Positioning Growers to Win
With its suite of game-changing products, 360 Yield Center puts growers in a position to win—no matter what nature does.
It was a cold January day when I arrived at the Morton, Illinois, headquarters of 360 Yield Center for the first evening of a three-day open house. The parking lot was jam-packed with cars, trucks and a couple of charter buses representing at least nine different states. Inside the vast, 96,0000-square-foot building, which once housed a Farm & Fleet retail store, company president Gregg Sauder was delivering a presentation to several hundred growers from around the Midwest who had gathered to check out the latest advances in ag technologies. His mantra: “getting more from less.”
Maximizing yield potential has long been Sauder’s mission. A fourth-generation farmer from Tremont, he and his wife Cindy founded Precision Planting in 1993 to improve planting technologies—developing planter add-ons and high-tech tools to achieve precise seed depth and spacing. Nearly two decades later, they sold the company to Monsanto [which in turn sold it to AGCO in 2017 after a deal with John Deere fell apart].
Freed from the demands of presiding over a multimillion-dollar company, Gregg Sauder might have rested on his laurels, content with the comforts of the family farm. But that’s just not who he is. It wasn’t long before a new challenge—and opportunity—presented itself.
In the summer of 2012, following the sale of Precision Planting, a historic drought decimated the Sauders’ corn crop. The following spring, in contrast, was one of the wettest planting seasons in years. Sauder was determined to mitigate the impact of the two extremes, and find a path to success regardless of the weather. Having already revolutionized the planting industry, he turned his attention to several other variables in the yield potential equation—most prominently, the management of nitrogen. Several strategic acquisitions of companies, products and patents later, 360 Yield Center opened for business in 2014.
Right Place at the Right Time
“I’d have to say I'm an entrepreneur at heart,” says Gregg Sauder, recalling his early years growing up on the family farm. Even then, the Sauders were retrofitting farm equipment. “We were always changing it. I don't think there was ever a piece of equipment that I owned that I didn't say, ‘You know, what we ought to do is this.’ I've done it all my life.”
That entrepreneurial spirit not only drove the success of the Sauders’ grain and dairy farm operations, it led to new innovations based on their own personal experiences. When they founded Precision Planting in the early ‘90s, “corn planters were just not very accurate,” he explains. “And we said, we have to fix this. So we did our own. Then the word spread and we started doing everybody else. Pretty soon, it’s a business,” he adds with a laugh.
Even as he built Precision Planting, Sauder never left the farm; his active involvement kept him connected to the needs of growers. Subsequently, the creation of 360 Yield Center was driven by the same hands-on tenet: problem-solving on the farm, beginning with the 2012 drought—“the worst we’d ever had,” he recalls.
“By the time the drought really expressed itself in June, we had all of our inputs in. Nitrogen was in, all the seeding was in… There was no way that I could react.” Conversely, the wet spring that followed posed still another weather-related challenge. “And I said, we have to change how we position ourselves for success. We have to work with nature and put ourselves in a position to win—no matter what nature does.”
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth. It’s a farmer’s most expensive input next to seed—and “by far the largest swing of yield,” Sauder notes. “It has a huge impact on farm families and their profitability. And I knew there were a lot of things that hadn't been done with it.”
Traditionally, a farm’s entire supply of nitrogen for a growing season was applied all at once, in the fall or in the spring, prior to crop emergence. But just one heavy rain could wash much of it away, while in a drought, some might never be used at all. Both scenarios mean wasted dollars.
The key to higher yields, Sauder believes, involves greater flexibility—so the right amount of nitrogen can be applied in the right place at the right time, allowing for course corrections based on real-time conditions. 360 Yield Center makes products that allow farmers to do just that. “We call it the ‘base-plus’ approach, where we put half on [before crop emergence] and save the other half… to make the right decision on the right day.” Growers can then measure how much nitrogen is left in the field at any given time and determine the ideal time for a mid-season application, if one is needed at all.
“Waiting is the best thing you can do,” Sauder explains. “Waiting always let you win. It's when you react early and you guess [that problems arise].”
By adjusting the rate of application to match the crop’s yield potential—and “spoon-feeding” nitrogen rather than “broadcasting” it—the optimal amount of nutrients are available to the plants when and where they need it. Using 360’s tools, the old rule of thumb for nitrogen application—one pound for each desired bushel of corn—can be reduced by up to 30 percent. “And that can trim $30 per acre on your nitrogen investment,” Sauder notes. “What we have found is we can raise more corn with less. It's all about timing and placement.”
360 UNDERCOVER targets pests and disease at the source—moving smoothly under the crop canopy with multi-directional spray nozzles for customized spray patterns.
Heads You Win, Tails You Win
With depressed commodity prices in recent years, farmers’ margins have been thin, pushing them to find new ways to trim costs and boost yield. 360 Yield Center was there at the right time with a groundbreaking slate of ag innovations. The 360 Y-DROP, released in 2014, remains one of its signature products—a sprayer attachment with Y-shaped hoses that apply nitrogen right at the base of corn plants. By finetuning the application and supplying only what the plants need, yield can be improved by about five bushels, Sauder says—and with lower input costs.
A related product, 360 UNDERCOVER, attaches to the Y-DROP and applies nitrogen, as well as fungicides and insecticides, far more efficiently than traditional applications—by spraying upward toward the bottom of the leaves. “There are a lot more openings under the leaf than on top of the leaf,” Sauder explains. “We use less product and get a better response.”
