Soil testing is an important component to successful farming, but it is just the foundational piece of a bigger system. At Crop-Tech Consulting, growers are trained on everything there is to implement a complete system from tillage and planting to hybrid selection. At the helm of this systems approach to farming is Ken Ferrie. Joining Todd Steinacher on the show, Ken shares his insights on the data and takeaways from the 2020 growing season and gives some recommendations for future years. They have a saying at Crop-Tech that goes, “Never walk away from a growing crop.” Listen in and learn the significance of that powerful statement as we move forward to 2021 and beyond.
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Never Walk Away From A Growing Crop: Lessons From The 2020 Growing Season With Ken Ferrie Of Crop-Tech Consulting
We’re here with our guest, Ken Ferrie, owner of Crop-Tech Consulting. Ken, why don’t you take a few moments and tell us about your agronomic background and the services that you and your team provide?
Here at Crop-Tech Consulting which is in Heyworth, Illinois, the main focus on the company as far as output is we’re a soil testing company. We develop what we call a systems approach with our growers. We’re looking not only at soil tests, but at yield maps, pest management and trying to teach or train our growers on everything there is to implement a system from tillage, planting to hybrid selection. The soil test is important but it’s a foundation piece. I’m helping them with decisions on planter set up and different types of tillage and disease management, stuff like that is what makes the whole process successful.
We are at the base, a soil testing company that makes recommendations, does yield maps and early imagery, that type of thing. We also do a lot of demonstration and field research. We run about 150 field trials a year. Most of them in corn, soybeans and wheat. We’re helping our growers learn, do research, look at equipment, products and ideas. We do this in replicated trials throughout our customer base. We process that information and bring it back to our customers as a non-biased look at things to help them make decisions.
As a company, we don’t sell any products nor collect any commissions. It’s all based on what information we can pull out of these plots as well as farmer experience. We do have to pay for all that and we spend lots of money as a company doing that. That’s mainly done through things like our corn college event and public speaking across the whole Midwest. In 2020, we’re doing a lot of it through Zoom. We do a lot of public speaking as well. Most of them are in Illinois but we have scattered from Michigan, Iowa and Southern Ohio on the outskirts. We do bring information from different areas at the same time. A lot of effort was put in this time of year processing that data. We’ve now done with the harvest and we get weeks of processing that information, cleaning it up, and seeing what it’s going to tell us.
I remember out of college a few years ago, I attended one of your corn college events. I have never seen somebody take a hatchet to corn roots and to get in there to see the mesocotyl and how the seed develops. It’s because of you that I carry a hatchet in my truck all the time when I go out for an ID agronomic issues. For that, I appreciate it. You trained me as well. As we reflect back on the 2020 growing season and as you alluded to your process and cleanup data to know what happened to make recommendations for future years, what are a couple of takeaways that you recalibrated your thinking from 2020 that we can apply moving forward?
One thing about a year like 2020, similar to 2012 where we had a drought, because of the rough start, all the problems, and challenges that came, sometimes growers want to throw 2020 away and move on. That’s wrong. There’s a tremendous amount of data that comes from a year like 2020 that helps us to understand. We saw a lot of guys that we’re disappointed in the outcome of the yield from where it was, but if they would have been in these fields and paying closer attention throughout the growing season, it was predictable what we’re going to see.
A decent yield but not out of the park yields. The main thing is why weren’t the yields what you expected and working with our growers. We could see it coming because we had a tough start. This is the first time in my career that I had to see 40 to 45 days to get corn up. That’s almost unheard of. There’s no way that can happen without a lower year count at the end. In the situation we got there, we did our ear counts and scouting throughout the season. No matter what finish we were going to have, it was going to come up short because of our expectations and the ear count wasn’t there due to the fact that in Illinois anyway, corn planted in the first part of April 2020 didn’t come up until mid-May.
