Soil fertility is one of the biggest factors in the cropping process. If you want higher yields of corn or soybean, you need the correct temperature, the correct nutrients, fertilizers, and the correct soil. Learn how to maintain the right fertility for your soil with Cory Oberlander. Cory is a soil fertility specialist and CEO of Agveris. Todd Steinacher brings him in to explain how to create proper soil fertility in your farm. Don’t wait till the next harvest; join in the conversation today!
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Let’s Dig Into Soil Fertility With Cory Oberlander
My goal is to bring a unique perspective on agronomic concepts that can positively influence management decisions, yields and profitability. I would like to introduce our guest, Cory Oberlander. He is a Soil Fertility Specialist and owner of Agveris and is located in North Dakota. Cory, welcome to the show.
Thanks. It’s good to be here.
Cory, can you take a few moments to tell us about yourself and your agronomic background journey that’s led you to be here?
I own a company called Agveris Incorporated. We are a niche in that ag consulting space. We are not a full consulting company where we help pick out your herbicide, seed and so on. We primarily focus on soil fertility, fertilizers and also variable rate mapping. We do soil samples. Some of our clients are within 2 to 3 hours. We are located in Casselton, North Dakota, which is about 15 miles outside of Fargo. We have a lot in that space but we also do have clients in about 7 or 8 states throughout the Midwest. We do get to see a lot of different tillage types, everything from no-till, conser-till and strip-till. We work with irrigated lands, drylands. Some of the crops we work with are corn and soybeans. We also work with wheat, sunflowers, dry beans, sugar beet and sorghum. We get to see a huge plethora of different farming practices.
That’s great information, Cory. For a lot of our readers, they are going to be anywhere, corn, soybeans are grown. I want to focus a little bit on your home area. From North Dakota, what are some challenges that your customers or surrounding farmers would face from a corn, soybean from a regional standpoint?
I’m located in the Red River Valley, which is the far Eastern part of North Dakota. Some of the flattest land in the world. Western Minnesota, Eastern North Dakota, all North Dakota, and Northern parts of South Dakota have seen a record drought in 2021. It’s the driest it has been since 1988. We were extremely wet a couple of years ago and we shut up the faucet in 2020. There are a lot of our growers that probably have 7 to 10 days left of moisture. If we don’t get rain soon, it’s going to be over with us. It’s become extremely challenging quickly.
As I look at the heat maps across the country, these pockets are popping up a little bit more aggressively than even from 2020. In Illinois, several counties are already on the drought map. They are almost a week away from a complete failure. To me, the crops that are the best at handling some of the stress, a little less wilting, are the earlier planted corn, soybeans. At least in my part of the world, we had a lot of late-season replanting because of all the saturated soils in the spring. The plants that were planted late don’t have a solid root system to sustain themselves from a nutritional standpoint or even tapping in some sub moisture. I would say that in a lot of pockets, there is a large risk to the crop. That dives into the topic from a soil standpoint. In the solution, fertility is locked in on the Quaaludes. From a nutritional standpoint, how does that move into the plant?
it’s very significant when it comes to that. When you see a lot of the deficiencies out there, everyone thinks that it’s a lack of moisture but it’s a lack of nutrients. Moisture is the main conduit to get nutrients into the plants. If you’ve got nutrients tied up that is unavailable, the plants will secrete carbon dioxide, which reacts with water to create a weak acid called carbonic acid. That’s one of the ways that a lot of nutrients become “plant available.” Also, people talk about soil health. There are bacteria and fungi. A lot of those secrete enzymes make a lot of the nutrients available. For example, mycorrhizae make phosphates available. There’s a multitude of factors that come into play but moisture is a significant one.
You referenced how the corn or soybean roots can secrete a carbonic acid to help loosen up some of the nutrients to where it’s more available to the plant. Do you think early on in a plant’s life cycle where we have started fertilizers or 2×2 that allow that root system to get a little bit more aggressive early on has a better chance? A root system can have this communication and secrete these juices to break up some of the nutrients and make them more available. Do you see value there?
That’s one of the things that as the Zeal goals keep going up as we start planting larger planters, we are covering more acres more quickly. We are getting in earlier. Starter fertilizers have become a slam dunk. One thing, early-season plant-available phosphates will exacerbate the root mass quickly to try and get that root mass larger. The larger root mass you have, the more soil you can tap into to extract those nutrients. One of the other big things about a starter fertilizer are a lot of people tend to forget what they are designed to do is to bridge the gap between planting temperatures, whether you plant corn in 48, 50 degrees. Hopefully, it’s not too much colder than that.
Right around that 65, 70-degree range, you are bridging that gap because right around 65, 68, 70 degrees is when phosphorus and zinc become available. Right around V3, as early as V2, as late as V4 is when it’s determining the cob of the year as far as girth. To reach that full genetic potential, you need phosphorus and zinc available or you are not going to reach that genetic potential. If you plant your corn at 48, 50 degrees, six weeks later, your soils are only 60. Those two nutrients are not plant-available, you are going to have yield loss. There’s no way around it.
