“There’s an old saying that farmers have 40 years to guess right, and what we’re doing is providing predictive insight so they don’t have to guess on some of those important and expensive decisions.”
— Mike Tweedy, Vice President of Sales, Pattern Ag
California-based Pattern Ag sequences the DNA of topsoil’s entire microbial population to identify soil-borne pathogens and project what diseases will cause problems for no-tillers growing corn and soybeans. The company recently released a free 2023 Predictive Ag Report that highlights areas of concern for various corn and soybean pests for the coming year.
In this episode of the podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment, contributing editor Dan Crummett talks with Mike Tweedy and Danielle Watts of Pattern Ag about the company’s soil testing process, predictions for the 2023 growing season and what ROI the company’s testing can provide for no-tillers.
Deep-Dive Microbe Soil Testing Improves Farm Returns
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Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment. I'm Michaela Bogner, managing editor at No-Till Farmer. In today's episode of the podcast, contributing editor Dan Crummett talks with Mike Tweedy and Danielle Watts of Pattern Ag, a company that sequences DNA and soil samples to identify what pathogens will cause problems for no-tillers in the coming growing season. Here's Dan to get us started.Dan Crummett:
Well, we're here today with Danielle Watts, Vice President of Data Services at Pattern Ag, and Mike Tweedy, the company's Vice President of Sales. I'm Dan Crummett, contributing editor for No-Till Farmer, and Pattern Ag has just released its 2023 predictive ag report, which highlights potential pests and disease problems for growers across the Midwest. I'm new to the idea of Pattern Ag, and I would just throw out if you could tell us a little bit about the company, where it's located, how it was formed, and explain, if you will, the company's business model.Mike Tweedy:
Yeah, the company's about five years old, so we're newer, but we're not new anymore. And I would say over the past five years, we've been building the engine, if you will. What we do in essence is with a farmer focus, we look inside the soil biology using sophisticated DNA sequencing techniques to understand the pathogens that exist in there, the pressures, and give a precise report back to the grower prior to planting season on what pests, pathogens, and also beneficial that exist in their soil.
So we're taking a very deep science metagenomic database look at what is happening in these fields. We are focused on corn and soybeans, so our footprint of folks on the ground is in the Midwest from the Dakotas down to Kansas over to Ohio. We also do business down in the south as well, but that's where our boots on the ground are. We are based out of Emeryville, California, which is in the San Francisco Bay Area. So all the analysis, the data science work, what I call the brain trust of the company, is located in Emeryville, California, but we are a Midwest focused company.Dan Crummett:
So you're looking at what has been known as the herd under the surface of the soil, soil biology, and what specific individuals are there. Is this through labs samples that growers are looking to you for advice on this or information? How does that work?Mike Tweedy:
Yeah, so I'll give you the high level and then I'll let Danielle fill in the details of what happens, because she oversees that work in the lab. But yes, we take a series of soil samples. We generally sample at a 10 acre grid, but we could use SSURGO maps and all those kind of different kinds of sampling methods. We pull about 12 to 14 cores on those fields at six inch depth, and all the pathogens and beneficials that we're looking for are in that top six inches of soil. They're sent off to our lab where they go through a process, and then we extract all of the DNA out of that sub sample, and then that is what goes through our sequencing process. And then each sequencing process is doing about 10 million data reads. When you compare that to existing soil analysis for nutrients, that's about 10 data points. We're getting about 10 million data points. And so we're looking at all of the biology, and so that's about 10,000 different species, about 500 billion microbes.
