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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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No simple solution to micronutrient management

Some days, it seems I get more questions about micronutrients and their management in crops than any­thing else—and not without reason. They are the least understood and most often ignored nutrients.

While micronutrients are abso­lutely critical for plant growth and optimum yields, they are only need­ed in extremely low amounts, most of them only a fraction of a pound per acre. Typically, we have optimum amounts of these nutrients to supply the crop’s needs. Also, diagnosing micronutrient deficiencies and prescribing applications are difficult because most agronomists have never seen these issues outside of a textbook. Ultimately, this complexity adds up to many misconceptions and seemingly contradicting claims related to micronutrients.

Of the 17 plant-essential nutrients, eight are classified as micronutri­ents: boron, chloride, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, zinc and nickel. They are considered micro­nutrients because they are found in extremely small amounts in plants. A macronutrient such as potassium may make up 1% of the plant’s dry weight, but a micronutrient such as boron will only make up 0.002%.

These nutrients are critical for sev­eral functions in the plant. Typically they are used as catalysts for other reactions or as minor ingredients of critical plant components like cell walls. We don’t have room to go into details for each micronutrient, so if you are interested in learning more, check out this publication from the University of Missouri’s Master Gardener series, found at bit.ly/MG_micronutrients.

When managing micronutrients, the first thing to understand is that they are seldom in low supply in the soil. Zinc is the only micronutrient that we commonly use a soil test to diagnose deficiencies in MFA’s trade territory. Adequate levels of other micronutrients are typically found in our soil profile.

However, sometimes deficiencies can arise and cause yield loss even when we have “good” soil test levels. That’s because the growing envi­ronment is more important than a soil test in many cases. Soil pH, organic matter levels and heavy clay or sandy soils (as indicated by cation exchange capacity) tend to be a bet­ter indicator of micronutrient needs than soil test levels.

Proper soil pH is something you can control, so lime applications— preferably variable-rate—can help with some micronutrient needs. Soil texture and organic matter are different. These are soil properties we can’t easily adjust, if at all. Sandy soils, for example, are most likely to exhibit micronutrient deficiencies. Just as we should spoon-feed nitro­gen and potassium on these soils, we may need to look at supplementing some micronutrients as well.

I also want to address growers who are trying to break yield barriers. Often, these producers are using many micronutrient packages, sometimes multiple times in a sea­son. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, it is typically unnecessary for our production fields. Taking advantage of these micronutrient applications requires an extreme understanding of the soils in each field and dedication to analyzing the crop in season. I appreciate what these producers do, but, in many cases, the solutions are tailored specifically to their local conditions. Use caution when apply­ing recommendations not made for your cropping environment.

As you likely realize by now, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all approach to micronutrient man­agement. If anyone tries to market micronutrients as a stand-alone solution, you should proceed with caution. Where does that leave us? In short, be diligent about checking your crop for issues, especially in more challenging soils, like heavy clays or sands. A good agronomist can be invaluable here. MFA Crop- Trak consultants, for example, see a wide variety of local soils and crops and can help you find solutions to address problems quickly.

If I had to make a broad gener­alization about what micronutrient fertilizers to use in our area, I would say zinc and boron—zinc because we often see low levels and boron because of its mobility in the soil. Situations may call for other micro­nutrients, but responses to these nu­trients can be few and far between.

My best advice is to focus on the basics, then keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you see something unusual. Be sure to take care of any other fertility issues before chasing micronutrients. Soil pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, po­tassium and sulfur are critical to op­timum yields and must be addressed to gain any value from a micronutri­ent application. Micronutrients can play a part in achieving higher yields, but you must pay attention the en­tire system, not just one component, to be successful.

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Nutrients when they’re needed the most

With higher fertility prices and concerns about supply, there’s increased interest in foliar nutrition this growing season—when to use it, how it works and what bene­fits it brings when added to other applications.

MFA’s Gold Advantage foliar nutrition line includes products for soybeans, corn and small grains. Gold Advantage formulations contain nitrogen, sulfur, zinc, mag­nesium, iron, manganese, molybde­num and copper. Let’s look at what each nutrient does for the plant.

Sulfur aids in seed production, helps with chlorophyll formation and is an integral part of the plant’s amino acids. Zinc also aids in for­mation of seed and plays a role in plant growth hormone production. Boron contributes to pollination— more specifically in pollen tube growth—as well as seed and cell wall formation. Iron also promotes formation of chlorophyll.

Molybdenum helps enzymes convert nitrogen to a usable form. Manganese helps with digestion of glyphosate and is an activator for at least 35 different enzymes. Magne­sium also contributes to chlorophyll formation and improves mobility and utilization of phosphorus. Cop­per functions in photosynthesis and seed development.

Foliar nutrition is designed around plant health, but it is not meant to replace products such as DAP, potash, AMS, zinc sulfate or Granubor. Doing the math, if Gold Advantage weighs 10 pounds per gallon and 1 quart is being applied, there is only a 10th, 100th and even a 1,000th of a unit of these nutrients included.

How does Gold Advantage help maximize plant health benefits and ultimately yields? First, we need sound soil fertility. And that starts with a fertility plan. Personally, I like a “build and maintenance” plan. With this approach, growers build their fertility levels to an optimum range and then maintain those levels through crop removal. It’s like having a checking account. If your optimum dollar amount to “build” is $2,000 and $500 is spent, then maintenance would require deposit­ing $500 back in the account.

