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Take 6 Steps to Grow Your Farm

Gary Nelson of Fort Dodge, Iowa,started farming with his wife Karma just out of high school in the early 1970s. Over time, he’s learned many lessons, but one that sticks out occurred early in his career as a Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) borrower. 

“The FmHA made me do a budget,” he says. “It even got down to the point where I had to record a $9 tool in order to make machinery repairs.”

This stringent record keeping, however, helped instill the financial discipline to endure tough times and to build a foundation for when son Dave returned to the farm in 2007 after stints with Monsanto and Ziegler Caterpillar.

“Dad went through some tough times, and learned a lot,” says Dave. “That has helped guide me into my farming career.”

Since Dave returned, the Nelsons have grown the farm size fivefold in acreage. Today, though, farming economics are the tightest they’ve been in their nine years together. The Nelsons are persevering by spending money on key inputs and technologies that return more money at harvest.

“We can’t skimp our way to prosperity,” Dave says. “It’s all about net income now.” 

Here are some of the buying decisions and agronomic practices that have helped them grow in the past and will also apply in the future. 

1. Hit ‘em where they ain’t

That was the batting strategy for an early 1900s baseball player named Wee Willie Keeler. It also applies to a buying decision the Nelsons made when Dave returned to the farm. When many others were buying increasingly higher valued farmland, the Nelsons instead bought Brokaw Supply Company, a fertilizer application and equipment company. 

“It has been a great investment,” says Dave. “Buying it allowed us to invest in a growing industry and bring new technology and fertilizer application practices to our farm and customers.” The purchase also coincided with an uptick in fertilizer management technology to help implement responsible nutrient management practices, he adds. 

The Nelsons’ industry contacts also have enabled them to test new technologies for other companies.   

“We get to look at technology two to three years ahead of time,” says Dave. That gives the Nelsons a headstart in knowing if and how the technology can fit their farm before its full-scale commercial launch.

2. Use a systems approach

Typically, corn after corn takes a 10% to 15% yield hit compared with corn rotated with soybeans. On the Nelson’s farm, though, corn after corn yields as well as corn after soybeans.  

“As we have updated our equipment, our corn-on-corn yields got better, right on par with corn-after-soybean yields,” says Dave. For example, field cultivators with better shank stability better manage residue that builds up in their 70% corn/30% soybean rotation. Other tools they use include proper fertilizer and seed placement, data management, soil health, and multiple nutrient applications for their crops.

3. Don’t skimp on seed traits

Few corn rootworm outbreaks in 2014 and 2015 make it tempting to save money by nixing a rootworm resistant trait in 2016. 

The Nelsons aren’t buying that line, though. Foregoing a corn rootworm trait with no management backup could backfire this year.

“There were fields in this area last year where corn rootworm reduced yields by 20 to 40 bushels per acre,” says Dave. 

The culprit? Extended diapause, in which corn rootworm overwinters over two consecutive years.

4. Be a tweaker

“Each year, we look at two or three things we want to change or tweak,” says Dave. “Over time, maintaining the status quo will take us backwards.”

One tweak they’re making is soil sampling 1-acre grids rather than 2½-acre ones. “The 1-acre grids give us a better definition of our soils,” he says.  

They’re particularly enthusiastic about multiple-variety planting, which they’ve tested in corn the last two years. Dave thinks it will have even more benefit on soybeans, due to iron chlorosis. This spotty malady surfaces on high-pH soils. Multiple-variety planting would enable a defensive variety with iron-chlorosis tolerance to be planted on just those areas. They would then plant a high-yield potential offensive variety on the rest. 

Communicating these technologies to current and prospective landlords has also been key to the farm’s growth. “We want to show them we are farming their land to the highest level possible,” says Dave.  

5. Apply fungicides

“Year in and year out, we have seen 15- to 30-bushel-per-acre yield increases in corn and 5 bushels in soybeans from fungicides,” says Dave. “Every acre gets sprayed.”

On soybeans, fungicides spur the plant’s physiology to extend maturity and boost photosynthesis. In effect, this enables a Group 2.5 soybean to become closer to a 2.8, says Dave. 

6. Hire experts

“As farmers, we have our strengths, but we can’t be masters of everything,” says Dave. That’s why the Nelsons surround themselves with a core advisory team of an agronomist, banker, accountant, and a grain marketing specialist.

“You are only as good as the people with whom you surround yourself,” he says. Our agronomist is independent and gives us unbiased advice. I don’t want a banker to be my best friend. I want my banker to push me and to challenge me.”

Hiring the right grain marketing specialist is particularly important to the Nelsons. 

“My dad has always said, ‘My goal is to be an average grower and a top marketer.’ Together, Dad and I make a pretty good team.”

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