But what we do, the magic behind what we do is we have sequenced the very pathogens that are knocking off the biggest top end yield. So things like corn root worm and fusarium, phytophthora, sudden death syndrome and things like that, we turn those results around into a really intuitive, simple to read report that has a stoplight view, that gives you gradient view of what your pressures are. But we not only do that, we actually make recommendations on what you should do to mitigate that risk. So should I plant this type of a trait? Should I not? Should I plant this variety or hybrid that is more resistant to soybean stem tanker or should I not? Very simple decisions like that that have huge impact. There's an old saying that farmers have 40 years to guess right, and what we're doing is we're providing the predictive insights so that they don't have to guess on some of those deep decisions.Dan Crummett:
And this is on an individual basis for based on the sample that is taken on an individual operation, is that correct?Mike Tweedy:
That's correct. You want to walk through that in a little bit more detail, Danielle?Danielle Watts:
Yeah. So one of the things that really allows us to gain deeper insights, both for a grower and then of course across our Midwest footprint, is the fact that we're able to map all of these insights to a subfield insight. So we can tell you this portion of your field has a lot of pythium, and then this other portion of your field seems to be doing really well. And then from my perspective, the reason why we're able to gain deeper and deeper insights is that we are able to link that to soil chemistry, soil type, break and slope. Look, this pythium, this root rot is showing up in a portion of your field that also is low elevation, and [inaudible 00:06:04]Dan Crummett:
Does not drain, yes.Danielle Watts:
So we're able to really link across these different data sets to really drive that understanding of what are the yield impacts? What are the soil variables that are correlating? What are the main weather gradients? Some pathogens are weather linked and some are much less so or not at all. And so we're able to really sort of bring those insights in a deeper level and really validate that our insights are meaningful and link to something that's happening in a grower's field.Dan Crummett:
So your clients then are hiring your expertise and your technology for specific recommendations or insights into their own operation. And that is your business model, I take it. Is this a subscription based service or is it just pay as you go, or how does that work?Mike Tweedy:
It's more the latter than the former. We work through a dealer network of trusted advisors. So what we're doing is we're super charging the agronomic expertise of a seed dealer, a crop consultant, somebody that is working directly with the grower, and we're providing them a layer of data that they've never had access to before, so soil biology. It's the reason why I came here because I'm so excited about it because I believe we have the genetic potential in corn to be able to grow four to 500 bushel corn. We have the genetic potential in soybeans to go two to 300, but we're nowhere near that. And the one thing that we don't understand is the very medium that we plant that seed into. And so these deep insights are going to inform those better, more informed recommendations that they can make, and so we offer these products through our dealer network for them to be able to offer to their growers.Dan Crummett:
Then the interface from a grower to you is through a dealer then?Mike Tweedy:
Yes, that is correct. They have access to their data, they can see it online, but what we encourage is for the trusted advisor and the grower to sit down together and to make those decisions together. So they're going to see their results, they're both going to have access to them, but it just deepens the conversation that they're going to have and gives them greater insights on what's happening in those fields. I mean, every field has a story, right? And the only thing that they can read in that story is what happened at planting and what was my yield at harvest? Everything that happens in between that is more like reading an autopsy. I've got a disease here, it's going to impact this amount of my yield, but there's nothing I can do about it. What we do is we're filling in those chapters before the season even starts.Dan Crummett:
Well, you mentioned every field has a story, and to fill in this, maybe paint a little better picture rather than a skeleton here, do you have any anecdotes or examples of how this has worked for various growers?Danielle Watts:
I'll talk about one of our soybean growers we were working with last year. This was a fun story. We were working with this grower for a research purpose, and so they had already selected their seed before we did our soil sampling in the spring. And that grower knew they had a sudden death syndrome challenge on their field and had done a seed treatment and chosen a variety that was resistant to sudden death syndrome. So to that grower's surprise, there was a pathogen in part of their field where the grower was like, "It can't be sudden death syndrome. I'm treating for it." But the agronomist said, "Well, that sure looks like sudden death syndrome."
So because they were a part of our research program, we sent some sample off to the lab, but we also looked back at the soil test we'd done for them and said, "Look, you also have other fusarium root rots. You have rhizoctonia. You've got a couple of different pathogens in this field, and it just happened to be that those pathogens, there wasn't a seed treatment for those pathogens and the agronomists thought it looked like sudden death syndrome. It wasn't sudden death syndrome." We asked a layer deeper, and sure enough there were multiple fusarium root rots present in the roots, the stems, and the leaves, and then a boatload of rhizoctonia in the root, which had shown up in our test, but the grower just unfortunately didn't know about them before choosing his treatments. And then sure enough, there was expression of those. So just one of those sort of interesting cases where now the grower knows which part of their fields have these pathogens and can choose a better seed treatment that's able to cover more of those risk factors.Dan Crummett:
And I'm sure he or she will be a repeat customer.Danielle Watts:
That's our hope.Dan Crummett:
I've got another one though that's really fun, and this is a grower who he tested his entire farm. He's got a bunch of fields that were 15 year corn on corn. Most of his fields are continuous corn. And he had been trading up obviously for corn rootworm because it's assumed that if you're in a continuous corn rotation that you're going to have corn rootworm. And what we found is over half of his fields had no corn rootworm presence at all. And so what that informed was, Hey, I can go... Or even the fields that had it for the upcoming season only had little portions in the corner where they had the corn rootworm. And so what he made the decision on was that I don't need to spend the extra a hundred dollars on that trait. I can just put it an infurrow insecticide when I go over this corner in the field and have coverage and save a lot of money and use a hybrid that is also going to be very high yielding.
