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Buying Inputs Smarter

Here’s how to sort out the plethora of products pitched your way.

A few years ago, Mark Bernard’s crop consulting customers brought him chemical bills that had mysteriously doubled. “They didn’t understand their invoices, so they brought them back for me to examine,” says the New Richland, Minnesotan. Those bills were jaw-droppers.

Besides the recommended herbicides, the invoices included:

  • Micronutrient packs
  • Fungicides
  • Root growth enhancers
  • Insecticides
  • Additional surfactants and adjuvants
  • Deposition agents
  • Additional unrecommended herbicides

“There’s lots of stacking going on with herbicides and fungicides,” Bernard says. “Pretty soon, you add another $35 per acre on top of the stuff that you already need. That was wingy-dingy in the days of $7 per bushel corn. It’s not now.”

Bulletproofing Crops

It’s important to note that add-on products can work to ensure a bulletproof approach against many stressors.
Times have changed, though.

“I understand the concept of the shotgun/kitchen sink approach to crop inputs,” says Bernard. “I also understand that knowing what’s in the field before applying these products is crucial to their proper use. Pressing the easy button and protecting farmers from risk at all costs is frequently not cost effective. That’s even less so when crop prices are low. Independent study after independent study has borne this out, even when crop prices are high.”

Bundling of crop input products has also moved beyond seed and chemicals into these add-on products. Bundling benefits include convenience for buyers.

“Buyers also need to be aware and proactive about what they are buying,” says Peter Goldsmith, University of Illinois agricultural economist.

Bernard notes that his customers were able to get their money back for the products they didn’t want. “The scary thing to me is, how many others did this happen to who were unaware of what they paid for?” he asks.

So Which Ones?

Following an old maxim that Bernard picked up years ago can help:
If you understand that someone trying to sell you something is trying to sell you something, you will probably be OK.
After all, retailers and salespeople need to make a buck or two or three. Just remember, though, that you need to make money, too. So be prepared.

“When it comes to purchasing inputs, especially chemicals, I have a list of what I want to give to the retailer,” says Leon Schoenrock, a New Richland, Minnesota, farmer. “They can pitch what they want to me, but if they do, I want to be prepared. I just don’t let them tell me what I need. That would be asking for trouble.”

He’s also found that inputs can be broken out on the invoice product by product if you ask. This can aid buying decisions, he says.

Other strategies he uses include the following:
Get a payback
When Schoenrock buys an extra product, it has to have a good return on investment.  
“If I pay $10 per acre for something, I don’t want just $12 back. I don’t consider that a good return on investment. I want at least $20 back or more,” he says.

Think Per Bushel  
That helps put matters into perspective, says Schoenrock. “In a good year, a $15-per-acre seed treatment would cost 1 bushel of soybeans,” he says. “It’s a tougher sell when beans are $8 to $10 and it costs 1½ to 2 bushels of soybeans.”

Hold the checkbook!
It’s a classic move right out of sales school: This offer is only good today!

Schoenrock recalls this maxim when he once made an investment in an ethanol plant. “They wanted a $500 deposit right then and there, but I purposely didn’t take my checkbook along,” he says. “I wanted to think about it for a day.”

If a product is worth spending money on, the offer will be good tomorrow. Waiting a day or two before making a spending decision allows you to clear your head and consider all the ramifications, he says.

Beware of High-Pressure Harley
If this happens, selling the product may help the seller more than it will benefit you.

“One time, a retailer was being overly aggressive trying to sell me a fertilizer product,” Schoenrock says. “He tried to ask me 20 times over several months to buy it. Finally, I asked him, ‘OK, what’s in it for you?’ It turns out that his sales manager would get a free trip to Florida if he sold enough of it. At least he was honest about it!”

Say ‘No’ to guarantees
Ever bought an appliance and been pitched an extended warranty? They’re often great deals – for the seller. Consumer reviews show good appliances seldom break within the service plan window, so extended warranties become a seller’s cash cow.

Schoenrock sees herbicide guarantees and warranties the same way. “If you put the product on the way you are supposed to do at the right time, you shouldn’t need a guarantee,” he says.

One group of add-on inputs doesn’t bother Seth Naeve as much as others.

