Crops

Manage small for big returns

With near-record highs of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) as I write this article, a question I’ve been asked a lot lately is, “How much fertilizer should I ap­ply?” In response I say, “It depends.” I know. Brilliant, right?

But honestly, effective fertilization does depend on multiple factors, many of which you can control. Questions I might ask in return include, “What are your current soil test levels? What are your yield goals for this field? What are you doing to protect your fertility investment?”

As a district precision manager for MFA as well as a licensed MFA crop insurance agent, I spend much of my time thinking about risk management. Often on my mind are ways I can help farmers manage risk when it comes to fertility, and how I can help leverage their crop insur­ance to manage on-farm risk.

When it comes to managing your fertility investment, a key consid­eration is making sure that you are putting N, P and K in the right place at the right rates for the production goals of your fields. However, the first thing you need to address is soil pH. At MFA, we do that through Nutri-Track, a high-yield system that focuses on managing fertility on an acre-by-acre basis. A colleague of mine once said, “manage small for big returns,” and that hits the nail on the head.

Managing small by using Nutri- Track to properly correct pH can produce big returns. Low and high pH levels can tie up recently applied phosphorus to the point of making it unable to do its job of feeding the crop. Through precision applications, you can correct low areas with lime without raising pH in areas of fields that are already elevated or close to optimum. A flat rate of lime does not take into account current pH levels in your fields.

Much of the pH correction is done in the fall, and maybe you’ve already got your P and K applied and possibly part of your nitrogen for the upcoming crop. There are still things you can do to help pro­tect your fertility investment. One way is through in-season nitrogen management. MFA encourages split applications of nitrogen for several reasons. First, it promotes environ­mental stewardship. Second, we can better partner with our growers and provide more return on investment through accurate, in-season nitrogen recommendations.

MFA uses the Nutri-Track N com­puter model, powered by Adapt-N, to account for in-season losses through weather events and growing conditions on your specific fields. This allows our precision agronomy specialists to make an accurate ni­trogen recommendation during the growing season, which can go a long way toward helping maximize inputs applied ahead of your crop.

What if you haven’t yet applied P and K for next season? Nutri-Track is highly customizable. MFA fertility recommendations feature a build and removal component, and these types of recommendations provide the best results in my experience. However, in years with higher P and K prices, on some fields it may make sense to focus on removal only. May­be rented ground fits this scenario for your operation.

MFA can use yield monitor data to create recommendations that replen­ish P and K removed by the previous crop. While this option doesn’t build soil fertility, it can help place fertility where it will do the most good in the short term. The needed nutrients go to more productive acres without over-applying on less-productive acres. Better fertility placement allows you to raise overall farm yield averages and return on investment. Applying more P or K where you don’t need it—and not enough where you could use more—doesn’t make much sense. The removal-only approach, using yield monitor data, allows us to remedy that.

If you are not enrolled in Nutri- Track or don’t have a yield monitor for more precise recommendations, let me caution you that cutting fertilizer application rates on all fields equally is not the way to go. Focus on productivity levels and goals of each farm or field. Contact your local MFA manager, precision agronomy specialist or key account manager and work through where you should place fertility to best protect your input investment.

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Losing crop protection tools challenges growers

We must seek alternative solutions when proven products can no longer be used

When there’s an equipment breakdown, farmers typically reach for their tool set to get their machine up and running again. A few weeks ago, my 4-year-old daughter wanted to ride her battery-powered John Deere Gator Power Wheels. I unplugged the power cord from the wall receptacle and clipped the battery terminals together. Before we could head down the driveway, though, I needed to insert the screw that held the front bumper and battery in place. I generally leave my red-handled #2 Phillips screwdriver next to the toy, but this time it was missing and couldn’t be found.

The bottom line was that I didn’t have the necessary tool to complete the task and move forward. I had two options: find a different tool (a pocketknife) that could be used to achieve a similar outcome or leave the toy in the garage. Any parents reading this will understand that leaving the toy in the garage was not an option that day.

When it comes to crop protection tools—fungicides, herbicides and insecticides—we often have options to manage a given pest. Today’s tools are vastly more advanced than earlier civilizations that used sulfur products to control insects and mites. Salt was commonly used by Roman soldiers to prevent their enemies from growing crops and feeding their population. Pesticidal options over the last century have evolved from industry byproducts to active ingredients that require lower use rates, have less environmental impact, and are more specific to damaging pests.

DougResearchers continue to discover crop protection products, with the spotlight in recent years on fungicides. This product category has experienced more growth in active ingredient discovery than herbicides and insecticides. On the contrary, our industry continues to be squeezed on older but effective active ingredients that control some of our most troublesome pests.