As you said, as farm sizes get bigger, we are pushing the envelope on planting dates. In 2020, there are a lot of soils that got planted. Historically, they would have probably been too cold but at least in my part of the world, the soil’s relatively dry. They are trending warmer and didn’t feel like there are a lot of risk to it. These plants are taken off going and until you get to these key heat units, a lot of the fertility is not being released. If we are shooting for higher yields by planting early and we are not bridging that gap with the starter fertilizer, we are almost taking two steps forward and almost three steps backward. Would you maybe agree to that?
Absolutely. Another thing is starter fertilizer is a great conduit, a great way to put micronutrients down by the root system for your plant. We don’t need 10, 30, 40, 50, 60 pounds of these micros. We need 1, 2, 3 pounds and you can start broadcasting stuff. Let’s say broadcasting zinc sulfate for your corn crop is not a very efficient way to put zinc out there. We are talking one granule per square meter where you can put it in a quarter to have an EDTA chelated zinc product in with your starter fertilizer and you are going to suffice your zinc needs. It’s an efficient way to supply micros as well.
Before coming to AgriGold, I was in the retail leg of things and I always work with growers on in-furrow starters. I could always find a bigger, more robust plant. I will call it a biological advantage. Bigger plant, more robust roots but we have never seen yield difference. I was always trying to figure this equation out. In my mind, it was because we didn’t have enough volume. We had enough there to tickle it to make it a little bit greener early on, a little bit bigger root system but we didn’t have enough volume there to take it off. We didn’t have that transition to the primary supply out there. That’s where we have always seen a lag from starter fertilizers networking. I have been challenging growers, “If we are going to go through the whole process of heavy equipment, sourcing products, we need to have our volumes meet what the demand and supply are going to be out there.”
You hit on a few good subjects there. There’s a fundamental transition too when it comes to starter fertilizers. If you look back years ago, they weren’t necessarily that clean or that high quality of a product. As a lot of agronomists started testing these products, the industry within itself cleaned up a lot of these to where some guys might use an inferior product out there and not see a yield bump because it was one step forward, two steps backward, whether it’s cadmium or a bunch of different heavy metals. It has been proven that cadmium will delay emergence to 2, 3, 4 days. That industry in itself is going to clean itself up.
The other thing is about the volume. Depending on where you are in the United States when you plant, there is a multitude of factors like soil temperatures and tillage types. A lot of companies will say, “You only need 2 or 3 gallons of this.” For one, the pumps get finicky under about three gallons. One thing I look at is orthophosphates. If you are 30,000 or 34,000 plants and you are in Illinois, you probably need 6 or 7 pounds of ortho in the seed furrow. If you are in North Dakota, we might need 8, 9, 10 because we are that much colder.
You probably need anywhere between 6 to 10 pounds of true orthophosphates. Poly is a big debate. When you start looking at those, we tend to not have enough volume. I like to increase the volume. To keep the pumps happy, maybe we need to add 1 or 2 gallons of water and we are putting down 5, 6, 7 gallons and not 2, 3, 4. We missed the boat on that. The other thing about starter fertilizers is if you don’t see a yield increase, 100% of the time you will always have drier corn. It’s always 1, 1.5 or 2 points drier. That’s also forgotten too.
I can echo that. I can say that in all the trials I have done with that, we saw the difference in early growth development. Maybe not see the yield but I could always find a little bit drier corn. I can always put value to that.
In some years, it’s significant. In some of the plots that we do, we might only see 1 or 1.5 points difference drier corn. A few years ago, we saw as high as 3.5 to 4.5 points drier. It was significant where this corn over here is 22% without starter and this one over here is 18%. That’s significant.
How can we put value to that as far as where we capture it? Is it because the plant was able to be properly fed, go through its lifecycle, go through everything it needs to do and dry down versus die down?
That’s exactly what you want the plant to do. You want the plant to go through its whole life cycle. You want it to dry down and not die down. You are correct.
Let’s take a little bit of a curve in our conversation here. We are talking about fertility and its availability. To me, there are two ways that nutrients and other items can enter the plant. There’s the root system and then there’s the foliage leaf system. From a primary fertility standpoint, how was the corn plant, bean plant designed to take in nutrients?
Sometimes I’m a little contrarian on this with some of the people or the companies that are out there, some agronomists, some growers. I do a lot of speaking around the United States at different conferences, whether it’s for fertilizer companies and/or seed companies. I like to throw this out there that God created roots to take in nutrients and God created leaves to take in sunlight. Some people can challenge me on that. At the end of the day, that’s my primary focus. When you get into foliar feeding, there are a lot of anomalies. How much of it is hitting the ground? How much is hitting the plant? What time of day is it? What type of products are you using? The other thing too is most of these nutrients are not plant mobile. If you are going to spray this trifoliate or this leaf and you think it’s going to move throughout the plant, it’s not going to. If you get in that, now you are spraying every leaf cycle.
