Analyzing Cropping Systems
D.D. Buchholz, L.E. Anderson, Z.R. Helsel, Harry C. Minor, C.J. Johannsen, J.H. Scott and Howell N. Wheaton
Department of Agronomy
In tight financial times, businesses often try to reduce spending and improve their profits. Many farmers are currently operating their businesses under such conditions. Wise management decisions can improve profits in farming while reducing cash flow needs.
Some of what you put into your farm business can be perceived as cost free. That is, this input does not change as yield per acre changes. Examples include timeliness in all operations, equipment adjustments, crop rotations, land rent and taxes. Making the best use of them should increase yields and profitability in your cropping system.
Avoid high costs until your financial position improves. Too often, we take big risks during hard times in hopes of big payoffs. But when you are counting your chips is not the time to double your bet. Don't overlook any necessary costs that could directly affect crop yield. These necessities might include seed, pest control, fertilizer, lime, fuel, equipment, maintenance and adjustment, and positive management. Omitting anything that has increased yields will undoubtedly reduce profits.
Keep a positive attitude. It has been stated, "For success, attitude can be as important as ability."
This guide contains information about cost-cutting and cost-effective measures that may be useful in your crop production. The major theme is management. Proper management will improve profitability.
Planting and seed
Seed quality is a key to good yields. For most crops, use certified seed or seed of a quality comparable to certified seed. Home-grown seed can save money, but you should know the germination so you can get a proper seeding rate. Never use seed from hybrid crops for next year's planting (corn or grain sorghum).
Use new varieties
Soybean varieties have been improving at about 1/3 bushel per year. Using a 10-year-old variety means you may end up with about 3 less . Corn varieties are improving at about 1 bushel per year. Use current variety test information to help make your decision.
Always treat seed corn
Wheat seed treatment is generally beneficial. Soybeans may not need seed treatment in non-stress conditions. Seed treatment can improve some low germination seed.
Narrow rows usually increase yields for nearly all crops. (Table 1 and Figure 1.) Consider narrowing existing equipment to the limit and, as needs arise, purchase equipment for narrow rows. Soybeans planted in narrow rows (10 inches or less) have increased yields an average of 4 over 30-inch rows. Narrow rows show the greatest advantage in late-planted crops such as double crop soybeans or grain sorghum. You can get narrow rows by doubling back with wide-row equipment.
Average soybean yield in to drilled seeding at several Missouri locations
|Year||Location||30-inch rows||10-inch rows||Response|
Planting date is extremely important in achieving yield potential. Nobody can plant every acre on that best planting date. But strive to have at least half of your crop planted by that date. The only excuse for late planting should be the weather.
Plan ahead to get your planter in field condition before that first planting day. Check and adjust your planter often. Drive as slowly as possible to ensure good seed placement and proper seeding rate while still getting the planting done on time.
Tillage costs money in fuel, labor and wear and tear on equipment. Reducing the number of tillage operations and tillage depth will reduce these costs. Work the soil only until you achieve that seedbed that will give satisfactory emergence. Added tillage may also increase soil erosion potential. Evaluate tillage by categorizing necessary and traditional tillage.
Know the weeds you need to control
Too often, farmers select herbicides for broad spectrum control when less expensive alternatives may control the weeds present in your crops. Comparing prices of herbicides in relation to their recommended application rates may result in considerable cost savings. Several herbicides are manufactured by more than one company. Shop for the least expensive brand of the same herbicide.
Band application of some herbicides over the row can reduce costs by as much as two-thirds. Some herbicides do not require incorporation and can be effectively used in a band over the row for pre-emergence or post-emergence application. You can cut costs by cutting down on the amount of herbicides used per acre and by reducing tillage.
Use a rotary hoe to control small weeds early and a cultivator to control major weeds as the crop grows. This can result in effective weed control and can cut costs. For weeds in the rows, post-directed or rope wick application may give the added control you need at a reduced cost. Take care in selecting fields for this purpose. Be certain that under almost any condition, timely cultivation and herbicide application can be accomplished.
Nitrogen added to the soil by a legume crop (optimum)
|Legume crop||Nitrogen added per acre|
|Sweet clover (Green manure)||100-120 pounds|
|Red clover (Pure stand)||40-60 pounds|
Get a soil test before applying fertilizer. Fields high in phosphorus or potassium can go without those nutrients for a year or more without reducing yields. If you have some fields with high fertility and some with low, fertilize only those with low fertility. This practice will give a better return than fertilizing all fields at a reduced rate. When cash flow is good, fertilize to high levels. This will allow you to reduce fertilizer rates when cash flow is poor.
Sound fertility management is just as important during tight times as it is when cash flow is adequate. Avoid the temptation to buy unproven products; stick with the proven and recommended practices. New miracle products often result in no increased yields.
Stick to the major nutrients during these economic times. As yet, many micro nutrients are not recommended by University agronomists. The probability of response to micro nutrients is much less than with N, P or K. It is easy to increase a fertilizer bill $10 or more per acre with micro nutrients. Use only those nutrients with a proven response on your soil.
