Farming has evolved a lot since it was first conceived generations ago. For Jason Webster of Precision Planting, proper use of technology can give farmers a bigger chance to yield a much better harvest. He sits down with Todd Steinacher to share how their team helps farmers go beyond the limiting factors by integrating brand new agricultural techniques and equipment to get the best results possible in any environment. They also talk about the importance of revisiting old farming tactics to pave the way for their reinvention, getting insights and feedback from other people, and how the challenges of 2020 allowed the agricultural industry to embrace significant changes.
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Challenge The Status Quo: How Precision Planting Can Yield Better Farming Results With Jason Webster
I’m with Jason Webster, Illinois CCA, Commercial Agronomist and Manager of the Precision Technical Institute in Pontiac, Illinois, for Precision Planting. Welcome to the show, Jason.
Thanks for having me, Todd.
You bet. We’re talking about higher yield corn and soybeans on this show and you’re one of the guys who have a lot of insight. Regardless of where our readers are coming from, whether geography or where they’re at in their yield journey, the information that you have, and the studies you’ve worked on can aid in some insight moving forward. Before we jump into that, how about you take a little bit of time and tell us about yourself and what led you down this path to helping growers to sit for higher yields?
I’m a commercial agronomist for Precision Planting and I’ve been here for a few years now. One of the things that we say to ourselves every day is that we challenge the status quo and that’s the whole reason for our research farm, the PTI Institute, the Precision Technology Institute. We’ve got 400 acres that each and every year we use as a playground and we try to challenge the status quo. In other words, one of the things growers are doing now that they’ve seen is commonplace, or what I like to say, one of the things they’re doing that they think are easy.
We have growers from all over the country come to our research farm every summer and one of the things I asked them is, “Why are you doing the things on your farm the way you’re doing it? Why are you doing tillage the way you’re doing it? What about seeding rates? How come you’re doing the same seeding rate you’ve been doing the last 5, 10, or 15 years?” Most commonly, the answer is, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” One of the things we’ve always said is the seven most expensive words in business is, “We’ve always done it that way.” That’s what growers are telling us each and every year as well. It’s like, “We’re doing our fertility program the way we’ve done it because that’s how we were taught.”
I’m getting old and I’ve got guys my age saying, “We do things on the farm because that’s the way dad taught me. That’s the way grand taught me. That’s what we know.” Here comes the hard part. How do you know it’s the right thing? Just because it’s easy in your setup logistically on your phone to do the things that you’ve been doing, who’s to say it’s the right thing? We have to compare ourselves and our status quo to other things to find out and make sure that we’re doing the right things. The problem is it costs money, takes time, and the last couple of years with the planting seasons we’ve had. We haven’t had time to get the crop planted timely, let alone put plots or research trials in. That’s our job as PTI farmers. It’s to take the things guys feel comfortable with and compare them to something else.
It’s a struggle in many ways because we know or at least we hope 90% of the things that we test fail. That’s frustrating to me as a researcher saying, “We’re doing all this work to test new things and hopefully make us higher yields and most importantly, higher profitability but there’s going to be a lot of things that fail.” The good thing about that is it tells us some of the things that we’re doing on the farm now are the correct things and are right, but what about those things that maybe we tweaked the system a little bit or changed the way we’re doing our fertility program? It can offer us yield increases or maybe it’s not yield. Let’s take a step back from it. Maybe it’s not only the yield response. Maybe it’s an efficiency standpoint and we make more money on a per-acre basis.
In the economy, yes, commodity prices have gone up and we’re fortunate for that but looking at the growing season, we challenge our growers every day and say, “I would make an extra $100 an acre on the farm. What can you do?” I’m not saying cut back on nutrients or inputs, I’m not saying that, but what can you do to be a better farmer? We always say at Precision Planting, “Smarter every season.” What can we do to make an extra $100?
Jason, that’s such great insight. As a researcher, sometimes you don’t see the results that you want to see based on all the efforts and work that goes into it. Any type of research we do, even if we don’t get a response, the fact that we didn’t see a response still gives us validation that what we are doing is right, but it also tells us that’s important what we’re doing so we better not mess that up. A lot of times, we start changing too many things and start second-guessing ourselves, and all of a sudden, we’re going to go backward.
It’s still even important to find out and things that we know that work. We know that we had to have a good seed to soil contact. We know that we have to have so much heat to get the roots going and germination take place. We know that we need to have ample nitrogen on the backside. We know all these types of deals so now it’s fine-tuned to things on how we can become more efficient. I like the fact that you sit back and you say, “What can we do this next year to increase by $100 an acre?” To me, by putting that statement out there and writing it down, we’re more likely to go after and get it.
