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Listen to Crop Needs to Fine-Tune Management Plans

By Laurie Bedord

Less than a decade ago, Jeff Brown’s investment in technology was below average. “I had fallen behind,” says the Blue Mound, Illinois, farmer. “I couldn’t get data. I couldn’t make informed decisions. It’s all about data plus decisions equals dollars. That’s when I realized if I stayed where I was, I was going to be left behind.”

Over the last five years, he’s taken the multigeneration farming operation forward by making a sizeable investment in technology to help him better understand what his 2,200 acres of corn and soybeans are trying to tell him.

“There is a story in every field. It’s up to me to figure out what that plant is saying and how I will respond,” says Brown. “Every year, I try to improve my operation with new technology, and it has become a line item in my budget. There are so many innovative tools coming to the market. It’s easy to get wound up in wanting all of these fun, electronic toys, but the bottom line is determining how I’ll utilize a technology to improve yields while doing conservation practices. It has to pay.”

Making the Most of Inputs
One area he’s focused on is chemical and fertilizer application. From auto guidance to auto shutoffs, Brown wants to ensure that every drop applied to the plant through his Hagie STS sprayer (which he owns with a partner) gets to the plant when and where it needs it the most.

“Auto shutoffs have helped me use less chemicals due to less overlap and, thereby, avoid crop injury,” he explains. “With mapping, I know for sure I covered the area and don’t have any skips. Normally, I save an acre or two on every field, but that depends on how many angles make up the field. It is clearly a cost-savings tool I can’t afford not to have.”

As for auto guidance, he says he can’t beat perfect. “I can run longer hours with less stress and no overlap or skips,” he says. “I do a lot of night work on preplant chemicals when the spring winds are calm and before the tillage tool and planter arrive the next morning.”

All these technologies combined maximize his return on investment. “I can spray beans during the day and then Y-Drop corn through the night if the weather doesn’t cooperate,” he says. “If corn plants are heat-stressed, I like to apply fungicide late in the evening so plants open up and take in more product. Without this technology, I would have to quit at dark and wait for morning. With precision technology, my sprayer can keep rolling over the acres.”

Brown says he will run the sprayer for three years and then trade for a new one so he can get the latest technology as well as have a reliable machine. This sprayer is the third Hagie for the partners.

“In the past five to eight years, I’ve seen a trend of growers buying new and used sprayers to have that spraying capacity in-house,” says John Fulton, associate professor, Ohio State University. “A lot of growers have picked up more acres over the last few years. Having that ability to be timely on applications has really helped push this trend. Well over 80% of those sprayers are running some form of precision ag technology today.”

With a six-figure price tag, purchasing with a partner made good business sense. “I have to run a lot of acres to justify a machine cost of $300,000,” says Brown. “When we both put our acres together, we can cover enough ground to make the numbers work.”

As profit margins remain tight, he knows further intersecting economics with agronomics will stay a priority. “The number one way to decrease costs is to increase yields,” he says.

“Anything I can do to increase yields over time while decreasing costs will make me more sustainable.”

For Brown, that means plotting his acres to test theories on what his fields are trying to convey, which starts with the seed and ends with the feed. How he responds to that seed once it’s in the ground tells a powerful story.

“Every seed has the same potential. I want to get the maximum benefit out of those genetics,” says Brown. “I put test strips in every field in 2014 to push populations to learn how hybrids would respond.”

What he heard: “It’s clear that higher yields, as long as I can manage them from a harvestability standpoint, make me more profitable,” he notes. “I think I’m shorting myself on population. In 2014, I had 350 bushels per acre on my NCGA plot, which set the record for the state of Illinois. Randy Dowdy beat me by 153 bushels, though, and I planted the same exact hybrid. He was able to utilize his hybrid better.”

Maximizing the potential of the seed means employing the technology on his sprayer to place fungicide and nitrogen when and where the plant needs it the most.

“With the fungicide trials, I wanted to determine if fungicide was profitable,” he explains. “A Climate Corporation field health satellite image on September 3, 2014, gave me an exciting photo of what to expect come harvest because I could see the green strips where the additional fungicide had been applied. Once the field was harvested, I was able to identify those areas as yielding 300-plus bushels per acre.”

What he heard: According to the summary above, there is a 20.8-bushel-per-acre difference on quarter mile-long rows that were 24 rows wide.

“I can understand the clear advantage to using fungicide in a year when there was no disease present,” says Brown. “I had fantastic yields to begin with and I would have been happy with no fungicide. For the additional $25 to $30 per acre, the fungicide increased yield by 20 bushels of corn. The results were able to give me the data to back up spraying fungicide sooner as well as making the application vs. not making the application.”

When to Apply Nitrogen
There is no doubt nitrogen plays an important role in crop production. It’s also an input that is closely scrutinized because of past practices and their impact on the environment. Technology like variable rate will be key in helping Brown assess ways he can improve nitrogen-use efficiency.