You can’t do that with corn and survive that well. The guys saw a little bit of what was APH yields are below and they were disappointed about it. At the same time, if they had been paying attention to early scouting, mid-season scouting, and pre-season harvest scouting, they will realize we lost that big yield back there in April 2020. We pushed our planning conditions too much. We put this corn under too much stress. No matter how the August came out. In August was the other kicker to this. A lot of people ran out of water in August so we lost our field.
Those that scouted it, followed it and understood it, it’s one of the reasons why we talk about planting by the thermometer, not by the calendar with corn because if you lose 10%, 15%, 20% of the years that you’re shooting for, it’s hard to come back from that. In soybeans, you won’t even notice that if you lost 15% of the stand-in yield but in corn, it’s a different game. Some people are downhearted on what the yields were, blaming it on herbicides, and variety of selection. It goes back to what spring we had to kick this thing off. Most people would understand what dry weather does to things but by the time we get to fall, they forgot about wringing their hands, trying to figure out if this corn stand was going to make it out of the ground.
You bring up a good point. I had a lot of conversations with growers season-long due to the delayed emergence and the sporadicness of it. I’ve said season-long yield is going to be an issue with a lack of viable, marketable ears. In a lot of cases, we had decent ears but the ears were fairly stunted because it took three weeks for some of the stuff to come up. There was a lot more competition. That gives a lot of validity back to five test studies. We know that delayed emergence compared to the sister plants can have quite a bit of impact on the ear. We’ve seen that in 2020 based on that note.
One of the conversations I had a lot of times in 2020, folks were so pegged that yield is made early which it is. For the growers who didn’t give up on the season and manage that crop through the season whether it’s applying more nitrogen once diseases came in. They sprayed it and protected this crop through a grain field. The folks who did not protect it through a grain field, definitely seen a yield decrease come harvest. Would you agree with that?
2020 is no different than a lot of years. We have the saying here, “Never walk away from a growing crop.” Once we get this thing off and running, somebody’s got to stay on top of it all the way through. We’ve pushed hard within our customer base to have somebody as the pest boss. Somebody who’s going to manage all threats against the farm like insects, disease, paying attention to weeds and all that stuff. There’s nothing that sneaks up on it. That involves boots on the ground scouting. You can bring the drones in, the aerial imagery and all that stuff to help you but somebody has got to be in every field, every variety, multiple times throughout the year, paying attention to what’s going on. Livestock growers pay close attention to their livestock because they know if something is off. They can get ahead of it.
In the corn crop, we need to be there the same way. Sometimes, growers get too busy with other things and forget about it. The most important thing is, how do we manage these insects? How do we manage the disease? When do we pull the trigger? You can get frustrated based on the conditions and weather that the season has but you can’t walk away from it because we’re protecting you. It’s hard to increase yield out in the field. You’re trying to protect potential. Whenever these threats come through, they’re taking part of that potential away. If your crew is on top of it, you can be timely with those applications. After all, the neighbors have done their spraying and plants are put away, you need to decide if you should go out, check and see what they’re doing. A good chance is you’ve already given up that potential and you’re not going to get it back.
If we’ve learned anything about a corn crop, there are very specific stages where we need to keep it happy, healthy and influence things. I like how you reference protecting yield. They always say, “Once you open the bag or the box of seed, yield potential started to decrease.” By adding more nitrogen or fungicide, we’re not increasing yield. We’re protecting the yield that’s already been established that the environment is essentially trying to take away from it. I liked that you’re boots on the ground and got to stay vigilant of what we’re seeing out there to make some decisions. I’ve got to shift gears a little bit. You referenced a lot of what you do from a soil fertility standpoint. Sulfur has been an increasing topic in Illinois and across many corn-growing states. What are some general recommendations or thoughts that you would have for the grower as it relates to sulfur?