A lot of growers are probably as aggressive as you and I are so if we write it down, we’re going to start saying, “What can I do to increase by $100?” It’s not going out and reducing your seeding rate, cutting nitrogen cost, or something from somewhere else. You’re going to pick up that $100 an acre by improving some tasks that we’re already doing to increase. Yields become more efficient. That’s great insight there.
As we move forward, thinking about the greater pieces of obtaining higher yields and everybody is at a different point on their roadmap of the journey of higher yields, whether they’re shooting 450, 200, 300 or 400 bushels of corn. Everybody is at a different plateau across the countryside. What are 3 or 4 takeaways you’ve learned through your studies through your last few years at Precision Planting? Also, in your career in production ag that highlights things that we need to get right as a foundational piece to obtain higher yields.
Some of the things we talk about every year are the placement of product. That’s a couple of different things. You guys come in from the seed side, you guys know how important seed placement is. That’s one of the things we talk with growers about every day. That’s where multi-hybrid, the passion for planting the right hybrid or variety on every correct acre based on the variability we have. That’s why that was all brought up. If we want the highest opportunity for most production, we have to put the product on the acre. That is never going to change. They can say that there are versatile hybrids out there. I still think that we’ve got to have the right hybrid on the acre and that’s where it all starts. We’ve got to know enough characteristics about the placement too, to know how to feed these guys throughout the season. I do think we can talk fertility and seed to soil contact all day long but one of the biggest problems we have in our industry is there are too many growers that want to plant the crop and forget it.
In Precision Planting, we will push the perfect planter. We will get your picket fence stand, we’re detecting moisture to get the right depth, and we’ve got planters that will plant that crop perfectly. You can’t plant it and walk away from it and say, “Let’s get the combine ready. The next time I’m going out in the field is harvest time.” That’s the biggest problem we have. We’ve talked about autonomous scouting all summer long saying, “I’ve got to have help listening to what the crop is telling me.” I don’t think anybody knows how to do it.
There are high yield guys out there who are growing 400, 500, or 600 bushels and they’ve got a way to listen to this crap and know what’s going on, but there are so many that plan it and forget it. I worry about this. If we are going to be in a situation where we can grow more yield or figure out how to be more efficient, we’ve got to be out in the fields, walking the fields and scouting. I’m not talking about driving the truck down the road. That’s not scouting, in my opinion. You can’t do crop scouting at 40 miles an hour. We’ve got to be in the field looking, listening, and trying to figure out what’s going on and we go to the practices we’re putting in some of the research and comparing. It’s like, “Here’s how I’m doing it now, let’s do something different, and let’s go to the field and see if there’s a difference.”
We’ve taken great strides in sensing and measuring. In order for us to make a decision out in the field, we have got to measure. I think about my first year of farming back in 1988. I don’t know how many people remember 1988 but it was not a good year to get started in farming. It was the major drought year. I grew 48-bushel corn that year. Dad and granddad told me, “It will get better.” I said, “I sure hope so because I don’t know if we can get worse than this.”
I look back at the planter that we had back in 1988 and it was all static settings. There was no measurement. There was nothing giving me information in the cab other than there was seed going through the seed tube. That was it and now look at where we’re at and we’ve got a sense of soils, and how much sand, silt and clay do we have. What is organic matter? What is the cation exchange capacity? We can start doing things like adjusting the seeding rate based on the hybrid variety that we’ve got in the field.
We’re doing this perfectly nowadays. It’s so much better than what we’ve done in the past and it comes to nutrition. That starts on the planter. Some of the relays, I call it Relay Fertility that we have on the planter where we position next to the seed some of that starter fertilizer to get that plant off to a great start even if we have cool, wet conditions. It’s protecting and giving us flexibility and we relay it with things like nitrogen, sulfur and boron. That’s that next relay.
Think of a relay race where you’ve got four runners and they’ve got a baton in their hands. The gun goes off, and they’re running as fast as they can but they’re running hard and fast and they get tired quickly, don’t they? It’s okay because we’ve got another runner that’ll take the baton and they’ll do their thing as fast and furious as they can, but they’re going to run out of gas too. It’s okay, we’ve got another runner that takes the baton and we’ve got one that will finish.