Consider band application of fertilizer rather than broadcasting. Band application has long been proven to be more efficient at lower fertilizer application rates. Banding can be accomplished at planting by placing fertilizer near the seed or by using new innovations, such as knifed placement or dribble applications.
Ensuring effective use of applied fertilizer is always important. The key is incorporation of the fertilizer into the rooting zone. Potassium and phosphorus applied at planting without incorporation often result in little or no response. Incorporate these nutrients at fall or spring tillage.
Remember to reduce nitrogen rates appropriately when legumes or manure are used in crop rotations. (Table 2.) Soybeans can add 30 to 50 pounds of N to a subsequent wheat or corn crop. Manure commonly contains appreciable amounts of N, P and K. To effectively reduce the fertilizer needed, determine the nutrient content of manure by lab analysis. Fresh animal manure often contains 10 to 15 pounds of nitrogen (N), 5 to 10 pounds of phosphate (P2O5), and 10 to 15 pounds of potash (K2O) per ton.
Monitor fields periodically for insect, disease, nutrient or other associated problems while the crop is actively growing. Don't use fungicides or insecticides until the economic threshold of crop damage has been reached. Consult an agronomist on field problems to help you make those costly decisions. One less spraying could save several dollars. According to research, twenty percent leaf loss in soybeans does not normally reduce yield potential.
Monitoring crop growth this year can help you plan to correct next year's problems. Fertility problems are often difficult to overcome during the current cropping season but, through plant analysis, you can make plans for next year.
Avoid unnecessary trips to fields. During active growth, weekly, thorough inspection is necessary. But as growth tapers off, growth problems are less likely.
Crop rotations have consistently shown yield increase, roughly 10 percent, over continuous mono-cropping (Figure 2). Plan crop rotations as best fit your land and potential crop prices.
Consider planting as many soybeans as possible for short-run cash flow improvement. Production costs for soybeans are generally lower than most other row crops.
Plant suitable acres to double crop soybeans or grain sorghum. With a minimum cost, you can get some return from continued use of crop acres through double cropping.
Avoid double cropping on unsuitable land or during dry conditions. Don't plant and wait for a rain. Wait for rain and then plant if it's not too late. Remember: If it's dry, don't try!
Have harvest equipment adjusted and fields ready in advance. When harvesting wheat, run a minimum of straw through the combine. This will prolong the life of the machine and usually result in cleaner grain. Check behind the combine for harvest losses (Table 3). Adjust the machine if necessary. Lost grain is lost yield.
Harvest loss on soybeans due to combine cutter bar height (an average of three varieties, Columbia, Mo.)
|Cutter bar height||Yield loss|
|2 inches||0.3 percent|
|4 inches||2.6 percent|
|6 inches||9.5 percent|
Problems in fields at harvest such as lodging, shattering and reduced yields. Start making plans for improving and correcting those problems for next year's crop.
Harvest at a maximum moisture content
If possible, don't wait for grain to become too dry. There is no bonus for grain that is too dry.
Improving profitability does not come easily. It requires management of your present operation and planning for new technology that will be cost effective in your future operation. If farming is not profitable today, staying with present practices and technology ensure an unprofitable future. Improving crop yields per acre is one method of improving the potential for a profitable farming operation. That goal, along with making the best use of "no cost" farm resources, will improve your position in crop production.
Planting and seed
- Do you get the expected plant population?
- Do you always use certified or quality seed?
- Do you shop for seed prices?
- Are you using the best varieties?
- Do you use narrow rows, where applicable?
- Do you finish planting your crops when the best farmers in your area are finished?
- How much tillage are you doing for seedbed preparation?
- Do you know the major weed species you are planning to control on your various fields?
- Do you have fields with continual weed problems?
- Are you trying to control perennial weeds or annual weeds?
- Have you priced comparable herbicides?
- Can you band herbicides over the row?
- Does your herbicide control the weeds effectively?
- Do you have soil test and fertilizer history on all your fields?
- Are you certain you are getting a response from every pound of fertilizer put on?
- Is your fertilizer bill high in relation to your yield returns?
- Do you have deficiencies showing up in your crops?
- Are you using nutrients and rates recommended by University research?
- Are you always looking for that miracle nutrient or product that will greatly improve yields or quality?
- Are micro nutrients a large part of your fertilizer bill?
- Do you band apply any fertilizer?
- Is your fertilizer program based on fertilizer bought or on soil requirements?
Insects and disease
- Do you walk your fields once or twice a week looking for insects and disease symptoms?
- Do you control insects and disease by following your neighbor as an example?
- Do you notice any specific weed, insect or disease problems in your continuous cropping systems?
- Are you using your best land for the most responsive crops?
- Do you double crop?
- Do you plan your herbicide applications with rotations in mind?
- Do you have any lodging or shattering problems?
- Do you wait until the crop is at the right moisture level, or do you have a dryer?
- Do you harvest yourself or custom hire?
- Do you frequently check your combine efficiency (harvest losses)?