Sulfur is one of those nutrients that has changed over time. When I started a business here in Hayworth back in ‘83, sulfur levels that we would find on a soil test were in the mid-20s or upper-20s. That was common. Now, it’s going to be 8, 9, 10 parts per million. Sulfur is something that has changed, not so much the way the farmer does things, but the way the world does things. Without the amount of acid rain or the Clean Air Act has changed that. We don’t get as much sulfur from the atmosphere as our grandfathers used to when they burn coal and everything else. We have a deep cleaning sulfur supply in most soils that is now starting to show up in our crop. We know from our plot work that sulfur is one of the big responders in corn.
Different hybrids do respond differently but sulfur applications in corn where it wasn’t that long ago at most universities would say that sulfur is not needed. If your soil organic matter is above 2% to 2.5%, granted the higher your organic matter, the more sulfur you can get from the soil. The sulfur deficiencies we’re seeing now or even carrying through into some of our soybeans. We do our sulfur plots in corn and we have strips of non-sulfur applied. We can see it visually in the corn. In the past years, we’re starting to pick up our checks in the cornfield. We’re starting to pick them up in the bean field the following year. We can tell where we didn’t apply the sulfur on the corn. We’re struggling to get as consistent of a response to sulfur in our soybean trials as we are in the corn trials.
There are a lot of opportunities, a lot of different ways to apply sulfur depending on what your sources are and your availability. It is one of those nutrients, especially where we’re talking about high yield corn being 240-plus that you’re going to see some strong responses to that sulfur. The grower needs to be educated a little bit on that. What does a sulfur deficiency look like? Where to look for? How to identify it in a tissue and then do some of the actual software trials on their own farm that figure what’s the value of that sulfur. This is true if you’re in that 2.5% organic matter or lower because it’s going to be a strong visual response. Sulfur is also one of those that are made available through biological activity. In a cold, miserable spring, like we had in 2020, you see a lot of sulfur deficiency show up. Even if your sulfur levels in the soil are somewhat adequate, you’re going to need some warmer soils to make that happen for the plant to be able to pick it up.
You hit on certain organic matters having the ability to release more than others. I’ve had this conversation with multiple folks. Even though the soil can give up sulfur from the organic matter, to me, in higher-yielding environments, we never can peg when or how much of that sulfur is going to be given up. We know sulfur could be becoming depleted within soils. We know it’s an essential nutrient so it doesn’t make sense to add a little bit of sulfur. At least try to develop a strategy that we can see if we need sulfur versus you saying, “Based on my organic matter, I don’t need to apply sulfur.”
High organic matter soils are still not going to release that sulfur until they’re at least above 60 degrees soil temps. Corn does a lot of growing from 50 degrees to 60 degrees. 2020 is a definite example of that. Meaning you could have the five corn and still struggling to get that soil temperature up. Early on is when we see ourselves for deficiencies, usually in 3.5% to 4% organic matter soil. By the time we are waist-high, you’re not going to see that much from a sulfur deficiency standpoint. We’re in our sands and our silt loam soils. It could be a problem all the way through the growing season. In the heavier soils, it’s the first 30 to 40 days that we need sulfur in a plant, whether it be a broadcast application or as a starter application helps to give that planner a boost. When it is trying to find that sulfur, the soil is going to give up.
Can you reference putting some sulfur on the planter? I’ve got guys who will use an ATS or they’ll broadcast work in some AMS. One is going to be very close to the root system. One might have to move around a little bit more to get to the root zone. Do you have a preference from a sulfur standpoint as we’re shooting for higher yields? How do you want your sulfur?
It does depend a little bit on the soils I’ve been working with. In our plot results, if we’re not dealing with the leachable soil, we’re talking about a low CEC soil, we still get our strongest responses from an ammonium sulfate application in the fall. If we’re in a leachable situation, we don’t want to lose that sulfate so they moved that to the spring. We can turn around and replace that in the spring with ATS or one thing we have to remember with ATS is it’s only half sulfate. We’ve got to get the sulfate to get it up in the plant. The other part is elemental sulfur and it’s going to take anywhere, depending on the work, you look at 6 to 18 months to get that converted into a sulfate.