That’s the approach that we take as we’re growing a crop and I don’t care what crop it is, corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, whatever but we’ve got to think about this as a relay and what can we do to continue making sure that crop doesn’t have a bad day. This relay nutrition has been important for us. We get that perfect stand and we’ve got to feed it. We give it that starter fertilizer but then nitrogen on the planter, and some of those micronutrients like sulfur and boron had been key products for us to keep pushing in second stage values.
I completely agree with everything you said. One thing I’ve learned with some of our tissue sampling projects in the last couple of years is it’s shown a lot of growers do a good job of front-loading, nutritionally the crop. If I look at the tissue samples across the board and across yield spectrums, when you get to that 2,400 GDU, the sample that has the highest level of nitrogen, for example, the plant is typically the higher-yielding piece of it. We need to manage early, mid and late.
When I come onto a farm, I know some of the characteristics of how the operation works or some of the soil types. You grab that tissue sample and it almost screams at you, “We’re doing a good job on the front side but we need to manage the backside.” To me, something like that plays out. I’m a huge fan and believer in front-loading this crop from the planter standpoint so when the roots tap into it, it’s got the ability to give big aggressive roots because that’s going to help the season long.
I tend to find that the system is more based on the rates and logistics than what the crop needs. Sometimes we find ourselves or growers have been given recommendations, yes, you are used to starter fertilizer, the box is checked. However, you start digging into it if it is in-furrow or even 2×2, there’s not even enough there to tickle the crop. We put it out there. We can get maybe a greater plant, a little bit bigger root, have a few more hairs on it but it’s not enough to take us to that next stage, so when we do hit rapid growth, those roots aren’t ready to be aggressive.
There’s a huge piece that needs to be evaluated as far as how much is being used on this front side. I would almost want to bet that the majority of planters aren’t heavy enough on the front side, not weight-wise but heavy enough from a nutritional standpoint and it comes back to logistics. A lot of times, we’ve got to help growers understand and challenge their why. Why are we doing it this way? Maybe you have to make one more stop. It’s hard to slow that planter down but if they can create better bushels and create a bigger root system for going into that drought, to me, it’s got to be part of the variable. We’ve got to understand the science of the why so we know how to manage it. It’s so important. Things you guys do as far as the research and the products you’re bringing out to help growers handle these situations is the next level.
We talk about it all the time. When we’re out in the field planting in the springtime, it takes us a long time to get plots planted. It takes forever. It’s slow but while we’re doing that slow planting process, I’m watching all my neighbors around me wherever we’re putting blocks in, guys around me, the neighbors are planting too. I look at the planters, and I look at how many of them are completely naked. I call them making planters. Zero flexibility. How many certain things can we control as farmers? We can’t control the weather. We can control what kind of equipment, fertility and placement we have. We can do that but I want to have flexibility.
I want to have options and there are many guys that don’t have the options. We have products on the planter that I can flip a switch and turn it on if I feel like I need them. Take starter fertilizer, for instance. In my case, I’m using FurrowJet so I’ve got multiple products I can either put in what I call Up the Gut, in the furrow next to the seed and we’ve got wings where I can position it off to the side. I can run 1, 2, 3, or 4 products whatever I want. They’re close.
Let’s say we’re planting and the ten-day forecast comes out and they’re calling for cold, wet conditions. I’ve got the flexibility where I can flip the switch and have that early season protection. With corn, you want the protection to V5. You were saying, “We’re front-loading sometimes, but we don’t have a way to finish later on.” With corn, I want to make sure I’m front-loaded to at least get me to V5 because we know that’s when we’re first setting the initial yield and rounds. How do I make a 16, 18 or 20-round?
If we can increase two more rows around that’s over twenty bushels to the acre. If I can set the stage for the fertility program on the planters specifically, high concentration banding on the planter. I’m not talking high rates, I’m talking high concentrated bands. I don’t want to broadcast. We’re in a situation at the research farm where we’re all about reallocation. That’s an important part of a good fertility program. We’ve been relying on dry fertilizer, say, MAP, DAP, and potash for too many years.
Most of it is in a broadcast situation that offers us no efficiency whatsoever and we’re reducing those dry fertilizer rates and replacing those dollars that would cost us for the DAP and the potash and putting it into a liquid program on the planter in high concentrated bands on both sides of the plant. We’ve got it right up the gut with FurrowJet and we’ve got on both sides of the row with our Conceal. This is building the foundation. This is not a one and done where we’re going to do this and forget about it and not give it any other applications during the growing season. It’s the front load. It gets us to be five and we scout. We evaluate the situation, we tissue test as you talked about and we work hard finishing it. The F word is what I always say. Finish.