One of the other things I have seen too is where people go and tissue test. They’ve got a great fertility product or a fertility management system in the ground and for whatever reason, it’s dry and soil compaction. They are showing deficiencies on some of their tissue tests. They go out there and put on a $15, $20, $25 treatment. A day later, they get a 1-inch rain. Now, it’s solubilizing a lot of the fertilizers that are in the ground and it fixes the issue they had. Those are some of the things we see too. When it comes to tissue testing, I’m not against it. I like to use it to try and fine-tune the fertility management system for those fields for next year. Other than trying to put a Band-Aid on for this year, if that makes sense.
It does. Over the last several years, AgriGold agronomy has been involved in what we call our tissue sampling project. We’ve got thousands of data points if you will. We started cataloging all this based on certain hybrids and plots across geographies, and sampling-based on certain GDEs so we can replicate it and always bring it back to a yield. We are trying to use our information along with Midwest Labs and Plant Institute, and try to tweak these things out here to give growers some boundaries and where to be at. To me, before doing that structured system, it’s like taking blood tests or blood work. You are going to get a snapshot of that day.
You can’t make a corrective decision on certain nutrients within a corn or bean plant. To me, what it tells us is, what is the scorecard? How well did our management program worked to optimize yield? Through these tests, we found that a lot of growers are doing a great job of front-loading nutrients but where a lot of yields are vulnerable during gran fill. There are not enough nutrients on the backside. I have had customers alter their units. Maybe they are staying in the same dollar budget or how is their budget setup but they are reallocating and having some nutrients on the backside. What I found over the last couple of years, even on late-planted, when that corn plant gets about 3/4 milk line, they are still about 25% yield left to be converted. We don’t want nutrition to be the limiting factor on it. We are seeing that but it’s the tissue sample projects that help validate this. Not necessarily, “We are going to go take these tissue samples and make a reactive decision.”
That’s a good way to look at it. You hit on something there too about a certain milk line and how much is still left as far as yield. If you look at the genetics of the corn plant from the ‘70s, ‘80s, even early ‘90s, mid-‘90s before we started getting into all these different traits, about 25% of the end that was needed to finish out the crop was after tasseling. That number has now moved to 40% and they think it’s going to be 50%. We are talking 40%, 50% of the nitrogen sulfur needs is coming after tassel. That’s the end of July, August or September.
That’s why we are starting to see more of a fundamental shift to people not even doing any full nitrogen and putting on in the spring. Maybe splitting it out into 1/3, 2 or 3 applications. If you are out there putting on some fall in October, November, and now your corn plant is using 40% of it in August and September, that’s almost a full calendar year for it to be vulnerable to either denitrifying, leaching, runoff or whatever it may be. These stay-green genetics are nutrient hungry on the backside.
We have seen when nitrogen sulfur is not managed season long, even on the backside, plant cannibalize and run out of gas if that makes sense. It’s going to start aborting kernels and weights, and ultimately yield and profitability. We know this is a problem. As we shoot for higher yields, we’ve got to find new ways to manage these risks.
You touched on nitrogen sulfur, too. That’s one thing that it’s a little frustrating that I wish the Soil Society of America, or soil agronomist or wherever it would be would start calling the macronutrients NPKS and not NPK. Sulfur has become extremely valuable and depleted. It’s like the redheaded stepchild that nobody wants to talk about yet it should be a central focus. I tell all my growers that nitrogen should never be applied without sulfur. Those two work hand in hand. You can have all the N you want and if you don’t have enough sulfur, it’s not going to matter. On this backside, when the corn is filling, a lot of times, when guys are wide dropping side-dressing, it’s straight 32%, 28%. That ATS has to be in there with it. For one, it acts as a natural nitrogen stabilizer. For two, it’s to have that sulfur there during grain fill.
I’m glad you took us on this next rabbit trail as far as nitrogen sulfur. I want to take it from the early season or maybe season-long from a mineralization standpoint. We all know that based on organic matter, we can get a release of nitrogen sulfur. To me, I’m always fuzzy with it with recommendations. We never know when we are going to get it and how much we are going to get. When you make recommendations or you don’t want nitrogen sulfur to be a limiting factor, you almost have to assume that you are not going to get it all at once. Maybe it’s not going to be there because the soil temps aren’t quite there in the spring.
From your standpoint, from a grower, how can they manage that? Is there a special mathematical equation they can say, “Mineralization starts at X temperature and we are going to get a percent release over time? I know based on moisture that things can move. It can be non-plant available.” How does a grower mentally go down this path to make sure nitrogen sulfur is not that limiting factor from the mineralization?
