You can’t control weather. Nor can you control markets. You can, however, control time-tested agronomic techniques to bulge your bins and break through breakeven budgets.
“The technologies we have today make it easy for us not to implement commonsense strategies because technology can do a lot for us,” says Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension agronomist. “It still is better, though, to use a combination of agronomic skills and common sense.”
We’ve compiled 16 tips from industry and Extension crop specialists and farmers about how you can traverse today’s rocky economic climate – 7 are below. Some of the ideas cost money, some cost time, and some don’t cost either but, instead, are just commonsense management steps that you can implement.
Spend Sufficient Time Selecting Seed.
“Many farmers don’t spend enough time evaluating plot results,” says Troy Deutmeyer, a DuPont Pioneer field agronomist in Dyersville, Iowa. “Seed company reps can do this for them, but so should farmers.”
Why it pays: Iowa State University (ISU) data shows yields may differ by 40 to 50 bushels per acre between two hybrids in the same field with identical inputs applied. ISU data also shows environment can cause one soybean variety in the same field to outyield another by 15 to 20 bushels per acre.
Look Beyond the Test-Plot Pretty Boys.
“Everyone wants that silver bullet, that one hybrid that works every year,” says Mark Riehl, a Michigan-based DowAgroSciences agronomist.
No such hybrid has ever existed. Back in the 1990s, though, Pioneer 3394 came close. Had this consistently popular high-yielding hybrid been a single seed corn company in 1994, it would have been the world’s second-largest seed firm.
“Every hybrid has an Achilles’ heel, some kind of fault,” says Riehl. Pioneer 3394’s weakness – which Pioneer officials consistently warned farmers about – was gray leaf spot (GLS). Weather conducive to GLS finally arrived in 1995. Resulting GLS infestations decimated yields of this hybrid.
Remember this when there’s a test-plot pretty boy in your area that consistently tops yields year in and year out. Finding its weakness can help you better plan your seed strategy.
“Get your hands on as much independent and company data as you can,” says Purdue’s Nielsen.
Why it pays: Gleaning gobs of data can reveal not only hybrid or variety strengths but also weaknesses.
Plant Rootworm-Traited Corn Only If You Need It.
Brian Herbst, Kasson, Minnesota, knows the damage that corn rootworm can wreak. So far, though, he hasn’t found rootworm at levels to justify planting rootworm-resistant corn.
So he doesn’t. That saves him money. “I can buy conventional corn for half the price of traited corn,” he says.
Challenges exist with this strategy. Since the bulk of the industry has paired top-notch genetics with trait packages, concern exists about planting conventional corn with less-than-stellar genetics.
Herbst notes this is a drawback, but he says there are companies that have competitive conventional hybrids.
“I’ve worked with AgReliant [Genetics], and they have some pretty good conventional numbers,” he says.
Why it pays: Savings may be gleaned by planting corn hybrids minus a rootworm trait in low-risk corn rootworm areas.
Buy Rootworm-Traited Corn in Risky Corn Rootworm Regions.
There’s a flip side to all this, though. “Corn rootworm can make a big swing in a year’s time,” says Sean Evans, Monsanto technology development manager. “It can quickly go from a low population to a high one.” Be particularly aware of rootworm if you farm in an area plagued by extended diapause. That’s when rootworm thwarts the corn-soybean rotation by its eggs skipping hatching in soybeans and, instead, hatching in corn two years later. The variant western corn rootworm can also sabotage crop rotation by laying eggs in soybeans that hatch in corn the subsequent year.
That’s why Herbst tightly monitors his area for any sign of corn rootworm. “If you have a rootworm issue, you better use traited corn,” says Herbst.
Why it pays: “Without traits, we’ve documented yield losses of 60 to 80 bushels per acre,” says Evans.
Check Out a New Field’s History.
Several years ago, a farmer telephoned Jim Camberato, Purdue University soil scientist, about a lousy corn stand on a newly rented field.
The farmer started the year by broadcasting 50 pounds per acre of P205 and 100 pounds of K20 on a 20-year-old alfalfa field. Surprisingly, fired outer corn leaves – the calling card of potassium (K) deficiency – soon resulted.
Subsequent investigation found no commercial K fertilizer had been applied during the preceding 20 years.
“It was thought fertilizer wasn’t necessary on alfalfa,” says Camberato.
Not so. A 4-ton-per-acre alfalfa yield removes 200 pounds of K20 and 52 pounds of P205 per acre annually. Over 20 years, this amounted to soil mining of 4,000 pounds of K20 and 1,040 pounds per acre. That’s why the K applied prior to corn planting did little to dent 20 years of K neglect.
Why it pays: Soil testing before renting land and including fertilizer costs in rental agreements can save you from a crop disaster, says Camberato.
Avoid Creating Fluffy Soil Syndrome.
A summertime plane ride over your fields is a great way to detect what Jodi DeJong Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension crops and soils educator, calls fluffy soil syndrome (FSS).
“The more tillage you do, the more tracks you leave in the field,” she says. A summertime aerial view of a field that’s been excessively tilled will reveal dark green plants within the tracks. Unfortunately, that leaves paler plants over the rest of the field that’s been tilled into a pulp.
Dark green plants result within tracks due to good seed-to-soil and root-to-soil contact. Normally, that’s good. Unfortunately, the eye-popping plants found in tracks aren’t occurring in the rest of the excessively tilled field, she says.
Why it pays: Tillage-induced FSS prevents the seed-to-soil and root-to-soil contact that plants need, says DeJong Hughes.
Apply Sulfur to Corn.
Think the federal government can’t do anything right? It definitely aced 1970s antipollution laws that nixed atmospheric sulfur (S) emitted by power plants.
What’s good news for your lungs, though, is lousy news for corn. It can’t access as much atmospheric S as it could 50 years ago. Increases in no-till, early planting, and heavy residue from high-yielding corn also create S deficiencies. Purdue data notes corn grain contains about 0.5 pounds of S for every 10 bushels.
“Corn uses lots of sulfur that isn’t being put back in,” says Woodyard.