Economically sound stewardship

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

Economics and the environment don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Chuck and Darin Dunlop have proven that fact on their 6,800-acre row-crop operation, which spans four counties in southeast Kansas. Stewardship and efficiency go hand in hand on Dunlop Farms, where the cousins have implemented best management practices such as grid soil sampling, variable-rate nutrient applications and precision planting.

In 2013, the Dunlops began working with AGChoice in Moran, Kan., to establish those practices. For their ongoing work, the farmers and AGChoice were recently honored as 4R Advocates by The Fertilizer Institute at the 2018 Commodity Classic in Anaheim, Calif.

“When we first started working with Darin and Chuck on grid-sampling, we were doing it from an economic standpoint,” MFA Precision Farming Specialist Jason Sutterby said. “We wanted to help these guys achieve optimum yields, do a better job of putting fertilizer where it needed to be in the fields, even up crops and so forth. Because we’re looking at creating economic efficiencies, we often forget these practices are also best for the environment.”

Chuck and Darin are fourth-generation farmers, and the fifth generation is beginning to enter the business. The farm now employs seven family members full time. The cousins’ great-grandfather initially purchased a small tract of land near Parker, Kan., in 1899 after immigrating from Ireland. As the farm has changed hands through the generations, it also changed shape and scale.

“At one time or another, we’ve done a little bit of everything,” Chuck said. “Our dads ran the local elevator in town, and they had a feed store. We had a peach and apple orchard with about 3,000 peach trees. We raised farrow-to-
finish hogs, cattle and row crops.”

When the previous generation ran the operation in the 1970s, the farm was a lot smaller, between 1,500-2,000 acres, and the labor was significantly more intense, Darin said.

“It evolved a lot over the years,” he said. “When Chuck and I started farming with our dads, we did a lot of tillage—cultivating and mechanical weed control. A hundred hours a week was pretty common.”

As technology and equipment advanced, the Dunlops’ management practices did, too. Reduced tillage has replaced much of their conventional cultivation methods. They now plant approximately two-thirds of their acreage to soybeans using no-till practices. The rest is planted in corn using minimal tillage. Wheat is sometimes also added into the rotation.

Even with these changes, the Dunlops said they still weren’t making the most of their fertilizer applications. Their considerable acreage had significant variability that needed to be managed. They worked with AGChoice to determine what was going on under the surface.

“When I met these guys five years ago, they had basically been applying a flat rate of fertilizer across all their fields,” Jason said. “When we started talking about the Nutri-Track program and variable-rate fertilizer applications, they jumped right on board.”

Grid sampling allowed Chuck and Darin to assess the nutrient levels, pH, cation exchange capacity and organic matter in the fields. Jason took all this information, added the Dunlops’ yield monitor data and developed precise fertilizer recommendations.
While there were areas of the property that were deficient in lime, others were deficient in phosphorus and potassium.

“We were able to apply lime immediately and get that caught up,” Jason said. “We have also inverted the rate of phosphorus and potassium. The soil tests showed we were falling behind in potassium, so we had to figure out how to balance the fertility and, in turn, even up the fields to where they need to be.”

In 2016, the Dunlops also placed 700 acres into a variable-rate, nitrogen top-dress trial, one of MFA Incorporated’s first studies of this kind. The results were positive, the cousins said, and now 100 percent of their corn acres is enrolled in Adapt-N, a variable-rate nitrogen modeling program administered by MFA’s precision specialists through the Nutri-Track program.

“No one wants to waste their nitrogen,” Darin said. “If you look at your soil tests and look at the cation exchange capacity, the soil can only hold so much nitrogen at any given time. If you’re out there putting on 300 pounds, it’s not going to stay there.”

With variable-rate technology, the Dunlops were able to decrease phosphorus application rates by 15 percent as well.

Participating in the Nutri-Track Program and implementing these best management practices equates to less fertilizer waste and increased efficiency, the Dunlops said. They are putting fertilizer where it’s needed and not putting it where it’s not needed, which is the concept behind the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship—using the right source, at the right rate, in the right place, at the right time. According to TFI, the 4Rs use a science-based approach to increase production while improving the sustainability of farming operations and the environment.

“We talk a lot about 4R nutrient stewardship at TFI, but these practices only work if they are used on the farm,” said Chris Jahn, TFI President. “The 4R Advocate program is our way of recognizing good work when we see it.”
Now in the seventh year, TFI’s 4R Advocate program received 32 nominations. According to Lara Moody, vice president of stewardship at TFI, the quality of nominations continues to increase, making it hard to choose just five. The advocates help deliver the 4R message to other farmers and stakeholders.

“Good advocates want to advocate,” Lara said. “Both the retail agronomist and the farmers are equally important to us as advocates. Good advocate pairs are working together to consider, implement and assess fertilizer decisions geared towards getting the 4Rs right in the field. We value farmers who are looked to by their peers as leaders and innovators, and we look for advocates who have a good story to tell with data to back it up.”

Lara said TFI has linked 4R implementation to farm productivity and profitability as well as water quality and other environmental concerns related to nutrient loss. It’s a proven strategy at Dunlop Farms. Chuck Dunlop’s wife, Cheri, keeps track of the numbers for the farm along with Darin’s sister, Dierra Willey, who began working with Cheri about a year ago.

“We talk about the things that happen out in the field, and we focus on that,” Chuck said. “But at least half of what makes us successful is what they do in the office here. We can go out and spend money, but they come back and tell us if what we’re doing is working or not.”

Stewardship is a broad term, Chuck said. There are ways to apply it in many aspects of the farm.

“With these practices, we’re not wasting fertilizer if we happen to get 10 inches of rain,” Chuck said. “It’s not good for the environment, but it’s also not good economically.”

What’s good for the farm, what’s good for the land and what’s good for the longevity of the business drive the Dunlops’ decisions. Each generation has worked to advance the farm for the next.

It’s admirable, Jason said.   

“To me it seems like this generation and previous generations have done a really nice job of setting the structure of the farm up for success and intergenerational transfer,” he said. “There has been a lot of foresight and thought into making sure they’ve set the farm up for the future.”

Visit www.nutrientstewardship.com to find out more about 4R Nutrient Stewardship and 4R Advocates. For more information on the Nutri-Track program, contact your local MFA or AGChoice retailer.

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