One such example is chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that had several trade names such as Govern, Hatchet or Lorsban. In early 2022, the EPA revoked the use of chlorpyrifos on all food, feed and forage crops. For many producers, it was the go-to product for managing insects in corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Alfalfa has fewer labeled insecticide options when compared to crops such as corn and soybean with larger market opportunities.

Managing alfalfa aphids and alfalfa weevils will be challenging going forward due to fewer effective alternative insecticides. Additional petitions to remove other organophosphate pesticides, including acephate and malathion, have been proposed.
Atrazine is another herbicide that has been in the spotlight recently. It’s not only crucial for weed control in corn and grain sorghum but also for making other herbicide products, like Explorer, work more effectively.

A more intensive, integrated approach may be necessary in the short-term to manage certain pests that were perhaps easier to control with formerly available chemistries. In the case of my daughter’s Gator, a pocketknife was required to get me by until I could locate the lost tool or purchase a new #2 Phillips screwdriver. The time it took me to find an alternative solution was much shorter than the time it takes to get new tools registered and approved to manage weeds, diseases and insects. It takes years to get a product from lab to farm while also going through the federal and state registration processes.

I believe our industry and patrons will continue to evolve and adapt as crop protection tools come and go. The exciting part to me is there are many creative, intelligent minds working in product discovery with the passion to provide solutions.

Team MFA is no different. The wealth of knowledge and experience of our team members is immense and provides a contemporary approach to providing whole-farm solutions to our customers, just as we have for more than 100 years.

Doug Spaunhorst
MFA Director of agronomy
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Read more in this Dec/Jan2023 issue of Today’s Farmer

 



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Less loss equals more nitrogen for your crop

MFA offers new options to help protect your fertilizer investment

After the summer that most of our trade territory experienced, fall is a welcome sight. Not only does this season bring cooler temperatures but also—hopefully—some rains to replenish the soil for the 2023 growing season. With corn and soybeans from this year being harvested, many producers will begin developing and implementing the plan for the next year’s crop, especially for corn acres.

Anhydrous application near Shelbina Missouri 2022.For many producers in our region, anhydrous ammonia is the preferred form of nitrogen fertilizer. Depending on the cropping plan, anhydrous gives us the opportunity to provide some or all of our nitrogen needs for corn well before it is planted. That allows MFA, as well as the producer, to be more efficient in the heat of spring rush when planters are rolling, sprayers are chasing, and spreaders need to be running. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the ability for those things to happen at the same time. And there can always be interruptions from Mother Nature.

Along with the logistical efficiencies, fall anhydrous has been typically a cheaper option for nitrogen fertilizer in years past. Recently, supply shortages and price inflations have changed the game. That means we have to be even smarter about managing fall nitrogen applications so we don’t throw away investment spent on fertilizer.

Through a process called nitrification, the ammonium in nitrogen fertilizers is converted to nitrite in the soil and then further oxidized to nitrate. Once in nitrate form, the nitrogen is subject to loss because it moves freely throughout the soil with moisture and can leach below the root zone. Nitrate is also subject to denitrification, a biological process that converts nitrate to a gas that is lost to the atmosphere. This occurs in waterlogged soils.

The solution to reducing such losses is holding nitrogen in the stable ammonium form until the plants need it. How do we do that? What products and practices can help protect that investment?

It all starts with management. We need to wait until soil temperatures stay steadily at 50 degrees or below as winter approaches. Living organisms in the soil (specifically Nitrosomonas bacteria) are ready to “pounce” and “eat” on the anhydrous ammonia as a food source once it is applied. However, like most living organisms, they slow down and become less active as their environment gets cooler.

The second management consideration is to include a nitrification inhibitor, also known as nitrogen stabilizers, to help further slow the conversion of ammonia to nitrate in the soil. The two main products used in our trade territory for anhydrous ammonia are N-Serve by Corteva Agriscience and Centuro by Koch Agronomic Services.

Many of you may have heard of or used N-Serve for your anhydrous applications. N-Serve has the active ingredient of nitrapyrin, which has been used since the 1960s as a nitrification inhibitor. MFA has offered this product for many years.

Recently, we have adopted Centuro, a nitrification inhibitor with a different active ingredient, pronitridine, that has been on the market less than five years. In fact, it’s the first nitrification inhibitor to receive EPA registration in the past 40 years.

Pronitridine has multiple mechanisms of action that prevent nitrification from occurring. We have also observed that Centuro is gentle on equipment since it is a noncorrosive material, and the use rate, while higher than N-Serve, is much easier to calculate.