For a few years, I worked at some growers trying to understand, on the backside as we get closer to the black layer how much yield is vulnerable on the spot. We did some projects where we took some ears off say three-quarters backline down. We dried them out, went back to the exact same spot and when it was time for harvesting, and grabbed the ears. They’ve basically dried down to 18% to 20% moisture. Holding side by side, you could tell the difference where all that struck down.
If you weigh him out, it came out to a 24% or 25% yield difference. Here we are building the front side, and the front side is important but the backside is too. A lot of times we don’t manage the crop for its yield potential but it’s the systems. We have to manage the front side, the middle and the backside. If we do all this building from nutritional and the factory on the front side and we let it fall apart on the backside from lacking nitrogen or from a disease, that person’s yield can be lost big time.
We’ve come a long way for nothing. It’s been expensive along the way at that point. That’s where the scouting that I mentioned comes in. We’ve got to understand that we’re in a business. We, as farmers, it’s a business. We want high yields but we need as many dollars as we can to make this thing successful and keep the longevity of it going for years. Finishing is important and 2020 was a great example. It’s where we did some of our what I’ll call higher management studies. I’m not saying we were throwing extra dollars at this thing like crazy and not looking at economics at all. It’s managing the crop through the season, looking for disease, scouting for disease, putting fungicides on, and making sure we’ve got adequate nitrogen, not over applying adequate nitrogen.
At the end of the season, it was a pleasure harvesting corn that didn’t die and dry. There were many cornfields this year where that corn gave it up at the end. As it was going down, it died and dried fast. Here, we’re harvesting green corn. I’ve got farmers stopping me as we’re harvesting and saying, “What is the moisture of that corn? That corn is green as can be.” I say, “It’s 24% corn.” Greens can be healthy as can be and when we look at the size of the kernels. In 2020, I took kernels off these hybrids that we harvested and we’re laying the kernels on a quarter, a nickel, a penny, a dime. You ought to see the size of these kernels. We are building weight.
For guys who want to go out into the cornfield pre-harvest and do these pre-harvest yield estimates by taking the ear count number of rounds and how long the year is, it doesn’t do me any good whatsoever. It’s the best guess at that point because we don’t know what is. The things we’re doing to get extra weight on corn is unbelievable. We’ve got some irrigation at our farm, some of our higher management plots where we can spoon-feed some of this corn. You ought to see the test weight. Sixty-two-pound corn was probably the average for a lot of it that we were delivering and that’s what’s going to pack the pounds in.
That’s why some of our plots that were high management in 2020 were able to spoon-feed water and make sure it had enough adequate nutrients, not a single corn hybrid yielded under 300 bushels. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been able to do it. In 30-some years of farming, we’ve got the opportunity now to make sure the crop has what it needs. I’m growing 350 or 360-bushel corn, not 600. I look at the 600 guys and think I have the utmost respect for these guys because for me trying to grow 300 or 350 on the soils that we have is hard. It’s high management, hard and difficult, but we know that we can probably do better.
You bring up a good point. Here we are talking about your 300-bushel range. The NCGA guys we work with are 500 to 600 bushels. That’s their goal. Our footprint and your footprint as well, everybody has a different yield goal. For folks who read this sometimes go to some of these meetings, I try to tell them not to get discouraged. If you’re shooting for a 200-bushel corn yield environment, don’t give up. Figure out what your limiting factors are and drive to them. If your goal is 250, 300, or whatever your yield goals are. Not everybody is on the same path.
It’s all based on what your soils have the ability to do, the organic matter, the water holding capacity, and how much rain we get. There are many variables out there. What works for you and me in Illinois may not work for somebody out west or down south. Understand what those limiting factors are and it goes back to the management. How can we challenge ourselves to do things a little bit better, regardless of our geography and all the challenges? There are enough tools out here to help us sense what our problems are. We can measure things now, go forward and manage to it. We know what some of these things are. We know the biology of it. Let’s go agronomy. Let’s make it happen.
In measuring, we don’t know how much of a problem we have until we start measuring and see what the difference is, and that puts things into perspective. I will say this, it’s been fun bringing growers out to the research farm talking with them, and showing them what I call our high yield plots. I don’t know what that high yield is supposed to be. We know 600 bushels is probably not the highest we’ve seen with the high yield guys and I don’t know that that’s necessarily a goal that I have with the farm that I have now. We’re constantly trying to make it better but I love the idea of collaborating with farmers.
