Farming the competitive edge
When Wyatt Harris was 17 years old, he sold the new truck he’d purchased with his savings the year before to rent 350 acres of land from a retiring neighbor.
“That got me into a bit of trouble with my parents,” Harris admitted. “I grew up around farming. At 15, I could run a 24- row planter, but my uncle farms the homestead. If I wanted to farm, I knew I was going to have to do it myself.”
Now 30, he grows roughly 4,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat near Hepler, Kan., in addition to custom farming. Since the beginning, Harris saw the value in adopting progressive technologies and management practices, though he may not have had the top-of-the-line equipment. At 21, he began soil sampling and tracking organic matter. Shortly thereafter, he started gathering yield data.
When he rents a new parcel of land, Harris said the ground is usually pretty rough. Some requires dirt work, brush removal and burndown applications. Land is usually cheaper in this shape, the young farmer said, and he doesn’t have to worry about people renting it out from under him.
“I wouldn’t be as far along as I am, though, if we weren’t looking at how to maximize the fertility of those fields,” Harris said.
He’s not afraid of the work. Mainly a no-till farmer, some of his reclaimed fields now average 170 bushels of corn per acre even in dry years.
“It all started with some farms that we opened up,” Harris said. “Parts were prairie meadow, and we removed fence rows. We’ve been yield mapping for several years. Seeing the yield difference in the ground with high organic matter that hasn’t eroded away after 100 years of being farmed is just night and day. Once you’ve farmed it to clay, you’ve farmed it to clay. Most guys don’t see that without yield mapping. We can grow the type of crops they do in Iowa and central Illinois on that native sod if it’s managed right.”
With the yield data Harris collected, he was able to develop yield-management zones for variable-rate phosphorus and potassium applications. In 2015, when MFA began running trials with the Adapt-N model, a software program that allows producers to create variable-rate nitrogen recommendations, Harris was the perfect candidate. Previously, he spread a flat rate of nitrogen. Now all of his corn acres get variable-rate applications based on yield goals, and N applications are split in season.
Harris has a high-clearance spreader truck that allows him to apply his own fertilizer and top-dress his fields.
“We’d been applying variable-rate P and K,” he said. “In corn, we also made new yield-management zones, trying to push the good spots a little harder and lighten up on the bad spots. I decided it was somewhat pointless to do that without being able to variable-rate our nitrogen, too.”
MFA Precision Sales Manager Eric Preston said Adapt-N provides a way to be as efficient as possible with both seed and fertilizer inputs in the poorer areas of the field and boost yield potential in the better sections.
“Our process has evolved over time,” Preston said. “In Wyatt’s fields, not only are we putting more nitrogen out there in those good areas, we’re also putting more plants out there to maximize those better-yielding zones.”
To develop these yield zones, Preston prefers having at least two years’ worth of normalized yield data. With that information in hand, he can help producers create goals for the next year.
“We have 250-bushel and 90-bushel yield zones in the same field,” Harris said. “Adapt-N has changed everything because we’re actually managing our nitrogen. We’re pushing yield zones 100 bushels better than county average in some places. We wouldn’t still be doing it if it wasn’t working.”
For a long time, many growers thought of planting populations and fertility applications separately, Preston said.
“You had guys who were variable-rate planting who weren’t using variable-rate nitrogen applications,” he added. “They were planting more but weren’t putting anything else out there for those plants to uptake, so they weren’t seeing a big increase. On the flip side, you had guys who were applying variable-rate nitrogen who weren’t putting any more seeds out there to take advantage of that nitrogen. By doing them together, it maximizes the return on both.”
It’s a system and a process, Harris said.
“You can’t have one without the other, and we plan a lot,” he said. “It definitely adds science to what we’re doing with late-season nitrogen. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than the old way. It’s a very good educated guess now, versus just a guess.”
On their farm a little over 50 miles north near Parker, Kan., the Dunlop family also participated in the same Adapt-N trial four years ago. With 700 acres of corn enrolled in the trial, they also saw the efficiency benefits.
“In the past, when you put on anhydrous, you shot for 150 bushels an acre,” Chuck Dunlop said. “You wanted to apply enough nitrogen for that, and maybe you didn’t actually raise that much. There was probably a lot of waste there.”
When spring rains come, farmers in this area joke that it comes 10 inches at a time. Both flooding and drought can occur in the same season, and denitrification is definitely a potential issue.
“That’s why we side-dress,” Preston said. “Once that corn is planted, we’ll have about 10 days in May when it’s just warm and wet. That’s when we have the potential to lose whatever nitrogen is out there. After those 10 days, that’s when we apply our nitrogen—after the corn dries up and is ready to take off. The most expensive nitrogen we put on is the nitrogen we lose.”
Like Harris, the Dunlops continued to use Adapt-N on all their acreage after the initial trial. The variable-rate nitrogen program brought some consistency across their farms.
“In the past, consistently our best yields were always on the river bottom ground,” Dunlop said. “Now, it’s getting more evened out. More of our upland is yielding a lot better. One of our routinely worst farms had the highest bean yield this year. Some of that was weather, but I think the fertility of those fields also plays a big part. We’re getting more consistent farm-wide.”
Also like Harris, the Dunlop family develops long-term goals for their operation and then takes incremental steps toward them. They’ve been gathering yield data since the ’90s and use it to factor removal rates into their fertility recommendations. The data helps them determine planting populations in addition to creating yield zones and splitting nitrogen applications.
“These guys are probably some of the most progressive farmers when it comes to nitrogen application,” Preston said. “A lot of guys will do a split application, but they still apply most of their nitrogen up front. Here, they put a little bit on up front and a lot when they side-dress, which is the way it should be done.”
Their gradual, strategic approach is what helped the Dunlops be so successful with this program, Preston added. They started by grid sampling and correcting the fields’ pH levels. Then, they followed variable-rate recommendations for P and K. Now, they’ve moved into nitrogen and matching the seeding rates accordingly.
“I think that’s important for anybody,” Dunlop said. “In the past, any time we tried to jump in and make a major change across the entire operation, it didn’t work too well. You need the experience first.”
By working with MFA crop consultants and precision managers, some trial and error is mitigated.
“Most farmers only get about 30 to 40 plantings and harvests to figure out what works for their operations before they retire,” Preston said. “We see at least that many every year, in addition to countless pests, diseases and other factors that can impact the growing season. That knowledge of what we’ve seen work and what didn’t is part of the value MFA provides to our growers.”
The next steps for Dunlop Farms may be moving into no-till corn and retrofitting their planters with hydraulic downforce to ensure proper planting depth. Harris said he sees multi-variety planting in the cards on his farm.
When asked why using such technology on the farm is important, Harris said the bottom line is the bottom line.
“I see it as the way of the future,” he continued. “If we’re going to stay out here and do what we’re doing, we’re going to have to adopt those practices. It’s just as well to do so early and get it figured out. I think it gives us a competitive edge and makes us more efficient, better farmers and better stewards.”
For more information on Adapt-N, contact your local MFA or AGChoice to connect with your nearest precision specialist.
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