When I write our fertility recommendations for our clients, I always take into consideration the mineralization rates for nitrates and sulfates. You can mineralize phosphates as well. Concentrating nitrates and sulfates, I always err on the low side. I would rather be “long-natured” and then be short. As you said, many factors come into play like the tillage type of the field, the percent organic matter and the biological health in the soil. Soil moisture and soil temperature are two huge factors in that. You need moist soil and you need high temperatures. The wetter the soil, the higher the temperature, the more mineralization you are going to have. The cooler the soil, the drier the soil, the less you are going to have. That can change throughout the growing season.
I use latitudes. I like to use the Interstate System, Interstate 94, Interstate 90, 80, 70, going all the way down. In between those, it might be 5 pounds per 1% organic matter. As I move South, it might be 7 pounds. It might be 10 pounds as they get towards I-80 to I-70. As you moved down, maybe it’s 15 pounds per 1% organic matter. As you move South, you tend to have more moisture, heat and mineralization. That’s how I do it there but there’s a multitude of factors that come into place. There is no set mathematical standard because it’s fluid and it is variable.
Once mineralization takes place or starts because the soils have warmed up and we’ve got moisture, does it go across time? Mineralization started and here’s all your nitrogen sulfur. How long does that take to get back what we know might be available?
It’s going to go through the whole growing season as long as the soil temps are above 65, 70 degrees. As long as you have the moisture there, it’s going to go all season long. Guys will talk about at different meetings, “I used to take 1.4 pounds of nitrogen to get a bushel of grain and then it went to 1.2.” Now, you hear a bunch of companies saying, “I can get it down to 0.5.” Before, it was 0.7 pounds per bushel. I look at it this way. If you look at the years where they had efficient use of nitrogen, it was also a perfect year for mineralization. That’s where it comes from. Let’s say, normally it would be 1 pound of nitrogen per one bushel of corn but you happen to get 0.6 or 0.8. Instead of mineralizing 11 pounds per 1% organic matter maybe you’ve got 21 pounds. If you’ve got 3% or 4% organic matter, that’s another 30, 40, 50 pounds. It’s sporadic by years too.
It’s amazing how much science has changed in production ag in the last handful of years. It used to be, put out your DAP and potash. Put on 200 pounds of nitrogen and you could almost cruise control. There’s so much science that we know now. To me, we are shooting for these higher yields. We’ve got to dial in the science and adjust these recommendations moving forward from a sustainability standpoint because otherwise if you are not, your neighbors are and eventually going to be out-competing you. There’s got to be a time where we say, “It’s time for a change, to learn more, to get with folks like yourself to learn more about soil fertility.”
You hit the nail on the head. Most agronomists love to kill weeds and they love to watch plants grow because it’s tangible. You can physically see it. When it comes to fertility, it’s chemistry and that there’s always a reaction to a reaction. If you put up fertilizer on a soil, till it in, it looks like it did before. In the last many years, fertilizer prices kept going up and a lot of times now they are spending more on fertilizer than they are in seed corn per acre. Those tend to be your two biggest expenses behind cash rent. If you don’t know what you are doing on the fertility side, you are going to be going to your auction sale pretty quick. That’s where it’s nice to have an independent set of eyes.
There are a handful of soil fertility experts in the United States. To have that independent set of eyes going, “Do we need 200 pounds of MAP or DAP? Do we need 300 pounds of this?” That’s where we like to fine-tune it down to pounds of product that are needed for the next growing season. I’m big on doing that and supplying the nutrients that are needed for the next growing season. I don’t like to look out 2, 3, 4 years for a multitude of factors. One, we are going to tie up a lot of capital that might be better spent on a new planter or a grain facility. Why put it into a bunch of nutrients that aren’t going to be used for years out? As the cash rents get shorter and shorter, they used to be 8, 10 years and now they are 1, 2, 3. You don’t even know if you are going to be able to recover those nutrients. It’s becoming a fundamental shift in the marketplace now in dialing in your nutrients.
A lot of times, I have had conversations that came off this rabbit trail of ways to reduce costs. Instead of spreading every two years, it’s $6 to $8 an acre, we are going to do 4 or 5 applications at once. We’ve got the revenue, it’s a tax write-off. We go from having $12 over a course of time as an application cost and have 6%. To me, we are chasing the wrong rabbit right there. As you said, if we put this investment out there, the capital is gone. If we don’t have that land, if it’s a REIT piece of ground, there are a lot of risks associated with that. We might save a few dollars on the front side but the reward did not gain us on the backside. Challenging our thoughts on how we apply our nutrients is important.
