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Don't sweat the small stuff

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.

“We also thought these fields would be good to grow corn on next year,” says Diedrich. “There's less stalk with earlier corn, and we could till and plant into those fields earlier due to earlier breakdown.

On remaining acres, the Diedriches still stuck with their normal relative maturity range of 92 to 102 days.

Drawbacks exist when planting early corn early. Planting a short-season hybrid sacrifices yield potential, compared to planting a full-season hybrid.

There's also the uncertainty of planting earlier-maturing hybrids that farmers do not normally plant in the area. Its ability to handle warmer conditions is a concern. Still, the Diedriches figure the old-crop corn price edge (which ran $1.35 per bushel in early June) will surpass warm-weather risk and any yield hit.

“If we pick up 20% in price and have 10% less yield, that is still a 10% gain,” says Diedrich.

2. Tillage. In the late 1980s, the Diedriches were conventional tillers. Then they switched to no-till. This was followed by a move to strip-till in the early 2000s. “Now, we've back to square one with conventional tillage,” says Diedrich.

So what gives?

Growing more corn-on-corn prompted the Diedriches to go full circle.

Wetter weather patterns combined with continuous corn's prolific residue spawned sticky soils and emergence problems under no-till.

They thought strip-till could conserve soil and halt emergence problems. Initially, it worked. A 6-inch-wide strip left a warm gardenlike environment for corn emergence, while residue protected the rest of the row.

“At first, it looked beautiful. But each week, it would look worse,” says Diedrich. “The wind would blow all the light residue and corn husks over the row and cover it up. We then started baling cornstalks – anything to keep from going to tillage. But logistically, that didn't work. We've found residue levels have to be under 30% to raise decent corn-on-corn.”

In 2010, they followed up corn harvest with a heavy disking to bury residue of next year's corn, while leaving sufficient cover to prevent erosion.

3. Tiling. In South Dakota, no organized drainage districts exist. Still, the Diedriches tile areas where they can move water to a natural outlet like a stream.

“It's the best investment you'll ever make – especially with today's high commodity prices,” says Diedrich. “The cost of not tiling is high.”

That's because wet soils delay planting. Losing one week of prime May planting weather can quickly tally up to losing thousands to tens of thousands of dollars in yield potential, depending on the acreage you farm.

“We've found tiling boosts yields anywhere from 10 to 40 bushels per acre because we can plant on time,” he says.

4. Custom harvesting. The Diedriches have shifted from harvesting their own acres to hiring it done.

“It's been a good move for us,” says Diedrich.

Besides lessening their fall workload, it also ensures a timely harvest and frees up time for farm management, fall tillage, and various other tasks.

Timeliness is often a concern when outsourcing a major field operation. However, the Diedriches' 750,000 storage facility and 1,200-bushel-per-hour dryer capacity help nix any bottlenecks that can result from a multicombine harvesting unit moving in.

Meanwhile, it also helps the Diedriches avoid year-round ownership costs for an implement they would use six week out of the year at the most.

“I have less concerns about timely harvest now than when we owned our own combines,” Diedrich says. “They can get a lot of machines in there vs. us having just one or two combines of our own going.”

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