One of the things I remember as a kid was going to listen to some of that. It was a high yield presentation. What is it going to take to get a high yield? What do we have to do? I’ve got my little notepad and pen. I’m ready to take all these notes. What can I do on my own little home farm to try to grow a higher yield? At the end of a two-hour presentation, the only thing I had written down on my notepad was my name, that was it. Even after the meeting, I went and asked what can I do and not getting the answer.
One of the things when we started PTI, 400 acres of farm research, everything is an open book and we share all the failures that we have because we’re going to have a fair amount of those. Hopefully, we have a few successes along the way but as we talk about them, it’s a conversation in the field. Growers from all over the country in their neck of the woods talk about, “What do you think about this?” That’s been the most glaring thing that has helped us at the research farm having the field events and growers come in, attending, listening as well, and chime in their two cents. It’s been great. We’ve all learned a lot and put things into perspective as a whole.
There’s a time in production ag, say over the last couple of years where some of the scouting has left ag. Some of the good agronomy. Seems it went by the wayside but now as things are a little bit more volatile, things have changed. It seems scouting and good agronomy has brought itself back into production ag and we’re able to understand the biology of it and how things work. If we can help growers understand the biology of how nitrogen moves and how it’s not attached to the soil, why it’s vulnerable, how this disease attacks your plant.
When we do suggest, use the fungicide. Split your nitrogen and all these other pieces. In a lot of cases, it makes more sense so you can sit back and say, “I understand these things are important to my crop and these are things that are attacking those things and I’m losing it.” That’s where I’m losing bushels and dollars at the end of the day. It comes down to understanding the biology and good agronomy of the crop, the soil, and find the products and concepts at work. Not every product and concept is going to work across the board but figure out what works in your world.
It is going to work differently because the weather is constantly changing. Look at some of our at-plant situations. We’re dual banding nitrogen and things sulfur and boron but you look at the amount of rainfall we’ve had in the last few years and sometimes those applications that we’ve made we thought, these are going to be awesome to set the stage up for high yield. Most of those applications struggled sometimes because of too much rainfall, those are the products that are going to be soluble. We’re going to lose those products where we get high amounts of rainfall, and farmers have to understand that when this happens, those are going to be the vulnerable products and we’re going to have to go and replace them.
That’s where the scouting comes in and understanding what happened for planting time and what I am short on now. That’s why many growers need to be out there in their fields understanding that if they don’t know how to do it. I do think there are a lot of them out there that don’t understand that they’ve got to get a trusted advisor to work with them to show them some of the things that are happening, and that can be difficult and expensive sometimes.
I can still remember one of my professors from college. He said, “You guys are going to go out into the world. If you go home and farm, at the end of the day, it’s not your job to do the task, it’s your job to make sure it gets done.” Sometimes a lot of growers strive to do these things that they try to take on themselves and I can respect that I can but at some point, there’s a point where I need to pass this off to an expert.
We pass off our accounting stuff to a CPA. We pass off some grain marketing stuff to a broker. We pass off our risk management stuff to a licensed insurance provider. Sometimes we need to pass off some of this agronomic stuff to some experts who know how to run it. Growers still have the decision at the end of the day. It’s these trained eyes. I don’t know about you but when I go into a cornfield, it’s almost like all these little things start popping up at me. I’m in fields with customers and friends who are like, “How in the world did you see that?” You have to have a trained eye on what to look for and you can start working backward, “Here’s the game plan we need to do otherwise we’re going to have major issues in three weeks.”
Sometimes getting a new set of eyes on things is important because we see it every day and maybe we don’t put it into perspective quite right. It’s okay for somebody to say, “I don’t know.” There’s nothing wrong with that at all. That’s how we all get smarter every day. It’s by asking those questions that we don’t know and hopefully, we can come up with an answer. The hard part is getting the answer and maybe we won’t get one now but hopefully, in the short term we will. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. You’ve got to have that right person to ask the questions too, and there’s nothing wrong with asking multiple people as well.
That’s what we’re doing every day at PTI. We ask the questions to the group of growers that are there and say, “What do you guys think,” and we have a conversation. I hope farmers can have that. I know when they’re running their business or running their farm, they have all this to contend with on a daily basis. I hope that they’ve got somebody to talk to and throw some ideas to and maybe learn something new every day.
