Izaak Rathke is no stranger to competition, and one of his main goals as Director of Sales for Allied Cooperative in Western Wisconsin is to keep his customers competitive in the world of row crop agriculture.
Izaak Rathke grew up sport fishing with his dad in La Crosse. He learned early that bringing together the right tools with the knowledge to use them is a winning combination. “This spring in Alabama, I caught a 25-inch, 8.5-pound largemouth bass,” Rathke says, happy that for the past four years, he has been able to participate in professional bass tournaments, just like when he was a teen.
In the last few growing seasons, Rathke and his sales team have helped local growers find success through a winning combination of plant-tissue testing and adding the right fertilizer at the right time. Aspire®, which combines potassium and boron into each granule, has helped farmers break through previous yield plateaus.
“We have been focusing on tissue-testing alfalfa to prove the effectiveness of Aspire®,” Rathke says. “Most of the time, we pull a soil sample as well as a tissue sample, to correlate the two of them. Tissue sampling comes back with N, P and K and all the micros, and probably 95, even 98 percent are showing deficiency in boron, so then we use Aspire® especially on the alfalfa, to bump up those boron levels. It works really well because the boron is infused in every granule of potash. With other boron products, you are trying to put 7 pounds across an entire acre, and you get hot spots and misses. By using Aspire®, our growers are seeing an increase of a half-ton of dry matter per acre. With Aspire®, you are covering 100 percent of the field. I’ve seen the tissue tests. You can foliar-feed with any type of foliar-feed boron, and that gives a little bump. But with Aspire®, it takes the plants right out of deficiency. It goes a lot faster than with the foliar feeding.”
In the process of showing a grower the potential of Aspire®, the agronomists at Allied Cooperative set up strips where they place the product and create a visible contrast with the surrounding area. With the prevalence of dairy operations in the region, there is a huge call for forages like alfalfa.
“We have a couple of very large dairies — a 10,000-cow dairy and a 4,000-cow dairy — where they grow their own alfalfa, and typically have had difficulties getting the boron levels up,“ continues Rathke. “We’ve used some foliar-applied products, but now Aspire® is part of the program. Once they use it, they start to use it four times a year. We’ve done a little bit on corn, and we’ve done some research on it, but we are planning to do a real push to show folks what they can do by applying boron to their corn. Anytime you get over 180 to 200 bushels of corn, boron becomes a huge factor in the growth of the plant, helping with nutrient uptake, in particular.”
After Aspire® is used on alfalfa, the plants are fuller, the leaves are bigger, and they are healthier in general, according to Rathke.
“We go out with spinner spreaders,” says Rathke, describing the typical regimen for alfalfa. “We apply about half Aspire® and half straight potash — 150 pounds of Aspire® and 150 pounds of potash. We come in right after the alfalfa is cut, and spread the fertilizer on bare ground. When the stand comes up, then we’ll tissue test. If we need anything else, we’ll go out with a sprayer and do a foliar feeding, but typically with Aspire®, the crop is holding it just fine. You’ll still have other nutrients you need to get out there, but Aspire® gives such good coverage that we don’t need a boron foliar feed. We go in after first crop, after second crop and sometimes after third crop, hitting it with Aspire® and potash two to three times.”
Allied Cooperative has seven locations in western Wisconsin: Plover, Adams, Mauston, Tomah, West Salem, Galesville and Arcadia. Rathke travels to all the locations and works with all the salespeople on new products and marketing.
“The sales team loves Aspire®,” states Rathke. “Our biggest challenge is storage space. We don’t have enough room to have it at every location. We have it at West Salem, Tomah and Adams, and when we get a sale in another area, we’ll bring a semi-load from one of those three locations. With any fertilizer plant, you are limited on bin space. If things keep going the way they are, we’re going to have to make room for it at every location. We sell 600 to 800 tons a year — it’s been growing every year.”
Rathke is now in his fourth year as Director of Sales at Allied Cooperative. Before that, he worked in sales at Wisconsin River Co-op, and then it became Allied when it merged with West Salem Farmers Co-op.
“I love working at a growing company. We need to keep growing — it makes it interesting,” Rathke asserts.
Asked about the future, Rathke predicts that Allied Cooperative will continue to grow its precision ag business.
“We do variable-rate fertilizer and variable-rate seeding,” Rathke explains.
“We have drones. In the immediate future, we are looking at a new drone that has Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) cameras on it that tell you the biomass of the plants. Kind of like satellite imagery does. We have satellite imagery from a number of sources, so we can take satellite pictures of the fields. But with this new drone, you can send it up and do the same thing, but it’s more accurate because you don’t get the cloud-cover problems in there. The camera on the drone senses the biomass of the plant, so the more biomass you have, the more green — that shows how healthy the plant is. When you get a low-biomass reading, that’s when you need more fertilizer. There are drones that will tell you how much fertilizer you need to put on. Say you put on 150 pounds of nitrogen — it will variable-rate it as it goes along. You land the drone, it runs a report, you send that report to the machine and the machine will mimic that as it goes across the field.”
Rathke feels that precision ag is the key to a good economic return on the farmer’s investment. It will also reduce environmental impact, he thinks, and that’s good for Rathke’s favorite bass fishing spot — Pool 8, on the Mississippi River at La Crosse. He doesn’t mind if it also helps out western Wisconsin’s storied trout streams, too.
“When you grid-sample, you find the good and bad spots in the field, so when we variable-rate fertilizer, the map is adjusting the rate as it goes across the field, so you are not wasting fertilizer,” Rathke points out. “You’re avoiding where crops can use it. You have areas of fields that are high performers, and then you have other areas where there are low lands or lighter soils, or it’s leached out. We variable-rate with both lime and fertilizer. In one field, you can have 10 different soil types, from light ground to heavy ground to wet ground. So we’ll variable-rate the seed; for example, we’ll go down to 22,000 seeds per acre on the sand, and we’ll go up to 38,000 on the really high production ground. The machine plants a lower population to mitigate stress; with fewer plants, the crop can handle more stress, and the ears will flex out more. You get to the highly productive land, and you can crank the plant population way up.”
“It’s the same thing for the fertilizer,” Rathke continues. “The highly productive land holds the fertilizer better, and the less productive ground we might adjust. It’s better for the environment because you are not applying fertilizer where it doesn’t have to be.”