Farmers make countless decisions throughout a cropping season — some big, some little, some of major consequence and some so habitual they hardly seem like decisions at all.
Critically, more often than not, the decisions you make build on one another, and nowhere is this more evident than with seeding.
“If you’re going to get anything right, get your seeding right,” says consulting agrologist Steve Larocque, of Beyond Agronomy. “You can recover from some poor moves during the year. If you find you need to boost fertility, for example, you can always top-dress. Or if disease is worse than you thought, you can spray again. You can recover from a lot of mistakes, but seeding isn’t one of them.”
Seeding decisions for 2012 start now, in the winter, with variety selection, rotation planning, seed treatment and so on. Those go under the heading of “best laid plans,” says Larocque.
Then, when spring comes, he adds, it’s time to tighten the plan and tweak decisions so that you achieve the best possible stand establishment to meet your maturity, yield and quality targets.
For instance, Larocque says he’ll change his seeding density depending on actual seeding date. “I normally work backwards from the seeding date,” he says. “If it’s May 30 and I know we usually get a frost around September 10, I know I have 95 days or so to get that wheat crop to maturity.”
If it looks as though he’ll be able to seed early, Larocque might bump seeding density to accommodate the greater seed mortality that comes with cooler soils. If seeding later, he might drop that rate because the soil will be warmer. But before making that decision, Larocque takes soil type into consideration because clay soil takes longer to warm up than sandy soil. If it’s getting to late May/early June before he can seed, he’ll abandon plans for a late maturing variety and switch to an earlier one.
“At the beginning of the season, I ask myself what factors will speed maturity, what will get the crop there,” says Larocque. “I’m trying to gain maturity, so I’m trying to focus on seeding depth plant density, and phosphorus placement to get as many main stems as possible and reduce tillers. Every tiller costs me maturity.”
The point is that every decision you make at seeding time, no matter how small, can have an impact on decisions you’ll need to make later in-season and at harvest. If you do seed too deep, or too early, or with too low a density, chances are you’ll spend the rest of the season trying to make up for it because the crop is struggling. It could mean higher fertilizer or pesticide bills, and, in the end, a poorer crop to show for it.
Once the crop is off to a good start, it’s all about fine-tuning: when do micronutrients help and when not? Should a fungicide be sprayed and, if so, when?
Harvest is a key time for information gathering, he says, but too often, that information is lost because it isn’t properly recorded. “Everyone should have a notebook or an iPad in the field. It’s at harvest that you notice a weed patch or thin areas, and if you could quickly record that while combining, you can go back and find out what was going on there.”
After harvest, crunch the numbers if you can, to find out what’s driving yield. Then put that information into your decision-making process next year.
For example, Larocque spent some time after the 2011 harvest doing statistical correlations on customers’ fields to find out what was driving yield. “In a 700-acre field I might have 133 copper levels,” he says. Comparing those Cu levels to yield monitor data, he could try to identify which areas were responding to a higher Cu levels. “Maybe manganese, potassium and zinc are really driving yield on this field, but they may have no effect whatsoever on the next field over.”
As with most things in farming, there is no silver bullet. The secret to success is in getting all the little things right, or as right a possible. “Successful managers do a million things well that add up to a large sum total,” says Larocque.
“The most successful producers I know are constantly gathering information when it comes to grain production,” he adds. This information can come from many sources such as consultants, dealers, chemical company reps or other producers. The key is finding sources you trust then drawing on those sources when making decisions.
Not all sources will have the same answer or opinion, and that’s fine, says Larocque. “The answer is usually somewhere in the middle.”