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Don't sweat the small stuff

Gil Gullickson 08/31/2011 @ 1:47pm Crops Technology Editor for Successful Farming magazine/Agriculture.com

Rather than worrying how to squeeze the last bushel out of corn, Dave Diedrich concentrates on major factors like rotation mix and tiling.

At first glance, Diedrich seems to take a nonchalant approach with his corn growing when it comes to dates, maintenance, strategy, and yields.

Planting date? Well, planting early is important, but weather largely determines that.

A meticulous combine maintenance plan and a harvest strategy? Nah.

Diedrich, who farms with his brother, Larry, near Elkton, South Dakota, outsources this by hiring customer combiners each fall.

High yields? They're definitely important, but market price sometimes makes yield potential play second fiddle.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and you'll find a savvy, all-encompassing corn-production strategy.

“There are so many macro (economic) decisions to deal with,” says Diedrich. “I don't spend as much time dealing with the micros. My time is better spent behind a computer spreadsheet or on a cell phone ordering inputs, and coordinating fieldwork instead of spending time behind a tractor or thinking about inputs with a small yield return.”

Volatile markets and weather throw curveballs at even the most well-planned strategies. Diedrich, though, figures this gives him an advantage.

“I can adapt to change,” he says. Whether it's rotations, tillage, or other factors, willingness to move from one plan to another has enabled the Diedriches to roll with the punches.

Four key factors

The Diedriches concentrate on four key decisions.

1. Rotation mix. Market prices prompt the Diedriches to adjust their corn and soybean mix each year. All winter long, corn and soybeans continually jockey for position on the Diedriches' spreadsheets.

“We plug in changes in Board of Trade prices and prices of inputs for both crops regularly throughout winter,” says Diedrich. “It's wild how things change. We have seen changes of $50 to $100 per acre over a week to 10 days.

“In the last two or three years, we've changed our mind as late as late March or early April,” he adds. “This year, we switched 20% of our acres during that time from beans to corn.”

That because their spreadsheets revealed that a $160-per-acre price premium existed for corn over soybeans in early spring.

There was one problem, though. The anticipated additional corn production outstripped the Diedriches' 750,000-bushel on-farm corn storage capacity. The Diedriches considered adding more storage. Simultaneously, though, they eyed a $1.20-per-bushel spread in early April between old crop and new crop corn. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if we planted some early corn and harvested it early?’ ” says Diedrich.

Since they could deliver it before other corn in the region, it would mimic old-crop corn. Delivering it directly to end users would also relieve them of their storage dilemma.

Thus, they planted 700 acres of 86-day corn starting the second week of May, and they plan to harvest it in September.

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