Jason, we had this awesome conversation on agronomics fertility concepts for growing higher yields. I do want to loop back to some pieces we chatted on at the earlier part of the segment on the dual hybrid piece. I know you guys are doing a lot of work to retrofit planters to be able to do the dual hybrid piece. We’re working with you on a lot of studies and I’ve got several customers myself working on them. In the fields that it does work, we can make it work, let’s put it that way, and it goes back to what you said not every hybrid can handle certain fields. It goes back to the root structure. Whether it’s a fibrous root or it’s a coarse root. That tells us whether it can handle wet soil, dry soil, or a type of clay. We’ve got some fields out here that have so much variability and if we put the same hybrid across everything, wherever we put it where that hybrid didn’t want to be, it’s probably going to show up red on the yield map.
This is a great concept that we can still use elite hybrids, place them where they need to be, and still increase yields. In my mind, as we try to increase overall yields, we’re not going to be taking the dark green spots on the yield map and making it 10 or 15 bushels higher. In my mind, we’re going to be taking the areas that are yellows and reds, and lift those up that are going to ultimately lift all the yields up. To me, this is a concept that can help lift those lower lining areas.
I had a guy come to me once and said, “My goal in farming is to remove all the variability so I don’t need to do multi-hybrid planting.” I said, “I love the idea but how do we get rid of all the variability especially the weather, the drought, too much rain, the flooding, the saturated soils, and a root system that can’t handle that?” It comes back to the thing that we thought about in the initial stages of multi genetic planting.
How do we do this? If you’ve got 280-acre fields on each side of the road, on the north side of the road, you’ve got a farm that is flat, black, beautiful, and some of the highest yield you have on your farm on an annual basis. Across the road, you’ve got that worst farm in the county that’s usually your lowest. You’re not going to plant the same corn hybrid or soybean variety in both those fields. Everybody would agree to that. What if you remove the road and now also you’ve got one big field and all the soil types are all mixed up?
Why don’t we throw out that whole idea of, “I wouldn’t plant that same hybrid or variety over here because of these soil types?” We’ve got them all on the same field now. Why do we get rid of that recommendation and say, “Let’s plant one versatile hybrid?” I hear that all the time. We’ve got to plant them first, a hybrid that can handle both conditions. The goal is to optimize the highest production we can on every single acre. If every acre is the same, there’s no variability, then this isn’t a huge concern but if there are acres that are different, we’re back to having to optimize. Maximize that production.
To me, that’s where I enjoy working with seed companies and finding out what their right placement is. Where do these corn hybrids need to go? Where do these soybean varieties need to be placed? What is their weakness? Where do we keep them out of? When we go plant, we keep them out of those scenarios. I remember when the whole idea of multi genetic planting came up, I was out in a field, it was a new farm that we had picked up and it was not a good farm. I keep looking back at my planter, and we’re going up the hill on these tight clay knobs that if you don’t give them a rain every ten days during the summertime, they burn up.
I’m looking back at the planter saying, “Do I have the right corn hybrid and planter for these types of soils?” Sometimes the answer was yes. Sometimes the answer was no. I go down the hill and I get into some of the good black soils. My highest yields sometimes are low percentage acres of the total farm but nevertheless, there are some good acres on it. I look back at that planter and say, “Do I have the right corn hybrid in that planter while I’m planting those acres?” Sometimes the answer was yes. In my mind, a lot of the time the answer was no.
I said, “Why can’t we get technology on the planter to put the right product on the right acre?” That’s what we did. We went in and we started playing around. Some of the first technology was crude but we wanted to see if the theory would hold water. Is there a yield benefit of putting the hybrid on the right acre? We’ve seen it and not every year works because there are components like weather that we can’t control.
For the majority of the time, you plant the product on the acre, you’re going to get rewarded from it and some of you are going to win big. Remember the $100 an acre that we were talking about? By planting the right product on the right acre, we’ve seen over $100 per acre gains. My fear is that there are guys out there now, one product across the whole farm across all the variability, we can be losing that $100 an acre by not putting the right product.
I get into conversations a lot of times with customers and salesmen. I could take the worst hybrid in the industry and manage it aggressively and we could probably be okay. I could take the hybrid that had the highest win across all plots, across the whole industry, put it in the wrong situation, and I can make it fail. The wrong situation can be how’s the nitrogen, disease management from a crop rotation but first and foremost, putting the wrong soil type.