So that's another example. What we're finding is across our entire footprint for the upcoming planting season, only about 45% of the fields have moderate to high levels of corn rootworm eggs in them. And we distinguish between northern and western corn rootworm eggs when we do our analysis, but that suggests that there's a lot of money's being spent on traits that don't need to be spent. And our objective here is not to not have somebody use a trait, it's just to use the right product on the right field.Michaela Paukner:
I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, Yetter Farm Equipment. Yetter is your answer for success in the face of ever-changing crop production challenges, Yetter offers a full lineup of planter attachments, like row cleaners, closing wheels and planter mounted fertilizer equipment, and check out Yetter highly popular stock devastators, cover crop rollers, and strip till equipment. Yetter products help you maximize your inputs, save you time, and deliver a return on your investment. Visit them at yetterco.com. That's Y-E-T-T-E-R-C-O.com. Now let's get back to the conversation.Dan Crummett:
Can you address ROI on your service?Mike Tweedy:
I've got one from Southern Minnesota. This guy was so happy at harvest. Last year he did a test with us in the fall, got his results back, and this was in kind of southwest Minnesota, close to the South Dakota border. And all the agronomists in the area were swearing up and down that there was no sudden death syndrome in that field or in those fields or in that area, but he was really topped out at about 65 bushels per acres is all he could get. And so the test came back. He had sudden death syndrome at high levels in his fields. He also had some other diseases and some boron. He was boron deficient. And so that informed the decision on trait. It informed the decision on a seed treatment at a max rate. He applied boron, and then he also applied another seed treatment for the pythium and fusarium that were in the fields. Called us at harvest. He was averaging 82 bushels.Dan Crummett:
His five-year average on his soybeans was no better than 65, so he had over a 20... Or he had a little less than a 20 bushel yield increase. Now when you pencil that out to an ROI, what's corn right now? Close to 13... Or beans are close to 13.50 right now. $12 seed treatment that went on. He paid about three quarters of a bushel of soybeans for the soil test, so doesn't take a rocket scientist scientist to figure out that his ROI was massive.Dan Crummett:
Yes, yes. You mentioned research in addition to the service. How does that play into what Pattern Ag is doing?Danielle Watts:
When we're providing an insight to a grower, we really want to make sure that we have high confidence that we're not just testing their soil, but able to give them a strong recommendation, that this is a background rate of this pathogen versus this is a lot, you really need to consider a management strategy for it. So as a part of that, we are constantly doing trials with commercial scale growers to really validate the insights. And every year we choose a set of topics that we want to dive a couple of layers deeper on, and so we work with those commercial growers on the growers' initiative. And so these are, like I said, commercial scale growers. Their main sort of engagement is really to make sure that they're a part of the development of the science and that they're interested in being sort of a part of that development broadly.
An example of that is last year, we really wanted to tie... When we give a recommendation, we are making it based on tens of thousands of samples that we've evaluated and said, "Look, your sudden death syndrome or pythium inoculum load is orders of magnitude higher than the background rate" or multiples higher depending on the pathogens and sort of how it behaves. There's a bigger tie in there. What's the risk of expression? Which is a little bit different from just, what is your inoculum load? And so we were asking those questions for sudden death syndrome and really making sure that the thresholds we choose of this is a line at which you need to consider management is actually linked to a risk of expression.