For most of the clients that I work with, I try and advise them or influenced them to fertilize their soybeans the same way they would their corn. I’m not a big fan of front-loading for two years for corn and soybeans saying, “If I want to raise 240-bushel of corn and 70-bushel of soybeans, I’m going to add up what the usage would be and then throw it all out there ahead of the corn.” What happens if you end up with another 7 inches of rain, another 400 GDUs and now you have a 275-bushel corn crop? You have now depleted those soils down to you only have enough for 50-bushel soybeans. People get upset and go, “That genetic didn’t do well in the soybean field. I’ve only got 50 bushels.” What did you expect? There’s no fertility left. That’s why we like to soil test every year if we can, and then supply those nutrients every year for that next year’s growth or for that next year’s crop.
You referenced soil testing. You said you like to do it every year. What are your recommendations on when to test? A project I’m working on with one of my customers in CASS is we are sampling a bean field. We want to see over a year how much that sample could change based on moisture and temperature. What I’m trying to get to is availability. Does nutrient availability change over a growing season? I like to know your thoughts on that.
We highly recommend soil sampling right behind the combine if we can before any tillage is done. Once a bunch of tillage has been done, it has been proven that if you come in and a chisel plow has been run across it if you are particular about your soil sampling methodology, your soil samples are never 100% perfect. They might be 92% or 95%. Once you run a tillage tool through it, now it might lower to 60%, 70%. If you run a heavy disk through it, I might lower it to only 30% accuracy. If you run a moldboard plow through it, there’s 0% accuracy.
The most representative of what that field is going to look like during the next growing season is going to be right after harvest. After all of the nutrients have stratified in the rhizosphere of the soil and they have also uptaken everything that they need, it’s either in the seed or in the stover. I’m not a big fan of testing in season for next year’s crop, especially if it hasn’t put on seed yet. If you go out there and start testing soybeans in July, they are going to be using most of their phosphorus nitrogen and other nutrition during August, pod fill. You are not going to get a good representation of what it’s going to look like next year.
You brought up a critical piece is sampling right behind that combine. The moment the tillage tool goes through, we altered the soil itself and some of the chemistry that goes into it. Often, I see where maybe tillage tools falling in the combine, and then the crew comes out and starts grabbing it. With the soil freshly worked, there are clods, your depth is all over the board. You don’t know where 6.5 or 7 inches as you think it is but yet you are all over the board. I’m glad you called out that one to get a uniformed sample. It’s like anything else, data out is only as good as data in.
When I do my three-hour soil fertility clinic, I spent about a half-hour on the methodology of soil sampling. We don’t use power probes. We do everything by hand to control the depth of the probe. If we are going to pull a 0 to 6 inch and it’s 6.5 or 5.5 inches, we need to be at that 6 inches. We remove the organic matter or the residue out of the way. If you don’t remove the residue on the way, you get a false height on organic matter. That can change your CC and can change a multitude of different nutrient dynamics there too. Falling behind the combine is key there.
We work with a lot of larger growers. We’ve got clients that are 10,000, 12,000, 16,000 acres. They want to get stuff chisel plowed right behind the combine. If we get out there with our soil sampling crew and they have chisel plowed, we tell them to pull out and go home. I call our client up and say, “We are not going to waste our time and your money soil sampling on that field that has been chisel plowed because the data going in is not going to be good.”
It seems like within the ag, production of corn and soybeans, there are things that we can say are done. We check the box and we can move on to the next task but did we do it properly? If the ground was ripped, you could still go out and sample it, check the box. From an efficiency standpoint of your time, your investment, making the decisions for the next year, it probably wasn’t done to the best checkmark. Sometimes we’ve got to slow down and make good business and agronomic decisions, and not just check the box.
The one thing growers got to realize is that if your soil sampling is done correctly, to me, besides maybe the deed to your land, that soil sample analysis that comes back from the lab is going to be the most important piece of paper that you are going to have for the next growing season. It can dictate the type of genetics you are going to plant on there for handling salinity, pH or your fertility recommendation. You might be spending $150, $175, $200 an acre in fertilizer. Is the data good? If it’s not good, maybe you only need to spend $50. If it’s bad, maybe you are overspending $150. It’s got to be done correctly for you to be profitable.
Cory, I want to take a little bit of a curve in our conversation. It may be slightly backward. We are talking about nitrogen, residuals. From a soybean standpoint, I know there’s always a conversation going on. Is there a credit for soybeans for nitrogen or is there not? I know my theories. I would like to know yours.
The answer is no. There has no credit for soybean residue. It’s frustrating when there are a lot of retailers or other agronomists out there still saying, “If you’ve got 60-bushel soybeans, you’ve got 60-bushel nitrogen in credit.” That is 100% false. If you look at the soil test, there’s hardly any nitrogen left because soybeans use a lot of nitrogen. A 70-bushel soybean field uses over 300 pounds of N. Is there nitrogen remaining in the silver? Absolutely, there is. The challenge is we don’t know when that’s going to become available for next year’s corn crop. It’s about 1 pound per bushel of soybeans. A 70-bushel crop might theoretically have about 70 pounds of N left and silver. Is it going to be ready? Is it going to be broken down? We don’t know the tillage type. We don’t know the biological activity of the field. There are way too many variables so I don’t even go down there. The answer to that is no.
