In 1991, when Kriss Schroeder put away his veterinary license and came home to farm near Colby, Kan., he knew he’d need an edge to make a living in the dryland region.
Schroeder adopted an intensive management program that took a 180-degree approach to traditional summer-fallow wheat production. By switching to continuous no-till, he now raises a crop every year, on every acre.
“Water is by far our number one limiting factor to crop production. By switching to no-till, I felt I would be able to conserve enough moisture to grow a crop every year,” relates Schroeder. “We do this by keeping as much residue on the surface as possible and not letting anything grow that doesn’t produce income.”
With 70 percent of his acres in corn, he follows a two- to three-year cycle of the same crop, rather than rotating yearly. This enhances weed control and reduces the risk that can come from needing to drill wheat immediately following the combine in the fall.
Residue preservation involves stripper-headers during wheat harvest and keeping the header as high as possible during corn, sorghum and sunflower harvest so more residue stands longer. Stubble and stalks are moisture-management assets providing shade, snow-holding capacity and protection from drying winds. Weeds are killed before they can steal moisture.
Beyond conserving moisture, the northwest Kansas farmer believes good genetics and a balanced soil fertility program are the most important facets of his success. Each year, he studies seed and fertilizer test plots and does his own on-farm testing of new genetics as well as other crop production products.
“On-farm research is the fun part of farming. There are a lot of differences in soils, and something that might work 200 miles from here may not work here,” he explains. “On-farm research is risk management. Before you spend thousands of dollars on something, you’d better know it works.”
Soil testing every year
Another risk-management tool Schroeder employs is annual soil testing of every field. While he has experimented with 2.5-acre grid sampling, he currently samples every 8 to 10 acres and combines samples from like soils within each field.
“Through the years, the greatest variability we’ve seen from a nutrition standpoint is due to mineralization of nutrients from the previous crop’s residue,” Schroeder explains. “Some years we have a fair amount of rain and heat. That mineralizes a lot of nutrients. If the following year is dry, we may not have as much mineralization, so we’ll need to apply more fertilizer.”
Gauging from the lowest to highest years, he estimates this variability can range from a nearly insignificant amount to the crop’s full requirement; therefore, he’s not confident in building a nutrient program based strictly on estimated crop removal.
Because of leaching, levels of mobile nutrients – nitrogen (N), chloride (Cl) and sulfur (S) – also are hard to predict without annual soil tests. Soil samples typically are pulled from 0 to 6 inches and also 6 to 24 inches. In years in which nutrient leaching is suspected, N, Cl and S are evaluated at 24- to 48-inch depths.
Nutrient plan adjusted, balanced each year
Using a spreadsheet built following nutrient recommendations from Kansas State University, Schroeder develops a balanced nutrient program for each field, each year, adjusting the rates up or down a bit depending on expectations for the growing season. He stresses the importance of formulating a program every year on every field and balancing nutrition for his crops.
“If you’re taking vitamins, you don’t load up on vitamin C and forget about vitamin A, calcium and other nutrients,” he says. “Plants are no different. If you load up one nutrient and another nutrient is limiting, that will limit your yields. I strive to make sure nothing I can control limits my yields.”
At planting, Schroeder applies granular fertilizer as a starter with the planter or drill. He uses MicroEssentials® SZTM as his source for phosphorus (P), N, zinc (Zn) and S and supplements it with additional potassium (K) as needed. Liquid nitrogen in the form of UAN is streamed on in a band every 15 inches in the fall or winter after the soil temperature drops below 50 degrees. If moisture conditions are favorable for a bumper crop, he occasionally applies additional N in the spring.
Yields are proof Schroeder has found the “edge” he needs for success. His whole- farm averages for each crop are well above average for the area.
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