We have seen through our own research, as well as university research, that there is no difference between N-Serve and Centuro and their ability to protect anhydrous in the fall as well as spring applications. For those who have participated in our Nutri-Track N nitrogen-modeling technology, it’s important to note that the program is calibrated for Centuro just like N-Serve when it comes to tracking and monitoring nitrogen loss.

Make sure that you are protecting your nitrogen investment and using products that have been proven to work. Not only is it good stewardship of your input dollars, but it’s also good stewardship of the land to keep fertilizer stable until the crops can use it.

Contact your local MFA Agri Services for more information on protecting anhydrous applications with a nitrogen stabilizer.

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–Cameron Horine
Precision data manager
MFA INCORPORATED
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Check out additional recent TF coverage on N stabilization from our Agronomy Staff:

Stabilizers can protect yield - https://www.todaysfarmermagazine.com/crops/1818-stabilizers-can-help-protect-yields-and-your-fertilizer-investment

A decade of demos and data - https://www.todaysfarmermagazine.com/mag/1872-decade-of-demos-and-data

Seeing is believing - https://www.todaysfarmermagazine.com/crops/1389-seeing-is-believing

CLICK HERE to read more from the November 2022 Today's Farmer magazine

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What lies beneath: a look into fall fertility

With crops being harvested and yield reports coming in after a tough season in many parts of our trade territory, growers are starting to look toward 2023. Right now, there is more uncertainty in agricultural inputs than ever before. Will fertilizer costs begin to level off? Will herbicide supply become more consistent and prices begin to balance? Can producers afford to grow corn with the challenges continuing to stack up? Will diesel remain above $4.50 a gallon?

These are all factors beyond your control. Instead of seeking answers to these questions, ask what prac­tices will allow you to survive the uncertainty. I believe looking below the ground at soil fertility is the quickest and easiest way to slow the bleeding and maximize one of your main farm inputs.

Fall is the perfect time to evaluate fertility and put plant food invest­ments to work. Applying phospho­rus and potassium in the fall gives these nutrients ample time to break down into the soil structure. They will stay persistent throughout the winter and be available in the spring for planting. Then, we can apply ni­trogen for cereal, grass or corn crops.

With the massive jump in fertilizer costs over the past couple of years, many growers decided to ease up on their inputs or try something different, such as cutting rates by half, running a maintenance recommendation or not applying P and K at all. If you were growing a cereal, grass or corn crop, nitrogen was still used to the same degree but maybe with different practices or sources of fertilizer. Looking at the current prices of fertilizer inputs and ongoing conflicts in key production areas, this trend does not seem to be reversing anytime soon.

There is nothing wrong with trying to flex your input dollars when the time arises. However, if your farm didn’t experience extreme drought like some parts of our trade territory, you could be looking at a crop that surpasses your yield goal this year. High yields will be a problem for future fertility if inputs continue on their upward trend and soil levels start to deplete by using the same practices year after year. Generally, a 150-bushel corn crop requires close to 68 pounds of phos­phorus and 38 pounds of potassium to achieve that yield goal.

A big concern is if crop plans change from field corn to silage. Silage corn removes a tremendous amount of potassium from the soil, close to 10 pounds per ton. The 38 pounds of potassium initially applied for grain removal would be exhausted after 4 tons of silage yield. Even drought-stressed corn will yield more than 4 tons of silage.

The most efficient way to manage soil nutrient levels and fertilizer dollars is to employ an intensive grid soil-sampling program such as Nutri-Track. Many soil nutrients can be tied up with pH values in the low 5s and upper 7s, making your fertilizer unavailable to the plant. Achieving optimum pH is the foundation of any fertility program and can be an affordable option to help existing soil nutrients be more available to the plant.

Fertility cannot be changed overnight, but managing it will be a step in the right direction. Studies show that 80% of our trade territory requires variable-rate lime appli­cations that average just over 1 ton per acre. Compared to Granddad’s favorite rate, “2 tons to the acre,” we are already being more efficient with our fertility dollars. As you correct pH, soil nutrients are used to their maximum degree, and a bank of reserve phosphorus is opened.

In some instances, you may be overapplying nutrients compared to the crop rotation. When looking at cropping plans, you should fertilize for how those plants use certain nutrients. The soil tests we send to Midwest Labs measure fertility on 2.5-acre grids, on a furrow-slice depth of 6 inches. These tests ana­lyze soil pH, organic matter, cation exchange capacity, phosphorus, po­tassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur and zinc. The results give us that underground view of our nutrient levels so we can address any issues.