Everyone knows Mr. Nitrogen, Dr. Fred Blackmer from Iowa State who did most of the nitrogen recommendations that we still use for corn. Almost all of his research back in the ‘70s, ‘80s was done corn on corn, whether it was 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 pounds of N per bushel of corn. It was taken out of context to where, “If I’m going to put this on soybean grown, how much nitrogen do I need?” It was quoted saying, “You can give yourself probably 50 or 60-pound credit.” That doesn’t mean there are 50 or 60 pounds in the soybeans plant. It means there are 50, 60 pounds less carbon penalty. It can get you in a bad position quickly if you go down that rabbit hole.
As we start striving for higher yields, believe it or not, I still find that a lot of times the limiting factor is nitrogen, whether it’s early, midseason, late. Maybe sometimes it’s okay to question what we have always been taught and told. Should we take this credit or not? To me, if a grower doesn’t feel comfortable doing that, go try it. Find some way to prove this theory right or wrong so you can make good decisions but don’t just go off what you have always been told. It’s time to start challenging things and that’s how we are going to get for higher yields. It’s challenging what has been told for all these years and determine it for yourself.
If you look back at it, when this started coming out in the ‘80s, ‘90s, it was a sloppy way of building some nitrogen for the corn. It’s like, “Are you going on corn or soybeans?” We are going to build your recommendations for corn. If you are going to put it on soybeans, give yourself 50, 60-pound end credit. What are you using? Are you using 1.2, 1.4 pounds per bushel for corn on corn? Are you using one point at all? Maybe on soybean ground, it’s only 0.9 and on the first year of corn on corn, it’s 1.3. Something like that would be much more accurate than saying, “Give yourself a 50, 60-pound credit.” You can be short quickly. As you said, the last thing you want to do is be short of nitrogen.
As we start thinking about the other nutrients that a corn plant needs, it seems like potassium gets talked about a lot. In some areas, it’s hard to build potassium in the soil. There are multiple different products. As you and I have talked about in the past, some of these products have different solubilities. From a high level, walk through some different products and why solubility, and when we apply them is something we need to be paying attention to.
As we rotate into higher soybean yields, it’s what we are looking for getting into different soybean products. You’ve got your potassium chlorides, your regular potash, potassium sulfates and potassium nitrates. One fertilizer that’s becoming more and more used is potassium sulfate because it’s twofold. One, soybeans hate chloride. Two, soybeans love sulfur. Why not kill two birds with one stone? The only challenge with potassium sulfate is it’s highly insoluble. Out of the 33 synthetic fertilizers that are used quite commonly in the ag industry, it’s the least soluble. It’s only about 1/3 of soluble as regular potash.
There are a lot of guys that will go out in spring and apply potassium sulfate, and then say, “I had a potassium deficiency all year.” Sure you did. It didn’t solubilize until August or September compared to a traditional potash product, which if it’s red, it might take a little bit longer to solubilize because it’s a grown-up rock. If it has been prilled and it’s white, that’s pretty highly soluble. If you are going to get into potassium sulfate, I always recommend putting it out in the fall to make sure it’s had time to sit in the soil and solubilize to be plant-ready for next year.
As more products come more available and as folks look for a sulfur piece, maybe they were trying to get some sulfur but they didn’t want to go and ask because they don’t want the nitrogen, they are going to grab the potassium sulfate. All these other problems could come along with it. To me, a recommendation is if you are going to be trying new products that you are not overly familiar with, start asking around. From a solubility standpoint, what’s the risk associated with this? You don’t want to go out of your way to try a new product to try to hit higher yields and yet there’s this hidden little secret in there about it that took us backward.
I have had a handful of growers that have gone out there and said, “I was putting on regular potash on potassium chloride because I had wheat in my rotation. Wheat loves chloride. I have now moved into corn and soybean production. I noticed my soybeans don’t do well so I’m going to a spring application of potassium sulfate.” It ends up being a disaster for them. They will talk me through it and I will say, “Here’s the reason why this happened.” Those are some of the things that these growers need to pay attention to. Find an expert before you get into these and ask them when you should apply these and how you should apply these because that affects the recoverability of these products.
As we think about fertility, it’s chemistry. Chemistry on chemistry. We are putting chemistry into soils, which have their own chemistry biological system. There can always be these reactions and interactions, and then we throw a crop into it. It can be challenging. I’m running across a lot of growers that are maybe potentially migrating away from broadcasting DAP, potash, whichever product you want to talk about. They go more towards the strip-till. They are still using the big bulk tanks with the air blowers on them. They are putting into an 8-inch zone. It’s getting worked in instead of being broadcast and trying to bring it a little bit closer to be a little bit more efficient. What are your thoughts on systems like that?
