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Spend Smart in 2018

Base spending decisions on data, not fluff.

Several years ago, some silver-tongued salespeople traversed Minnesota farms, hawking a good that farmers evidently couldn’t live without, recalls Jerome Lensing, nutrient management specialist for Minnesota’s Discovery Farms.

Well, maybe not a good. More like a gimmick. They were selling “soil insurance” in the form of magical microbes that were purported to spur slacker soils into shape.

Now, maybe this product worked in a kind-of-here, kind-of-there, once-in-a-while manner. 

Or not. With a sales pitch that consisted of plenty of fluff but no supporting data, it was hooey. “Even though it cost just $3 to $5 per acre, those costs quickly add up,” says Lensing.


That’s particularly true these days, as just a few dollars per acre can make the difference between profit and loss. Higher crop yields can help farmers cope with low commodity prices. To do that, farmers need yield-boosting products and strategies. Just make sure they work. 

Hot trends like soil health tend to attract some sketchy products. Granted, there are legitimate microbial products being developed by reputable companies. As a whole, though, few have been independently researched, says Caley Gasch, a North Dakota State University soil scientist.

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) is one such microbe that’s garnered much attention in soil-health circles. This symbiotic fungus – present in many cover crops – can acquire nitrogen, phosphorus, and other soil nutrients in symbiosis with the crop plant. It may be partially responsible for slashing rates of synthetic fertilizer for farmers planting cover crops. 

This has prompted some companies to market commercial AMF inoculants. “So far, I have not seen anything convincing in fertile Midwestern soils,” says Rhae Drijber, a University of Nebraska soil scientist. 

The jury is still out for the inoculants’ merit on marginal or less-fertile soils, she adds. Still, soil management plays the main role in how well the symbiosis functions, Drijber says.

“My advice to farmers is to only consider purchasing products that have been validated in local and regional field trials by independent sources like a university,” says Gasch. “Otherwise, the cost may not be worth the risk of not gaining any benefit.”

It’s just $2 more 

Sometimes, products have rigorous unbiased data that supports their use. It’s just that they’re wrongly used. One example is adding a soybean aphid insecticide with a postemergence soybean herbicide or fungicide. 

That’s great if the soybean aphid population is at economic threshold levels of 250 per plant and increasing. If not, it’s a recipe for disaster, says Erin Hodgson, Iowa State University Extension entomologist. 

“The thinking is that it’s cheap – only costing a couple dollars (per acre),” she says. 

Besides being money wasted if applied under economic threshold levels, an unnecessary insecticide application spurs future resistance, Hodgson says. Unneeded insecticide selects for resistant soybean aphid biotypes. This will more quickly burn out existing insecticide modes of action. These applications also kill beneficial insects that devour soybean aphids, she adds.

penny-wise and pound-foolish

Seed is a prime area for cutting costs, since it’s one of the more expensive inputs farmers buy. Still, make sure cuts made aren’t penny-wise and pound-foolish. 

Planting corn hybrids without traits to protect corn against European corn borer (ECB), corn rootworm, or both may slice seed costs, says Bruce Potter, University of Minnesota Extension integrated pest-management specialist. Potter, Ken Ostlie, and Bill Hutchison, U of M Extension entomologists, note switching to less expensive hybrids without insect-resistant traits can work if odds of an insect infestation are low. That’s the case in many parts of Minnesota, where ECB populations remain low. 

Still, scattered damage reports show ECB still poses a threat to Minnesota corn farmers, say the U of M scientists. Meanwhile, corn rootworm remains a threat in some areas. 

“When you grow corn after corn, rootworm is a perennial threat,” reminds Sean Evans, Monsanto technology development manager. “Northeast Iowa is a place where growers are seeing more rootworm pressure due to continuous corn. It’s an area where we are encouraging growers to push best-management practices, such as using trait rotation and pyramided traits (two or more attacking the same pest).” 

Sure, agronomic tools like insect-resistant traits can fail. When they do, though, it’s due to repeated use of the same mode of action. Insecticide-resistant traits have years of data and unbiased testing to help ensure they work.

Not all products do. “Look out for so-called data that’s usually sourced from the outfit selling the product from somewhere out of state or as a testimonial,” says Mark Bernard, a New Richland, Minnesota, crop consultant.

Be wary of marketing gimmicks, too. 

Last fall, Extension educators including Liz Stahl, University of Minnesota; John Thomas, University of Nebraska; Josh Coltrain, Kansas State University; and Sara Berg, South Dakota State University, compiled several factors for evaluating products. 

One factor includes product or agronomic strategy comparisons. These can vary in their effectiveness, and that should be considered in a selection process. 

Just make sure the differences are statistically significant. Researchers often use the term least significant difference (LSD) in trials.

In a corn hybrid variety trial, for example, the LSD is the minimum bushels per acre that two hybrids must differ by before a difference exists. 

Legitimate trials will often have an LSD level of .05 or .10. This means that scientists are 90% or 95% certain that the treatments (or seed varieties) really differed in yield. If yields are not statistically different, products or treatments aren’t different. 

shopworn sales pitches 

Sketchy products and questionable product uses that cost a few dollars per acre might have been worth a gamble in the wingy-dingy days of $7 corn (per bushel) and $15 soybeans five years ago.  Ditto for occasionally falling for a marketing gimmick.

Today? Not so much. 

“With prices low and margins as tight as they are, the old ‘it’s only $10 an acre’ line has suddenly become shopworn,” says Bernard.

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