“I look at some of these things like soybean inoculants that may not always look like they will consistently give a good return, but cost just a few dollars per acre,” says Naeve, University of Minnesota Extension agronomist. “Since they don’t cost much, it doesn’t take much of a yield increase to pay for them.”

It’s a different story with a pesticide containing an active ingredient that specifically targets a pest. The pesticide selects for resistance each time it is sprayed. In every pest species, there is a one-in-1-million biotype or biotype at a higher ratio that resists the chemical. Over time, this biotype proliferates into a resistant pest population. This risk is dwarfed if the pesticide kills a pest that’s overrunning a crop. If no pest is present, though, the pesticide application is useless, says Naeve.
“You pay for it, get no value, and it can cause you long-term problems,” he says. “Eventually, you may be unable to control pests due to resistance caused by (pesticide) overuse.”

Simultaneous shots misfire
Particularly disconcerting to Naeve is blending a postemergence soybean herbicide application with insecticide.

A $1- to $5-per-acre insecticide application can kill insects munching or sucking on soybeans. Dig deeper, though. Simultaneously spraying weeds and soybean aphids with two pesticide types is akin to a full-padded player playing football during a soccer game. Football and soccer players both move a ball across a goal, but that’s about all they have in common.

Ditto for simultaneously spraying a herbicide and an insecticide to control weeds and soybean aphids. Both kill pests, but that’s about it. Weeds and soybean aphids are different species with divergent biologies, dissimilar economic thresholds, and frequently mismatched application times.

Yet, a blended application treats both pests the same way. If weeds are within herbicide label parameters but soybean aphids are not at recommended economic thresholds, money spent on insecticide is wasted, says Naeve.

More Bad News
Every insecticide application kills predatory insects that prey on crop pests like soybean aphids.  
“There hasn’t been an insecticide broadcast on this farm in 15 years,” says Dwayne Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, South Dakota. Instead, predatory insects have kept harmful insects in check.

“Controlling aphids is important, but so is using the right product at the right time,” says Naeve.

Look for a Track Record
“If a product is good, it will probably stick around,” says Schoenrock.

Some don’t. A classic case was ACA in the 1990s. Short for agricultural crop additive, salespeople hawked this product as promoting more extensive root systems and boosting early plant growth for around $2 per acre. Testing by unbiased sources showed inconclusive results.

Schoenrock doesn’t ignore all extra products, though. He’s intrigued by Ilevo, a nematicide seed treatment that helps to manage sudden death syndrome (SDS) in soybeans. So far, SDS has not been a major disease in his fields. Still, he notes it is a tool that exists if he needs it.

Ditto for biological products designed to enhance crop development and yield. “I hope some of them pan out,” he says.

That’s particularly true for ones whose firms have been bought by large multinational companies.  

“I always wonder if these products will work, but when a large company buys them, that can help to convince me they do,” he notes.

Why the add-ons?

Maybe it wasn’t as simple as planting the seed, fertilizing the soil, and killing the weeds. Still, farming didn’t seem as complicated years ago compared with all the myriad  add-on products you now face.

So what’s up?

“The problem is that industry keeps changing the game,” says Seth Naeve, University of Minnesota Extension agronomist. “An example is Roundup. At one time, it cost $160 per gallon. Dealers and retailers made real money selling Roundup. Now, they can’t make anything off of it because it’s so cheap.”

Enter add-on products like micronutrient packages, root stimulators, plant growth regulators, and others.  Compounding this are tight on-farm economics.

“The number of pounds of product on a field has been reduced with the price of grain,” says Naeve. Selling more of these products is a way to generate more money, he adds.
So is selling seed. This comes with a hitch, though, particularly with soybeans.

Soybean seed companies often team their seed with a particular type of fungicide/insecticide/nematicide seed treatment. Retailers must buy a seed treater that fits product specifications, and then they have to determine how they will pay for it.

“They are not trying to rip you off; they must make a dollar, too,” says Naeve.

Micronutrient Marketing Tricks

What complicates decisions abut micronutrients and secondary nutrients is marketing. Leon Schoenrock of New Richland, Minnesota, encountered one strategy where a nitrogen and phosphorus product blended with sulfur (S) and zinc (Zn) was touted by one retailer as less expensive than individually buying S and Zn.