I’m a huge advocate for strip-till. Up here in the Upper Midwest, we have had a handful of science that have tried no-till for a multitude of reasons. Soil erosion, increasing organic matter, biological activity and stuff like that. We are too cold and trying to get away from the regular conser-tills. A strip-till to me is a happy medium. The one great thing about strip-tilling is you can cut most of the fertilizer. Your non-mobile nutrients, you can usually cut by about 1/3 to up to 50%. With the fertilizer cost, the way they are at, if you can put it in a 6, 8-inch band, 4, 5, 6 inches deep, you are concentrating those nutrients, especially the non-mobile ones right around the red structure. It’s an efficient way to apply nutrients. If I were to start farming, that’s what I would do is to start strip-tilling.
To me, the efficiency piece is what a lot of folks are looking for, especially on the ground that’s rented. Maybe soil fertility has been abused over the years. Instead of going out and broadcasting high rates to at least try to bring it up, you can still be efficient with your non-mobile nutrients. Keep it in that band to where the plants are not sacrificing any potential yield or growth developed because of the nutritional piece. We are being more efficient with it. To me, there are some great opportunities.
It seems like, throughout history, there are great concepts, products but yet there’s never equipment that aligns with them to make it happen. In the production ag world and moving forward, we’ve got products and concepts. Now, we have equipment that has been all beefed up and brought to the table to where a lot of this stuff can take place. There’s not a problem with it, to put it that way. I have seen where some things maybe get built in a shop and it’s not quite right. Now, we have the technology and the equipment to do it. It’s exciting.
What has been great is if you notice over about the past years, we only had a handful of fertilizers out there for the first 60, 70, 80 years of crop production in the United States. Now, within the past several years, we’ve got all these specialty dry fertilizers where they might have potash encapsulated with boron or you might have phosphates encapsulated with zinc. You can cover a lot of your nutrient needs with these specialty fertilizers but as you said, there weren’t deficient or good applicators. Now, in the past several years, there’s a multitude of applicators out there. It’s like those two industries are feeding off each other. If one builds one, the other one is going to build it together. It’s an exciting time to be in ag because there’s no reason why you can’t have an efficient application of all these nutrients. The products are there and the equipment is both there at the same time.
At the end of the day, this is a great time to be in ag. We finally have all these industries embarking on making things better, especially products. We’ve got the equipment and the technology. We’ve got everything and the genetic potential that can carry us to this next step. We have seen with some of the yield contest guys, both corn and soybean, there’s a huge amount of the yield pile being left on the table. Grey markets are always going to change. They are fairly attractive now. We can’t change that but we control the controllable. We control what we can’t control and do it the best we can. To me, those are going to be the growers that succeed long-term.
We try to work with more progressive growers. Everywhere from the way they market their grain to their inputs, they are always pushing themselves. For the longest time, agriculture was we are going to do what our neighbors did or we are going to do what we have done the past years. This younger generation that’s coming in is changing this ag industry much more rapidly than I thought. They are demanding better products and applications. They will research stuff endlessly on the internet to try to find more efficient ways to become more profitable in farming, whether it’s software technology, you name it. It is an exciting time because if you can challenge yourself to become uncomfortable, try new things, you can still be profitable in farming even in down years.
I tend to challenge guys in the years where the markets are favorable. To me, those are the years to try things because it takes fewer bushels to justify it. There’s a little less risk but do it to the point where you truly understand it. When the markets go down and profitability is harder, dollars aren’t there, you know exactly where to make your investments. You have to make emotionally linked decisions. Make decisions based on economics and what we know works. To me, now is the time to be trying these things but don’t go stir crazy and do it across 100% of your acres and not have check strips out there. I hate when products get tried out, concept it and there are no check strips. I like to build to validate something compared to its non-treatment.
For years, it was the university systems that tried these new concepts or are trying to challenge guys how to think. It’s the independent farmers, the seed companies or folks like yourself that are embarking on this new quest for high yields and high performance. There’s a network in there. We are chatting here, there are a lot of growers that are reading that is in the NCGA contest or the soybean contest. Everybody is in this quest for higher yields and they are trying it. They are seeing if it works. At the end of the day, if you can make money at it, profitably, a good ROI, and it can be done easily to a degree, it’s going to get done. Maybe not to 100% of growers but to the ones that want a bigger piece of that pie, they are going to do it.
It’s nothing against the land-grant universities because they have brought us to the top of the world when it comes to food production. Since the advent of the internet and stuff with information flowing back and forth between, whether it’s growers, agronomists or universities, you don’t see the extension meetings attended like they used to be because so much of this data is now either done on-farm, an independent person, some large company, what it may be. They have all ramped up their research efforts. There’s information coming from everywhere.
