data helped create initial management zones. With pre-existing variable rate capabilities on their maize planter, Mike says they were able to adjust seeding rates in each zone for maximum impact. “Every farm Veritas did this with, were able to reduce seeding rates for the same level of success. It’s the same amount of seed, we just move it around the field,” Mike says.
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Variable rate nitrogen application
Variable rate nitrogen application was next. Like their seeding strategy, however, they first identified specific nitrogen management zones by taking plot measurements for five years. Potassium and phosphorous followed, and again, historical yield data came in handy for identifying patterns for each zone.
“The original yield monitor seemed like a waste for a very long time, but it turned out to be invaluable once they started actually using it,” Mike says.
With variable rate seeding and nitrogen, you don’t get it right your first year. You have to define your zones
There was still much to learn though. Indeed, Mike adds, even with all their preparation and data study, it took a few tries before they really identified what prescriptions worked where. “We may have jumped on variable rate maize seeding too early and didn’t get the returns we wanted initially,” he says. “With variable rate seeding and nitrogen, you don’t get it right your first year. You have to define your zones.”