“When I priced sulfur and zinc from another retailer, they were only one half the price of those products at the first retailer,” he says. “The first retailer was inflating the price of individual sulfur and zinc products, so the blended product looked like the better deal. It’s like a store doubling the price of flour and sugar, and then using those prices to point out it’s cheaper to buy cookies than to bake them yourself.”

The upshot is to know what you need, because marketing for such products is difficult to decipher. “The markup on micronutrients is astronomical,” says Mark Bernard, a New Richland, Minnesota, crop consultant. “If you don’t recognize the name of a product, ask what it is and what the nutrient analysis is. Ask your land-grant university specialist or hire a consultant. They can help you to know what you’re buying.”

What’s Behind That Fertilizer name?

You would think that phosphate fertilizer is phosphate fertilizer. “I was surprised that there are six to eight types of branded phosphate fertilizers,” says Leon Schoenrock, a New Richland, Minnesota, farmer.

All branded products contain the major nutrient phosphorus (P), as does traditional 10-34-0 phosphate starter fertilizer. Some carry more than just P, such as sulfur (S) and micronutrients. So should you pay the likely higher price for them?

In the case of S, maybe. Yield responses are extending beyond their usual occurrence on sandy and low- organic matter soils. Sulfur applications on suspected S-deficient soils triggered a mean yield increase of 38 bushels per acre and yield increases in five of six Iowa sites in a 2006 Iowa State University (ISU) trial.

Responses don’t always occur, though. Between 2006 and 2013, 47% of ISU’s S-rate trials had yield increases. In Minnesota, corn yield increases have occurred in loamy and silt loam soils in trials, but not on silty clay loam-texture soils.

On soils prone to S deficiencies, fertilizer containing sulfate or thiosulfate works best. Be wary when you’re pitched elemental S. “Elemental sulfur just doesn’t work that well,” says Dave Franzen, North Dakota State University Extension soil fertility specialist.  

Micronutrients Are More Iffy

Yield responses from micronutrients like zinc, boron, copper, iron, and manganese are more questionable. Many soils have sufficient amounts for corn and soybeans, says Antonio Mallarino, ISU soil scientist.

“Where deficiencies occur, they mainly occur on sandy, calcareous, or severely eroded soils,” he says.

One drawback to applications of S and micronutrients is that soil and tissue tests aren’t as developed as they are for major nutrients like P. That’s why targeting sandy, calcareous, or severely eroded soils is advised for micronutrients, says Mallarino.

The increasing frequency of S deficiencies is an opportunity to work toward improved diagnostic methods, says Franzen.

So should I spray?

Know weed presence before accepting an additional pesticide application, says New Richland, Minnesota, crop consultant Mark Bernard.

He recalls an area soybean field sprayed last year with Flexstar GT postemergence. Flexstar GT is a great herbicide, made up of glyphosate and fomesafen. These two different sites of action control weeds like black nightshade, pigweeds, and common and giant ragweed.

Just make sure you have those weeds first.

 “I scouted that field and aside from a spear of foxtail and two or three velvetleaf, that’s about all that was out there,” Bernard says. An early preemergence application was holding well. No glyphosate-resistant weeds had surfaced in the field, so just a straight glyphosate application could have worked.

“The decision, due to arm-twisting by the dealer, probably cost the farmer $15 an acre over the straight glyphosate he could’ve used,” he says.

Save Your Money For Satan
Of course, not all fields are that way. Take Satan, aka Palmer amaranth. When allowed to compete throughout the growing season, Palmer amaranth can cut corn yields up to 91% and 79% in soybeans, according to data compiled by Purdue University researchers.

“If you think you have it, kill it,” says Rich Zollinger, North Dakota State University Extension weed specialist. “Don’t even think about it, just kill it.”

Check the label
Wondering about the merits of a herbicide in a herbicide cocktail pitched your way? Look up the herbicide’s label.

Control is only as good as the weed height listed on the label, reminds Mark Bernard, a New Richland, Minnesota, crop consultant. For example, a post- emergence herbicide label that states it will control a 4-inch-high weed will do just that. In the case of waterhemp that can grow an inch a day, you have just four days to apply that herbicide. Outside of that window, it’s not effective.

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