If you want to go there and find a lot of the stuff, you can find it. As I tell guys, “Do at least 5% of your acres on your research. Ten percent is better. Don’t go more than that because it’s almost too much. You will lose focus. Take 10% of your acres and do some research, do some check strips and see if it works. If something does work, don’t go full-on on your farm next year. Increase it incrementally in your farm over the next 2, 3, 4 years.” It’s an exciting time with all the information that’s out there.
A lot of information but at some point or sometimes, I could see it being information overload. Sometimes growers can be taken down a rabbit trail that might not lead them to a great product or great concept. There are a lot of information out there. I always like to play Devil’s Advocate with customers and I like when people play Devil’s Advocate with me. “Todd, this is a great product. You are going to get X amount of bushels out of it.” What if this happens? A lot of times, we don’t control that what if. What if we don’t get the timely mineralization, the slow release? What if we don’t get to rant this time? All these what-ifs can happen. It’s important to evaluate these what-ifs and play Devil’s Advocate with things to make sure it’s going to be a good product for your farm and field.
I agree with you. When the corn hit $4 back in the fall of 2006 for 3, 4, 5, 6 days, a lot of the industry, guys like you and me that I went to school with, whether we’ve got our Master’s degrees or PhDs, a lot of them went home to farm. They started seeing $4 and $5 corn. Back in the ‘90s, when we had the loan deficiency payments, all the ag schools were full of kids because they could not work on their farms so they went into the industry. That being said, it was also the same a lot of these products came out in 2006, 2007, 2008. I don’t call them snake oil but everyone saw the markets are high, “I’m going to try and make some money.” Do they work? Do they don’t? Some do. Most of them don’t. There are a lot that still does though. Try them and see if they work. See if they add value to your farm.
Cory, I enjoyed our conversation. We are starting to wind down this episode. As you are sitting back and reflecting on our talk or conversations you have had with growers, what’s some closing advice that you would give growers who are shooting for higher yields? The whole purpose of our podcasts is Yield Masters. We are not saying they’ve got to try for 300-bushel corn. Yield Masters is for anybody that wants to get that next step on yield regardless of where they are located at. What is some closing advice you would give them?
I will always tell them to become uncomfortable and challenge the system. Don’t look at what your neighbors are doing because 9 out of 10 times, your neighbors are probably not doing things correctly. Growers by nature want to compare it to what their neighbors are doing. The other big thing is, as a farm, you have a set of capital. Every year, assess that capital and find out where it’s best used. I always start with the planter. If you don’t have a great planter, you are already behind the eight-ball. A lot of guys forget that they want the big shiny combines or this or that. Start with your planter and start to allocate that capital that is there to achieve those top yields. Fertility, genetics and planting. Those tend to be the top three. You can’t skimp on any one of those three.
Also, try and adopt new practices. It’s a fun time to be in agriculture whether the markets are down or up. When they are down, you can still make money. It’s tough but you need to think outside the box and use the tools and the technology that’s there and the people around you to be successful. The other thing too is a couple of large farms that I work with. They said that in the past several years, there has been a fundamental shift in agriculture to where it is becoming expensive. They said that farmers are becoming CEOs. They need to surround themselves with a team of highly educated people that are specialists. When you surround yourself with a team of specialists, that’s when you become successful and profitable. For you to try to know it all yourself is about impossible these days.
I don’t know if I could have said it any better myself if I was the one to give that closing comment but you are right. You gave us great insight on challenging us to think about soil fertility in general. Soil fertility is one of the higher sides of the cost of growing a crop, yet we’ve got to feed it and have it. How can we be more efficient? I liked our conversations on understanding the different types of potassium, the solubility and understanding of these products and some of the challenges that come with them.
I’m glad that you called out the change in production agriculture and a lot of farmers are becoming CEOs versus the one that’s always out there doing everything. I see it more as, “It’s your job to make sure all these things get done. It’s not your job to physically do it.” As growers challenge and shoot for these higher yields and bring on more acres and challenge for more profitability. They need to work with sound resource advisors. Working with folks like yourself, working with our CASS, our agronomy team at AgriGold, and challenging our thinking and get to that point.
There are always going to be products out there but let’s work with this team of advisors and consultants that are in the industry and see how we can make these things work and shoot for higher yields. At the end of the day, growers want higher yields. They want more profitability but it takes a team. There are a lot of team players, teammates out there that’s willing to help growers if they are willing to seek out some advice. With that, Cory, I would like to thank you for being on our show. I would be remiss if I didn’t say thank you for all you do in the ag industry, being a strong advocate for soil fertility and working with growers across the country. Thank you for that as well.
Thank you, Todd. It has been a pleasure. Thanks to you and AgriGold for what you guys do in the industry as well. It has been enjoyable.
Thank you very much.
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