Soil type is almost, to me, the biggest variable that we could successively manage a hybrid or not successfully manage it. It goes back to two variables. We can see the difference in the soils. They’re darker, lighter, sandier, all these other pieces or whatever but for a corn plant, it’s deeper than that. We see it for face value, but that corn plant that root has to live in there. It’s different for you and me. If we’re put in the ideal situation, we’re going to enjoy it, but if we get to an environment where it’s cold, we’re going to be cold, and we’re going to drink some hot chocolate and coffee and not be as productive. It’s no different than the corn plant. We’ve got to have it in situations where biologically it wants to grow and thrive towards not under stress. To me, whether it’s a corn seed bean, the moment we stick it in the environment, everything in the environment wants to attack it and break it down. We’ve got to eliminate all those breakdowns, and it starts with soil placement for a hybrid to be successful.
It does and that’s been the hard part for growers to understand. I don’t know that the ag industry has helped. They haven’t made the whole thing easy over my lifetime of farming. I do think there’s technology now that’s making it somewhat easier. SmartFirmer is a good example of that. We’ve got SmartFirmer, we’ve got a seed firm around the planter that can tell us things like what is the soil condition here. How much moisture do we have and how much sand, silt or clay do we have in these areas? What is the water holding capacity? Where are my drought potential soils are at? There’s no work involved for a grower. This is real-time information that’s being sent, measured, and sent into the tractor cabin. That’s what it takes. We’ve got to make this stuff easy so guys can watch it as they’re planting.
From my point of view, I’m running the planter tractor and I’m looking at the 2020 monitor and it’s saying that this is the lowest organic matter and the lowest cation exchange capacity area of the field. I’m looking at it. I’m ground-truthing when I’m saying, “Is it right?” I need to understand what is my maximum production in this area in the field as a relative percentage. Maybe we ought to be looking at changing yield goals across the field, which we do if we’ve got lots of variabilities, but now we’ve got real-time and GPS that’s telling us what the difference is but where it’s at and we make it easy. A farmer doesn’t have to go out with a little handheld computer and map all these areas. It’s being automatically done for him while he’s planting and he can evaluate.
As we sit back and look at the 2021 crop, it’s hard to believe 2020 is already done with all the baggage that gave us an insight. Even with all the challenges, we have learned quite a bit. If a grower is reading down the road, what are a couple of tips or suggestions that you would give them going into the next crop-based stuff that you learned from 2020 or even for the last couple of years? What are a couple of things you can challenge them on?
The one thing that we’ve seen was calculating some data on some of our multi-year testing on nitrogen with the planter. I come from a farm family. As I was growing up, we never had liquid on a planter. I never knew what the advantages and disadvantages are because we never used it, of having liquid on a planter. For most guys, when I say liquid on the planter, they think it’s starter fertilizer. I can remember my grandfather telling me, “We’re not going to put nitrogen on the planter because what if we spill? What’s going to happen? It’s going to spill on that planter and make it rust.”
That’s the only reason they didn’t want to put nitrogen on a planter. That doesn’t make any sense. What about yield potential increase? We started doing it. When Precision Planting came out with the product called Conceal, where we’ve got a knife inside the gauge wheel on the planter and we’re able to dual-band nitrogen on the planter while we’re planting. My testing would say, “We’re looking at 25% of our nitrogen needs as we plant.” In most situations, we’ve already got another 25% with some weed and feed applications. We come back and finish with a side-dress as we’ve always done and that’s 50% of our nitrogen needs or we’ll vary that a little bit based on weather conditions, yield goals, and things like that.
Nitrogen on the planter has changed things. We talked about challenging the status quo. I was a guy with my nitrogen program that was 50% weed and feed and 50% side dress. By comparing that program to putting nitrogen on the planter, we’ve increased profitability by $60 an acre. Get this, my nitrogen cost is exactly the same as it has been. I’m not reducing or increasing the amount of nitrogen I’m putting out. It’s the same cost but I’m bringing in more yield to the tune of $60 per acre. You think about that. My costs are the same, I’m bringing in another $60 and I’m a guy farming in 1,000 acres of corn and I can increase my income by $60 an acre times 1,000. That’s an extra $60,000 of revenue by being more efficient with how I place the product.
That’s been a big one for us and I know guys will fight me tooth and nail saying, “I’m not going to put tanks. I’m not going to put liquid on my planter. You’re going to slow me down.” I’ve heard that a million times. I remember one day at the PTI farm, we’re having a field day and we had these two buggies. On the first buggy, there was a group of guys that loved starter fertilizer and loved nitrogen on the planter. On the back wagon, it was guys that said, “No, we’re not putting liquid on the planter. We’re high-speed guys. We’re going to load those CCS planters up full of seed. We’re going to plant and get lots of acres done and get them done fast.”