Once the field’s fertility is on point, application timing is how we best realize the plant health benefits of these products. We want to feed our crops foliar nutrition when it’s needed the most in their growth.

With Gold Advantage Corn, we recommend application in the V4 to V6 timeframe. That is when post-emergence herbicides are be­ing applied, so we can include Gold Advantage in that herbicide pass. This period is important in a corn plant’s life because it’s when ear size is determined. A healthier plant at that growth stage sets the plant up for maximum yield.

Gold Advantage Soybean should be applied during a similar time frame, when the post-emergence herbicide is going out, normally sometime between V3 and V5. Soybeans have a lag period from slightly after emergence till about V5 or V6, when they make a big jump in growth. Helping the plant more quickly overcome that lag time leads to more nodes on the plant and, in turn, provides more places for pods to be set.

Let’s switch gears and talk about Trend-B, our nitrogen foliar product that contains added boron. Its anal­ysis is 24-0-0-1B. We recommend 1 gallon per acre, which delivers 2.4 units of nitrogen and 0.1 unit of boron. Just like the other Gold Advantage products, Trend-B pro­motes plant heath and maximizes yield. And we use timing to do that.

Both in corn and soybeans, we like to add Trend-B with a fungicide application. Timing should be R1 to R2 on corn and R3 to R4 on soy­beans. Corn is pollinating during that time, and it is vital to mitigate stress. We can achieve stress relief with Trend-B and a fungicide such as Trivapro in corn and Miravis Top in beans. Fungicide makes the plant healthier which, for lack of a better term, makes it hungry. Adding Trend-B provides readily available nitrogen for the plant. The added boron in Trend-B also helps with pollination and seed development.

In soybeans, we want to hit that R3-R4 timing for a different reason. During this stage, the plant is setting pods and starting to fill the seed, and boron helps with that. But what is also going on in a soybean’s life? Nodulation is slowing down. That means nitrogen production is also slowing down. Providing available nitrogen at this critical time boosts plant health and helps maximize yields, the ultimate goal in crop production.

Gold Advantage foliar nutrition products cannot replace typical fertilizer applications, but they aid in plant efficiency. They’re simply more tools in the toolbox. Check with your MFA agronomist for more details on how Gold Advan­tage and Trend-B can benefit your crops this season.

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Good data in equals good data out

Recently on social media, there were posts showing how a producer was able to mount his three iPads and multiple monitors inside his cab most efficiently. While that may seem a little excessive, it got me thinking of how common it is to have more than one display or tablet inside of a tractor or com­bine cab these days. We’ve got a John Deere monitor controlling the AutoSteer function of the tractor, Ag Leader display controlling the planter, and an iPad to check in on the other planter a couple fields over. That scenario is very real in today’s farming operations.

What is the point of all this tech­nology inside modern agriculture equipment? Data, data, data!

Today’s farmers are collecting mountains of data on everything from crop performance to ma­chinery efficiency to help them make decisions across their whole operations. This data can be used for fertility management, creating zones for variable-rate planting, helping to drive seed purchasing decisions, in-field trials and more. The list goes on and on.

Collecting data is the easy part. Turn on your precision equipment, and you are logging some sort of data. Managing that data and linking it all together in a way that makes sense is a whole other chal­lenge. Most precision companies have the capability of sending your data off to the cloud to be received remotely at your office computer. Some growers still use USB drives for removing data from their field computers. How you are gathering the data doesn’t matter. What mat­ters is what you do with that data once you have it collected.

Data files can be large and cumbersome to manage. To help put this data into a usable format, producers have access to software such as Summit or Sirrus from Proagrica, SMS from Ag Leader, My John Deere from John Deere, and FieldView from Climate, to name a few. The first decision producers must make is which software is right for their operation.

The saying “good data in equals good data out” could not be truer when a grower is using this infor­mation to make solid decisions on the farm. One common issue I run across when working with my growers is the inputting of infor­mation to their monitors. Naming your fields seems so simple but can often be overlooked. You know your fields by looking at them on a map, but not everyone does! Most displays utilize a grower/farm/field format. If you take a few minutes to input this information accurately, it can save you and your agronomist time on the backside when discuss­ing fields.

A major offense is not changing your grower/farm/field in the moni­tor, leaving a conglomerate of fields that were soybeans and another for corn. This makes a huge challenge for the agronomist and the grower alike when trying to filter these files to individual fields after the fact.

Another common mistake is entering or not entering hybrid and variety information in the cab when planting. Most producers would like to see how individual seed products performed across their operation. If you are taking the time to sit down and place a hybrid or variety for optimal performance on every acre, entering the individual seed product information is a must.

When reading as-applied planting data, it is useful to know whether the crop is corn or soybeans. But knowing the particular hybrid or variety is much more powerful when evaluating performance on your acres. I know you probably have a notebook where you’ve writ­ten this information, but too often those notations become victim to the great unknown. At that point we are giving our best guess on what took place in that field. Your field computer does a great job of organizing and storing this data if we help it along by recording infor­mation accurately.

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