Planning: A Roundtable Agronomic Discussion

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Curt Woolfolk: I think a good place to start is by studying your 2015 yield monitor data. Study those high- and low yielding areas of the field, and consider the nutrient removal of each of those areas. And then look at return on investment for each one of those inputs that you provide to that crop to achieve that yield.

Be judicious with cost-cutting measures. Don't look at all the different inputs for an upcoming season and try to cut everything equally, say, 30 percent across the board. It is important to look at short-term and long-term return on investment for each one of those crop inputs.

Ask, "Where's the most bang for the buck?" You've got a set cash rent or land payment, so it is important to maximize yield and profitability. Again, you've got to look at return on investment for each and every input across your farm.

Ross Bender: I'd agree with Curt. And to add to that, I think it all starts out with setting a pretty accurate yield goal for the next year. Nothing will lead you astray faster than having an unrealistic yield goal and creating unrealistic expectations for that crop.

So when I help farmers plan for next year, I encourage them to think about what that yield goal is by looking back at the past three to five years.

During that time, there have been some pretty good years, and some years that were not so good. So take a look at what that average is. And if you're looking to push your field to the next level, there has to be a realistic yield goal.

That may be 10 or 15 percent higher than what you've been doing on average over the past couple of years. But if you can start out with an accurate yield goal, and then look at what inputs are necessary to get you to that yield goal, that's one way to get started.

Kyle Freeman: As a farmer, you only get so many opportunities to grow a crop over the course of your career. So you have to take each crop season seriously. It's not always about just repeating what you did before, it's also taking an honest look at your operation and where the opportunities are to improve it.


Matt Clover: I think it's important for farmers to look at what they've done in the past, and use what they have learned in the future.

You can throw a lot of money at the equation, but maybe some of those things aren't going to work. And you need to look at the acres you farm. Ask yourself, "Are we renting these acres or do we own them? What's our fertility program? Are we in a maintenance strategy? Have we built up those soil test levels? Have we picked the proper hybrid or variety for those acres to produce the yield that we want?"

It's also important to remember that not all acres are going to be the same, so they shouldn't be treated the same. The past couple of years, conditions have been favorable for high yields. Maybe we've had more of a one-size-fits-all approach. It might be a good time to look at developing an individual prescription for each of those fields to try and maximize that yield.

Bender: We should also encourage farmers to think about agriculture not on a year-by-year basis, but as continual. That land, that field, that resource is a long-term investment.

From 2007 through 2013, or maybe '14, farmers enjoyed record-high commodity prices. It was easy to farm. You could do a lot of things wrong and still make quite a bit of money.

But now we've entered the next part of the cycle, where it's in the correction phase. This is where you have to become a better farmer. And the better farmers will survive and thrive.

You can't just think about that land as a one-year investment, or even a two-year investment, because if you deprive that land of fertility over a period of two to three, maybe five years, you can erode 10 to 15 or maybe 20 years of good fertility practices on that field by mining it from a fertility standpoint. So you always have to be thinking about how you're going to use that resource long term, not in just the short term.

Clover: I think a good example of that is if you go back to the late 2000s, when potash prices went sky high. People quit putting on potash.

In several areas across the Midwest, farmers didn't apply for one or two years. Despite the fact that they had been applying for many years, we started to see deficiencies and yield decreases in those areas.

Knowing what your land can do, what it can support, and having a good program to maximize its potential, that's the most important thing.


Woolfolk: You've got to use both. As agronomists and growers, we have various monitoring and diagnostic tools, and you have to use a combination of them.

It's very important to look at multiple years of yield and the removal that's been taken off versus what has been added back to the soil. Too often, we're not accounting for the increased nutrient removal that comes with increased yield. That can have a lasting impact that may or may not show up immediately on a soil test report.

Freeman: When you sit down to make a crop nutrition plan with your advisor, whoever that may be, there are a couple things you have to have as a prerequisite.

The first is a realistic yield expectation for a field or farm. And the second is a recent soil test. Based on those two pieces of information, you start to build a crop nutrition plan.

We have to remember that not every nutrient is managed the same way. Nitrogen is going to be managed differently than phosphorus and potassium, for example.

Based on those first two pieces of information, you start to build out what those plans are, and you address each of those nutrients appropriately. If you have a low soil test P, then you manage and make fertilizer decisions differently than you would if your soil test P is in the optimum range.

That's why it's critical to have a yield goal and soil test. Your yield goal establishes a reference point of where you're trying to get. And your soil test lets you know where you're starting.

Another piece of information that's also important for making a good crop nutrition plan is reviewing your yield and fertilizer applications from last year. Understanding what nutrients were removed with the crop will help you make recommendations for phosphorus and potassium. If your soil test shows you're in the optimal range, you should consider replacing the nutrients that were removed to avoid depleting those nutrients from the reserves in the soil. All of these strategies should come into play, when developing a crop nutrition plan.


Clover: I think the earlier you have your decisions made, whether or not you're applying the product or your retailer is applying the product, will really help. If that window of application opens up, you're going to be the first to the service, right?

And that's a big part of it: The earlier you have those decisions made, the more likely you are to get the product applied when you want it applied.

Bender: Discipline takes the emotion out of agriculture, which is hard to do, especially when you have the swings, like we've been having, in commodity prices over the last few years.

If you have a real disciplined approach throughout the course of the year, you take out that emotion. You know precisely what you need to be doing, when you need to be doing it, and how you should be doing it.

So I'm a strong proponent of being very proactive, sitting down with your certified crop advisor, your retailer, whoever's involved in your farming operation. Be proactive with the decisions that you're making in your operation, because if you can manage to take out some of the emotion and just become purely disciplined, you can look beyond just the cyclical nature of the business and be real productive long term.

Freeman: As you build a crop nutrition plan, you are deciding on a framework of what you want to do.

After you've made a picture, you've got to figure out which paint brush you want to use to paint the picture. And that's what products are — different tools, different ways to accomplish your goal.

You have to decide which tools are the right tools to help you meet your crop nutrition plan. That's how I think you should view the decision on which product to use: Decide which product is the right tool for you to accomplish what your goals are for the next season.

Growers should be educated on those tools and know how to use them. And have the proper expectations on what those tools can and cannot do for your operation.

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