As fertility costs continue to rise, so too does the need to maximize efficiency of inputs. Carefully managing inputs becomes a topic of concern when costs are high. However, maximizing the return inputs provide should always be a focus of your cropping program. This not only helps manage expenses when costs are high but will also help maximize returns when costs are lower.
Our agronomists work with a variety of farms to help them identify the steps they can take to increase the efficiency of their inputs and maximize their yield potential. Steps for improvement will look different depending on the farm’s baseline practices, but almost all improvement involves collecting more data to fine-tune variable management. Some of our agronomists have shared the ways they work with farms to ensure they are getting the most out of their inputs and not spending more on fertility than is necessary or practical.
1. Know what you’re working with
Knowing what is already present in your soil and what it is lacking is the foundation of your cropping program. How current are your soil samples? If you haven’t had your fields sampled within the last 3 years, this is a good place to start. How intense is your soil sampling? Grid or high-density soil samples allow you to determine where in the field specific nutrients are actually needed. If you’re already pulling grid samples, try reducing the size of your sampling grids to fine-tune your soil needs even further.
In addition to soil testing, it’s also important to identify what homegrown fertility inputs you have available. Manure and compost testing will allow you to maximize the valuable resources you have already produced before you invest in other inorganic inputs like potash or nitrogen. Taking the time to look at an analysis of soil, manure, and compost can help you identify the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to your fertility needs.
2. Put your nutrients where they’re needed
If your fields have been grid sampled, you should know which parts of which fields need which nutrients. Whenever possible, use variable rate (VR) applications to apply fertilizer and manure. This puts inputs only where they are needed and avoids waste. Additionally, consider banding nutrients whenever possible. This precise application places nutrients where plants can easily access them and allows you to apply nutrients at lower rates.
3. Apply additional nutrients where and when they’re needed
Applying additional nutrients throughout the growing season can be an important aspect of maximizing yield. In-season testing such as plant tissue testing or PSNTs (Pre-Side-dress Nitrogen Soil Tests) help to identify where and when nutrients are needed. Using data layers and NDVI imagery from drones or satellites can also help to identify which parts of a field are in need of additional nutrients based on growth stage.
4. Be honest about potential
Yield data from previous years is extremely valuable in helping you determine the honest potential of each of your fields. Not all fields are created equal and some fields will never perform as well as others, regardless of the inputs you apply. Historical yield data can help you identify fields with compacted soil, poor drainage, or other factors that are leading to under performance.
While there are certainly ways to manage those issues, spending large amounts on fertilizer in those fields won’t be fruitful until they’ve been addressed. You wouldn’t breed a low-performing cow to a top-producing bull. You might consider breeding her to a beef bull and save your best semen for your top producers. Just as you would in the barn, place your inputs where they will be used most efficiently to maximize potential.
5. Experiment with something new
As the cost of fertilizer rises, alternative options that once were more expensive are now of a similar, or in some cases lower cost. Biological fertilizers containing bacterial cultures and nutrient solutions may be an option worth trying. You may even consider investing in tools or equipment to help place the nutrients you are using more efficiently. Replicating trials is the best way to measure the return of any new product or technology.
Every farm has an opportunity to improve the way they handle nutrients. Some of these options require more investment and technology than others. However, any farm can work towards increasing the amount of data they collect and improving their record management. Good data and records help identify your largest opportunities for growth and areas for cost management. If you’re interested in making changes to your fertility program this year, schedule an appointment with one of our agronomists by emailing [email protected].