What he heard: “I vary my rate depending on the growing environment,” he says. “For example, in 2012, I saved $70,000 by not putting on my late application of nitrogen because of the drought. Nitrogen was not my limiting factor that year. Today, I try to watch everything I do. When I have a good growing environment, good population, and good moisture levels, I want to put the nitrogen on at the right time and at the right place to maximize inputs and increase yields.”

While he says it’s pretty easy to get to that first 150 to 200 bushels, getting that next 100 bushels is the challenge. “I can’t plan for that in January or in the fall before with a nutrient-management plan,” he says. “I have to go in season to do tissue testing and to analyze data to show me what else that plant needs. Then, I can respond to what it’s telling me.”

Dividing his nitrogen offers Brown the opportunity to do that.

“I have always been intrigued with late-season nitrogen application,” says Brown. “I hate to fertilize for 260-bushel corn when Mother Nature is only providing enough rain for 200 bushels. By going late season and after looking at the corn nitrogen utilization chart, it’s pretty easy to determine I need to put my nitrogen on at V10,” he says.

“With a mid- to late-season application, there’s an opportunity to go back and capture some of the yield potential that may be out there,” says Fulton. “In the good areas, we can deliver product when the crop is demanding it and bring that crop to its maximum profitability. A split-application approach really lets a grower spoon-feed nitrogen to corn.”

Split application of nitrogen is a hot topic right now. Yet, it is still misunderstood.

“One misconception about this practice is that it’s putting more nitrogen on a field rather than looking at a program of actually using less nitrogen and applying it as the crop needs it,” says Brad Wirth, a territory sales manager with Hagie Manufacturing.

What that means is reducing the amount applied up front and putting the rest on late in the season. “I like to see one half to two thirds on the front end and one half to one third late. That way, there is enough nitrogen to finish the crop and to maximize yield,” Wirth explains.

Since he doesn’t have irrigation pivots, Brown says he has to incorporate technology like Y-Drop (see sidebar) onto his sprayer.

“Y-Drop gives me an opportunity to place nitrogen right next to the row and to increase the capacity of that nutrient being available for the corn crop,” says Brown.

While Fulton agrees that Y-Drop, as well as a nitrogen toolbar, can play a critical role in meeting mid- to late-season delivery of nitrogen, it comes with a caveat.

“The one thing you have to remember,” Fulton points out, “is that nitrogen management is year to year. When we look at mid- to late-season application of nitrogen between V8 to VT stages, our research suggests you’ll see a response six to eight out of 10 years. I think there’s a lot of benefit and potential profit to late-season application, but you have to remember every season is different.”

In a nitrogen study conducted by Brown, he put an extra sidedress pass in a field a half mile long and 24 rows wide. “In the spring of 2014, I applied anhydrous at 160 pounds, with 10 gallons of weed and feed, across the entire field,” he explains. “Due to the fantastic growing environment that year and the potential of the hybrid, I thought I needed to put on more nitrogen.”

He battled with what Climate Pro Nitrogen Advisor data was telling him to do (not apply more nitrogen) with what he wanted to do (apply more).

What he heard: Brown ended up putting an extra 20 gallons of nitrogen on and stripped it so he could plot any impact. “I was able to identify an increase in yield,” he says. “However, I only bumped it up by 7 bushels. Twenty gallons of 32% plus a late-season side-dress had my costs at about $70 per acre, which wasn’t an advantage for 7 bushels of corn.”

Not only did he learn that his crops had plenty of nitrogen, he also learned that he could be a better steward by cutting back his total rate.
 
Public Perception
A big misconception about agriculture is that farmers dump thousands of pounds of fertilizer, insecticide, and chemical on their fields. However, Brown says if you really think about it, there is no incentive to do that from a profit side.

“The modest amount of fertilizer and chemical I use on my fields would probably shock most urban people,” he says. “Thirty-two ounces across an acre is minimal. Think of it this way: It would be very difficult to spread 32 ounces of peanut butter across a football field, which is equivalent to an acre.”

Being part of the solution to help consumers understand that will be the challenge going forward.

“One of the big challenges growers will face is regulations on the horizon,” says Wirth. “We are already starting to see it happen in different parts of the country. I can see it coming into our area in the next few years. It’s going to be about nitrogen reduction, better placement, better timing, and being better stewards of land. The big thing will be figuring out what program/technology will work for you because every area is different.”

Closely listening to what his crops are telling him is placing Brown at the forefront should regulations be implemented.

“It’s not where I am today, it’s where I’m going. By trying new technologies and different methods, I will be positioned to better handle whatever the future may hold, but it requires change,” he says. “If I want to get better, I have to change. It doesn’t just happen.”

 

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