And so we worked with soybean growers and actually did scouting. We sent samples to pathology lab. We evaluated what kind of treatment or what kind of resistant variety they had put in their field, and were able to link explicitly, and this is in the predictive Ag report actually, we're making this very transparent that at a given inoculum load, there is a higher risk of expression. And really being able to tie that directly into something that's very... No longer conceptual. It's very literal and real for a grower in their field.Dan Crummett:
Okay. Explain a little bit more about the risk of expression. What are some of the things that would play a part in that? Factors for risk of expression.Danielle Watts:
And of course that's going to vary a little bit by pathogen. So in our background, we know that sudden death syndrome is weather linked, that you just are more likely to have more of it where you have the right kind of summer conditions as well as spring moisture in the soil. So it gets holed in the spring and then shows up later in the year, so you have to have those conditions at planting that matter. So all of that is certainly a part of it, but there are... Sudden death syndrome, it's a really interesting pathogen where if the plants are stressed at lower levels of inoculum loads in the field, you can still have expression. So if you have a nutrient deficiency, or just the plants are susceptible because of soybean cyst nematode or something like that, your risk of expression is higher.
And that's why we think of these pathogens as they cluster in certain ways. One amplifies another. Particularly like your corn rootworm can amplify your summer pathogens because they've done damage to the roots. Same thing with soybean cyst nematode where you have feeding from them, you have an amplified risk of some of your root rots-Dan Crummett:
Other stressors.Danielle Watts:
Yeah. So we're really trying to link all of these together and really sort of understand fundamentally what are the drivers in these fields.Dan Crummett:
Okay. What's the scope of acreage and cooperators in your market area? I know it's mainly Midwest, but what are we looking at as far as acres you cover and number of growers?Mike Tweedy:
I couldn't give you the number of growers right off the top of my head, but we're well up many hundreds of thousands of acres across the Midwest, and this is our second year of being fully commercial, the first three years being more really working on an experimental basis and figuring out our models. So we're on many hundreds of thousands of acres from the Dakotas all the way to Ohio, and then we also have acreage down in the mid-south.Dan Crummett:
Yeah, delta area.Mike Tweedy:
The reports from 2019 forward are what you were talking about. The last two then would be the commercial reports since you've gone commercial.Mike Tweedy:
That's correct.Dan Crummett:
Are those reports available to the public or are they just only part of your growers?Mike Tweedy:
On an individual basis with the grower, the grower owns their data. And we anonymize it when it goes into our cloud, so we take biology, we turn it into gigabytes of data, and then it goes up into the cloud and it produces this massive metagenomics platform. We don't make individual grower information available unless they give us permission to do that, otherwise we don't share that. What we do share is the aggregated data that's in the cloud, which is what you see in the Pattern Ag report, predictive Ag report. That is aggregated and anonymized data.Dan Crummett:
Is it available to the public?Mike Tweedy:
Yes. Go to our website pattern.ag and you can order a copy of the 2023 Predictive Ag report. I kind of call it the Farmer's Almanac of what to expect after planting this season, but anybody can receive a free copy.Dan Crummett:
No moon phases.Mike Tweedy:
No moon phases.Dan Crummett:
Very good. Any predictions of growth beyond the Midwest right now, or what might be coming down the pip for Pattern Ag in the future?Mike Tweedy:
We are expanding into Brazil as we speak. We have to go down and build out our models. It's not a trivial thing to go into a new country or even into a new crop because we have to build completely new models and there's different pathogens that we have to map their genomes.
We will be expanding into other crops. The other crops, we would like to work with crops that rotate with corn and soybeans because it keeps us on the same acre. So things like cotton, wheat down the road, maybe sugar beets, but we plan to expand into as many crops as we possibly can. But if you're going to fundamentally change commodity agriculture at scale, it has to be done on corn and soybeans, and so we wanted to build a model, we wanted to build a product that you could take at scale that corn and soybean growers who live on razor-thin margins, that would give them the ability to improve that margin by improving top end yield. And that is our North Star as a company. All we're focused on is bringing these insights to bear so that they can improve their top end yield, which a rising tide raises all ships, will improve their ROIs as well.Michaela Paukner:
Thanks to Mike Tweedy, Danielle Watts, and Dan Crummett for today's conversation. The full transcript and a video for this episode are available no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. And check out the May 2023 issue of No-Till Farmer Magazine to see a map of the corn rootworm and soybean sudden death syndrome hotspots Pattern Ag anticipates for the 2023 growing season.
Many thanks to Yetter Farm Equipment for helping to make this No-Till podcast series possible. From all of us here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Michaela Bogner. Thanks for listening.
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