Another option to help the checkbook this fall is to incorporate the previous year’s yield data. We can flip that data into a variable-rate fertilizer application. Good, cali­brated yield data from our precision specialists helps ensure your replace­ment-maintenance recommendation is as accurate as can be.

As volatile as the agricultural industry is today, managing your acres differently is a progressive foot forward. When fertilizer dollars are stretched thin, make sure you are in­corporating the right practices. Look where you can adjust and manage certain nutrient inputs. Fall is a great time to sample and to get a repre­sentative analysis on row-crop and pasture acres. Your local MFA to can put you in touch with a precision specialist who will help.

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Wheat makes a comeback in crop rotation

Go back just one generation and we would never be having the dis­cussion of a crop rotation without a small grain such as wheat in the mix. Nor would our dads or grandads believe they were reading an article of the benefits of going back to such a rotation. It’s just another example of “never say never.”

Wheat and corn are grown around the world, with many new areas coming into production over the past few decades. The added acreage, along with new wheat varieties and higher yields, have encouraged wide market swings recently—especially with earlier-maturing varieties and improved opportunity to double crop soybeans. Global turmoil and the COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged a surge in the market, prompting many growers to add wheat back to their crop rotation.

Insects, diseases and weeds

When you read the title of this article, I bet you were expecting me to tell you wheat is great in rotation because it provides additional her­bicide options and buffers from dis­ease. Sorry for the disappointment, but that’s not really the case. Many of the same diseases and vectors in other crops, such as corn, also affect wheat. For example, the same pathogen that causes head scab in wheat also presents as gibberella stalk rot in corn. Wheat herbicides also rely heavily on ALS chemis­try, which we have used in corn production in the past. This negates the idea of using novel chemistry to give us a break from resistant weeds. Because we typically follow wheat with a double-crop soybean, there is also no break from soybean cyst nematode or soybean disease and insect pests.

This is not to say wheat isn’t bene­ficial. There are many advantages to growing a small grain cash crop, but they may not be what immediately comes to mind.

Soil health implications

A corn-soybean crop rotation really isn’t much of a rotation when you look at the history of agriculture. A true rotation uses at least three crops grown in sequence. This practice is much better at breaking weed, dis­ease and pest cycles. Rotations also have big impacts on the structure, function and biological activity in agricultural soils. Soil biology is often overlooked and misunderstood in modern crop production. Resi­due is the food for soil biology that can help move production to the next level. We need to balance and manage the makeup of that residue, especially the carbon within.

With half of a corn-soybean rotation consisting of low-carbon, quickly degrading soybean residue, many times soils are lacking for high-carbon residue. This leads to bare soils, increased erosion, decreased organic matter, decreased nutrient cycling and many other lon­ger-term effects. Adding wheat into the mix provides a large tonnage of good, high-carbon residue, which can positively impact soil function, soil biology, water retention and crop performance from all crops in rotation.

Also, for even more soil improve­ments, wheat leaves a window to re­ally get creative with cover crops and increasing diversity. Some summer cover crop species leach 60% to 75% of the carbon they photosynthesize back into the soil. Talk about feeding soil health!

Cash flow and workload

Working capital is one of the positive aspects of adding some cash-crop wheat. This is an area where many operations struggle. Much of the farm income arrives during one short part of the calendar year. Wheat spreads out cash flow and brings in credits to the spreadsheet at a time of year when there are ma­jor bills to pay. This can take some stress off operating lines. When wheat prices are good like they cur­rently are, this reason alone can be enough to tip the scales in its favor.

Along those lines, wheat has a positive effect on workload. Wheat can be planted behind the combine and spreads out the fall harvest, even with double-crop soybeans. Typically, those beans won’t cut until late fall, long after full-season soybeans. This reduces the amount of standing crop waiting for harvest.

With today’s market conditions, you have likely already thought about adding wheat into your crop rotation. Take a day this summer, sit down and figure wheat production into your budget with 2022 prices. Add in the fact that we can at times achieve some very respectable yields on double-crop soybeans or the possibility of improving the soil with a summer cover crop.

It’s important to manage wheat properly and intensively for it to work as a cash crop in your rota­tion. “Cash crop” are the key words that distinguish it from wheat as a cover crop. Vigilant scouting, proper application timing and the right tank mixes are critical to growing high-yielding, high-quality wheat. This makes wheat a great fit for us­ing MFA Crop-Trak or other agron­omy services. I think you’ll find that wheat can add more than just black to the bottom line.

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