By using 360 SOILSCAN, the company’s mobile soil-testing unit, nitrogen availability and soil pH can be measured in about five minutes—without leaving the field. With that knowledge, growers can determine the optimal time to apply a second round of nitrogen, avoiding costly guesswork. “Knowledge always drives correct decisions,” Sauder stresses. “If I can give a grower knowledge, he's going to make the right decision.”
All of the company’s products reveal an underlying principle: less waste plus greater efficiency equals lower costs and higher yield. 360 CHAINROLL, for example, improves the management of leftover crop residue by chopping and crimping stalks for faster decomposition—unlocking its natural fertilizer value more quickly. 360 YIELD SAVER prevents kernels from falling through the cracks of traditional corn heads—reducing header loss by more than 80 percent.
Each product is a retrofit—piggybacking on equipment the customer already owns—and offers a rapid return on investment, typically paying for itself in the first year. “Quick payback,” Sauder declares. “I like to see ROI back within half to three quarters of the first season, and… be in the black for the customer.”
And the products keep on coming. Last fall, 360 Yield Center introduced six new products to its existing line—everything from a guided steering system (360 GUIDE), to an attachment that allows nitrogen to be banded with the planter (360 BANDIT), to a product that enables the refilling of liquid nitrogen while on the go (360 SPRINT), saving costly hours of precious time.
The technologies that find their way into these products are tested all over the world—from New Zealand to South Africa to the Ukraine—but the Sauder family farm in Tremont remains the company’s R&D hub. “What we do there, we express through new technology at 360,” Sauder says. “I don't think there is a single field that doesn't have test plots in it. [Our] engineers work right with us as we plant the crop, as we test and as we grow.”
The company’s small size allows it to be nimble, and with rapid prototyping and 3D printers, its world-class team of engineers can test their concepts and bring innovations to market quickly. “They are a really unique set of people… driven by the thrill of the hunt—of inventing from the whiteboard,” he explains. “And they get to own that [process] all the way through.”
Sauder calls it “e-speed”—the pace of the entrepreneur. It’s how 360 Yield Center can help drive the industry from the bottom up, even as it pales in size compared to an industry giant like John Deere.
Gregg Sauder with a video crew from Green Shoe Creative, behind the scenes on one of the company’s video shoots. Now in his fourth year at 360 Yield Center, Sauder's hands-on involvement keeps him connected to the needs of growers.
Cycles of Change
“It’s not easy to start over. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and passion, and to find the right people is a challenge.” Having already revolutionized planting technologies at Precision Planting, Gregg Sauder turned his attention to the post-planting stage with 360 Yield Center, picking up where his former company left off. But a non-compete agreement meant he couldn’t bring his old team with him, so in many ways he had to start from scratch. “In the beginning, it was just [Sauder’s son] Tim and me,” he explains. “It takes time to get the flywheel going.”
So what lessons did he take from that experience? “It's never about you—it's about the good people you surround yourself with,” he responds. “That's why we hire the best. That doesn't always mean you hire the person with the highest level of education. There has got to be a certain look in their eye…. You're not just stamping out widgets—you're designing technology from the ground up. There's always challenges. And speed adds challenges.”
For agriculture today, it would seem these are both the best of times and the worst of times. “We've had tremendous yields, thankfully, but commodity prices are low,” Sauder explains, “so it's really tough for farm families. We must provide them with unique opportunities to raise the bar. Every year you need to get better... You must change, and that's the hardest thing sometimes for agriculture.”
Though it might seem counterintuitive, Sauder believes this age of low commodity prices is a good thing for the industry “because it makes you lean,” he notes. “All companies have to get lean in tough times, or you don't survive. But if you can be profitable in a $3.50 [per bushel] corn market, just think what happens when corn goes to $4.00 or $4.50 or even $5.00. You’re going to pay off debt. You’re going to purchase another farm. You’re going to trade combines, and put in new kitchen cabinets.”
On the other hand, when corn prices surpassed $8.00 in 2012, “growers did not look to better themselves—they did not look to improve,” Sauder notes. “So $3.50 corn makes growers really pay attention. And what they've learned the last two years, they will never forget.”
Rapid growth is fueled by aggressively launching new products. In just four years, 360 Yield Center has introduced 14 products—including six new products launched for this year’s growing season.
The industry is cyclical, he adds; better times will come. “And when grain cycles back up, those of us who have lived through these times will really capitalize on that.”
Now in his fourth year at 360 Yield Center, Sauder is as passionate as ever about the company and its work—always thinking about how they can help the next generation. “We have to keep them in agriculture,” he declares. “Many a morning, I wake up and think of young farm couples who are committed to feeding the world—but at the same time, they say, why are we doing this? They're graduates of a university… Maybe the son graduated from the University of Illinois or Purdue or Iowa State, and he's come home to farm. And his young wife has got to say, with your degree, you could go to BSF or Monsanto or Pioneer and get a job. Why are we farming?
“The income isn’t always the best,” he admits. “You do it because it's ingrained in you. It’s the thrill. There's something about producing… I don't know how to describe. My favorite thing to do is farm, no question. I would rather farm than do anything else.”
From Dream to Reality
It’s not often that an entrepreneur can revolutionize an entire industry. Gregg Sauder has done it twice, first at Precision Planting and now again at 360 Yield Center. His advice for others who believe they have a great idea: just go for it. “I would've never started Precision Planting if I had listened to the naysayers,” he notes. “I remember the first farm show I ever went to, a very prominent, professional businessman said to me, you're going to starve—this will never work. That was probably all I needed to hear. I smiled and said, we'll be just fine. And in five years, he became a dealer of mine.” iBi
To learn more about 360 Yield Center, its team and suite of products, visit 360yieldcenter.com.