There was an older gentleman who was sitting on the front bench on the wagon. You could tell he wanted to say something to the group and he was scared. Finally, he got up the nerve and raised his hand. He said, “Jason, I want to tell you that on our farming operation, I put 60 gallons of liquid per acre on the planter when I plant.” Everybody busted up laughing. They’re like, “Why in the world would you put that much product per acre on the planter?” He looked at everybody and said, “I’ll tell you why. That’s how I get yield. When I don’t do it, that’s when the yield falls off.”
All of a sudden, everybody is quiet as can be and had their tails between their legs. He says, “It’s work. It’s high management. I know what it is. I have to work harder, but I’m winning. I’m getting more yield by doing it.” There are a lot of growers that could benefit from nitrogen on the planter and maybe not only nitrogen. I mentioned sulfur and boron. I work 7 to 1 nitrogen sulfur ratio on our farm. That’s important. It sets the stage early again to get us that V5 critical yield component on corn, but we’ve got to come in and keep putting that on.
That’s been a big one for us and every year when we look at the top-five income makers for us. That’s usually one that does come to the top. For the last few years, it’s no surprise that drainage also shows up. We’ve been big advocates of putting tile in. I’m a farmer too and I’m going to landowners sometimes and telling them the benefits of drainage. I’ll tell you, we cannot grow some of these high yield attempts with poor drainage. We’ve got to have tile and oxygen in the soil. Those are some big ones. We’re putting together some of our yield research results. We’ll have probably 125 pages of agronomic results that will be available hopefully come January 2021 and we’ll be sharing our top ten and bottom ten, but those are some big ones that didn’t show up.
Nutrition is a big one for us. Not only do I like dual placement on the planter with nitrogen. I like that relay effect. I like to have a product so when I use FurrowJet, I’m at least two products. I like to go one product in the center, up the gut, and put another product in the wings since it’s that relay program again. That’s been incredible for us. I need more products to come to the market though. I look at some of the biologicals and I’m impressed with some of the biologicals we’ve seen in the furrow. We’ve got a good product for FurrowJet to precisely put it there but we need more products because we’ve got some nice tools to put the product where it needs to be that we build there from the furrow and we started expanding by spoon-feeding. It’s been incredible on our farm. It’s some big dollars.
Thanks, Jason. If folks want to dive into some of your guys’ research, learn more about your information, or from trials from 2020, where can folks find those?
There are a couple of different ways. You can go to PrecisionPlanting.com and you can see some of the agronomy that we’ve got on our website. We’ve got a full dealer network. We have Premier Precision Planting dealers across the country and across the world. You guys can find their local dealer and they can get all the research results we’ve done at the PTI farm. One easy way, if guys like watching some agronomic videos, we produce what’s called Inside PTI. You can go to InsidePTI.com and that’s an online video series where during the growing season, we try to release two videos a week of every trial that we have at PTI farm. We explain what the objective is and what conclusion we’ve seen thus far and try to make sense of what happened in those agronomy trials.
Finally, the other way is to come to our research farm. We’re in Pontiac, Illinois. We’re about 85 miles south of Chicago along Interstate 55. You can come and see us in the summertime. Talk to your local premier dealer and they’ll set you up with an invite. We’d love to see you. We’ve got a brand-new facility. We’re finishing up on the construction and I can’t wait to open this thing up and invite growers from all over the world. Hopefully, this COVID thing disappears so we can use this new facility for some intense learning.
Thanks, Jason. As we wrap up, some of my key takeaways are, challenge yourself for this next corn crop and soybean crop. How can you produce $100 more profit? It’s not necessarily from cutting anything. It could be simply re-shifting resources to improve yields, but understanding biology. It’s about making sure we know some of the variables within the fields from a seed placement standpoint so we’re setting that crop up from the get-go and ultimately, from a fertility standpoint.
As we start striving for higher yields and higher-yielding crops require more nutrients to make the whole system in the factory work. It’s about having that good supply on the front side that gets us up to V5, establishes that yield, and takes it the rest away. We also spend all that time building the factory, but we can’t forget to protect it on the backside for plant health and potential fungicide once we do some scouting. With that, Jason, I would like to thank you for your time and insight. As always, good luck in the field.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
You bet. Thank you.
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