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Healthy Plants: Keys to Making Sure Plants Have Only “Good Days”

By Paul Fixen, IPNI Senior Vice President and Director of Research, Brookings, S.D.

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Healthy Plants: Keys to Making Sure Plants Have Only “Good Days”

I no longer qualify for the “early career professionals” demographic or the much-catered-to Millennials club. However, as a Baby Boomer, my “senior” perspective does provide an opportunity to observe what in fact stands the test of time across the decades, whether for social issues or for basic principles of crop management.

We live today in an age of performance indicators intended to guide our management decisions, and to also communicate to consumers about how food and other agricultural deliverables are produced. The array of indicators include factors such as nitrous oxide emissions, that a few years ago were not even on our radar screen. However, one indicator that has persisted at the top of the heap is crop yield, and those growers most successful in producing exceptionally high yields have consistently been dedicated to a simple concept: making sure plants have only “good days.”

For me, the study of what makes for amazing yields started in the late 1960s, with participation in an FFA program called the “304-Bushel Challenge.” It provided high school students enrolled in vocational agriculture an opportunity to put together everything they could learn about increasing corn yields into an on-farm test plot. The program name came from the then-accepted corn yield record of 304 bushels per acre. Well, I made multiple trips per week to that test plot, looking for signs of problems. I was amazingly ignorant about the science of how a corn plant functions, how hybrids could be matched to environments, how pesticides work, or how roots obtain water and nutrients from soils. But, I did have a vision of how a healthy corn plant should appear, and the contrasting vision of a plant that is not having a good day. Rains did not cooperate fully in this southwest Minnesota rain-fed field, and there were days when even my untrained eye recognized that water was the problem. Still, the plot yield of 133 bushels per acre was seen as a fine accomplishment because it was the highest yield we had ever produced on the farm.

Now, 45 years later, yields are indeed a bit higher, but we hear winning growers of the National Corn Growers Association yield contests across the country, and leading scientists studying high-yield systems, repeat what intuitively seemed right to a high school student in the 1960s: Frequent, consistent monitoring of crop conditions to address problems that are correctable this year, and to learn what to change for next year, remains the top priority if efficient and effective use of all resources is the goal. There is no more important time to remember this principle than right now, during the grand period of crop growth in the Corn Belt, when growth rates, water use and nutrient demand are at their peaks and conditions are great for pest outbreaks.

Today’s sensing and other technologies offer a great multiplier of personal footsteps in the field, but in my view, cannot replace them completely. Though farm size and labor supply are increasing constraints, time spent as a physician with the patient in the field is a great investment, and the only way of knowing whether the crop is only having “good days.” It’s a principle that has stood the test of time for more than four decades.

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