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How one young farmer changed his nutrient management

Eric Coddington shares his views on the future of agriculture and talks about changes on his family’s farm.

Located near Montello, Wisconsin, Eric Coddington returned to the family farm after college to work alongside his father.

Coddington took a hiatus to gain his degree from Iowa State University in agronomy, graduating in 2017. Two years after graduation, Coddington reunited full-time with the farm he grew up on.

While his dad possesses decades of experience, Coddington bounces new ideas and potential improvements off his dad. As a young, passionate farmer, Coddington spoke with Successful Farming to break down his family’s farm and agriculture in general.

Q: How did your passion for agriculture start?

A: My dad told me farming has been in my blood since the day I was born. It seemed like from a young age I loved being outside and being on the farm, so my dad took a lot of opportunities to teach me about the farm and how things work from a pretty young age. I’d always had a passion for it, so that’s why I went to school at Iowa State University – to study agronomy to get a better understanding of it.

I would say as I’ve gotten older now, I still really enjoy farming and definitely have a passion for doing it. I’ve also realized farming doesn’t have to control my life, so that’s why two years ago my wife and I took some time to do ministry. That was kind of a nice break. It gave us an opportunity to see what life is like outside of agriculture and learn some really valuable people skills. 

Being able to do that was a great opportunity. After we did that, it was like ‘I still really love farming and want to be involved in the farm operation,’ so in May 2019 my wife and I moved from Ames, Iowa, back to the home farm. Since then, I’ve been farming full time with my dad, and that’s what I plan on doing for the foreseeable future. 

Read more: Q&A: Travis Lichtensteiger, Iowa State agronomy student

Q: Since you’ve returned to the farm, what changes have you made to it?

A: I would say a lot of what we’ve been looking more closely at is our nutrient management program, how we’re applying fertilizer to the crops. In this area of Wisconsin, the soil can be highly variable – anywhere from sand to clay to muck, and a lot of that can all be in the same field in some cases. We have a lot of variability in soil type, which means that one fertilizer program might not work on every single acre. 

What we’ve been looking at, and what Iowa State helped me with, was kind of an understanding of how crops need fertilizer requirements at different times of the year, and how the soil contributes to that, and how different soil processes provide nutrients to the plant throughout the year, and how weather affects all that.

A lot of what we’ve been looking at is how to do split applications of nitrogen. How we may do split applications of potassium in some cases because it’s possible we’re losing potassium to rainfall loss. Do we need to put in nitrogen stabilizers to help protect the nitrogen that we’re putting out on the field? I’ve done a lot of trials in regard to some of those areas.

Also, another thing I really learned a lot about at Iowa State was weed management principles – the importance of putting down herbicides and rotating modes of action under chemical usage. Also, just the farm financial analysis portion of how you manage a farm from a business standpoint in conjunction with cropping/agronomics.

We might be able to do this, and it’ll increase yield, but is the increased yield actually going to pay for itself if we put on another product?

Q: When you have new ideas or are looking for new ideas, where or who do you go to as a resource?

A: One of the things I learned at Iowa State and what they taught us was how do you problem solve? Looking at the available resources, well, first thing I like to do is try to evaluate. For instance, we’re seeing a problem with our corn plants showing a nitrogen loss, so we’ve got to figure out how can we get more nitrogen to that plant. 

First, it’s a matter of figuring out what the problem is. Is it because the nitrogen being put on is being lost? Is it not enough? Is it the plant not taking it up from compaction? So, evaluating the problem first, figuring that out. Once we’ve determined here’s where the problem probably lies, then it’s a matter of finding out the possible solutions. 

I like to do a lot of personal research on the internet and come up with a few possible solutions, seeing what other universities are recommending or what companies are recommending for products that might help us.

Also, I’ve learned the importance of talking to other people with experience, looking around for other farmers in the area experiencing this problem. What are they doing to help with that? Talking with retailers and folks we work with to see what they suggest. 

A lot of it is talking with my dad, too. What has he seen in the past and done in the past? It’s funny because I think a lot of farmers my age, and I definitely have a tendency to do this too, but they think ‘man, my dad’s been doing things all wrong for so long and we just have to change everything and do it differently now.’ 

I think a lot of what I’ve learned in humbleness and humility is the fact that my dad’s been farming for a long time. He’s got a lot of experience and he’s been farming for 40 years, so he’s got a lot of good suggestions and ideas, too. I try to take carefully into consideration what he says.

Q: Has your operation been affected by COVID-19, and are you concerned about the virus?

A: So far it hasn’t really affected us too much personally on our farm other than just some of our activities have been canceled. We’re still able to do the day-to-day operations of our farm, it’s just me and my dad as the two employees who work on the farm. 

We haven’t really faced any problems there other than the way the coronavirus has affected the markets. Obviously, that has an impact on farming. In the long run, it plays a part in how it affects us.

Read more: What farmers need to know about COVID-19

Q: What concerns do you have for the next 20 or so years?

A: I think there are some concerns with environmental quality. As farmers are continuing to produce crops, we need to be sure what we’re doing is done in a sustainable manner. In Iowa, groundwater quality is a really big concern as far as nutrients getting into ditches and waterways. In Wisconsin it’s been a growing concern as well about nitrates in the drinking water. I’d say that’s a big thing that farmers need to try to figure out: how to be a part of the solution rather than ignoring it.

Another problem I look at – mostly because we’ve been having this problem the last two years – but weed resistance is something that can be challenging. How are we going to continue to use chemicals to control weeds in a way that is sustainable, and not in a way in which the weeds are developing resistance and rendering the chemical ineffective. I think that’s on my mind because we’ve been having trouble with Roundup-resistant water hemp.

Q: How do you view data for farmers?

A: I think obviously farmers have collected a lot of data over the years – there’s yield data, soil data, planting data, basically everything a machine is doing is collecting data. Then you’ve got the imagery and all that stuff, too.

It’s definitely a valuable thing, I think, as long as we are using it make decisions. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to take a look at all your data and say ‘Wow, where do I even start?’

I’ve tried to focus on how can I use this data to analyze where our farm is, so looking at the yield data is a valuable tool to see which fields are performing the best here. Once we can start to compare yields, then I can dig deeper into the problem and find why one field is yielding lower or higher than the other. Is it differences in the soil, or the seed we planted?

Q: Is there anything you want to add? 

A: I’m thankful for the opportunities I have to farm, and especially being able to farm with my dad in a family operation is something that I don’t want to take for granted because I know there are a lot of young farmers who want to do the same but don’t have that opportunity. 

I’m just thankful for what the Lord has blessed us with. Farming is a challenging business. There’s weather and markets and all kinds of things that are constantly changing, but that’s OK – God has given us an opportunity to do it, and I’m thankful for that. We just try to do the best we can. 

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