We’ve got to remember that if we’re putting on 20 pounds of ATS sulfur, it’s 10 pounds that we’re going to be working with, but 10 pounds may be enough to get us where we want to go and then we’re adding sulfur to the portfolio. The sulfur and the other side of the ATS isn’t lost, it’s going to be available later in the season and maybe within the next season itself. When we start putting ATS or AMS in the starter, we do have to be careful. We need to stay away from that root system so we don’t burn the seed or roots.
We may think about potassium sulfate in that situation or something, but you do have to be careful if you’re an infertile application. It fits better in the 2×2 or the 2×2 applications so we don’t end up slowing this plant down. We don’t want to ding a young plant with some burn early on. We do have to be careful in the planner but there’s still a good place to put it. We can put some in our strip-till if we’re stripping in the fall. It’s another good place to put it abandoned form of sulfur that we can get access to predict early in the season.
You’ve referenced on some lower CEC soils putting AMS on the fall. With that form of sulfur, are we worried about displacing it or moving out of the root zone where it’s not available by spring? What are your thoughts there?
We would be. If we’re low eight CEC soils in the fall, you’re going to use elemental sulfur or move that application to the spring. If an AMS application is going on, it would be better off going on in the spring closer to planting or there might be a better case to use the ATS. You’re part sulfate for early uptake and then there is some sulfur that would be for the backend of the season. The real low CEC soils that are irrigated, you can use that irrigation then to tap that sulfur in multiple times throughout the season and keep your sulfur level where it needs to be. The higher organic matter soils, we don’t seem to run into too much trouble there because we’re dealing with higher cation exchange capacities as well. The leachability of the sulfur isn’t as big a deal.
If we think about nutrients and mobility within the soil, we think of nitrate being very mobile in the soil. In your opinion, how mobile is sulfur from a standpoint making considerations for some of these different applications? If we’re broadcasting AMS across the field in the spring, is that going to be moving down through the soil fairly fast? What are your thoughts from that standpoint?
It is sulfate and it comes back to your soil. How fast water moves through to the soil and how can it move through the soil? Remember, sulfate is like jet fuel to microbes. We make a fall application. A lot of it gets consumed rapidly by the microbial activity as they’re breaking down corn stocks and being rescued. It’s immobilized. It will come back after it will mineralize back out of that residue but we talk about the carbon penalty in corn, and the carbon penalty in corn happens with nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. Those three get consumed at high rates when the soil warms up by the microbes and leave our plant sitting there by itself. Eventually, it will mineralize back into the system and sulfur being the same way.
It does help in driving the decomposition process. The faster we get it decomposed, the quicker we can recycle those nutrients back into the system. If we were to look at a timeline and nutrients that are coming out of there, when you think about sulfur, it’s going to be hooked to something. It’s going to be potassium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, coming out of the calcium sulfate. One of the challenges you would have on these lighter soils, if you over-apply your sulfate and you were in a highly leachable situation, you’re going to leach out other nutrients. The most important one is potassium and magnesium. It could be leached out to the soil. We do see that in customers that have used ammonium sulfate as the nitrogen source in the fall so they’re putting on large rates, 180 to 200 pounds of nitrogen as ammonium sulfate.
If you’re dealing with CECs below 14 or 15, you’re going to notice that potassium and magnesium on your soil test are dropping out. It’s the over-application of sulfur that is creating some of the leaching problems that you’re running into and then we have to rebuild those nutrients. Ammonium sulfate is a sulfur source. We’re all for that. As for nitrogen sources, we’ve got to be careful how heavy is the soil or how leachable is it because it’s going to leach as a sulfate. It’s going to move down to the soil. It’s not as leachable as nitrate but it’s more leachable than a phosphate.
You referenced how important sulfur is especially in the first 30 to 40 days. For somebody trying to shoot for higher yields, depending on what their high yield goals are, what are some good strategies to know if they have adequate levels of sulfur? Are we going to want to rely solely on a sole sample, a tissue sample or a combination of both?
The soil test is a good snapshot of the day you take it. It’s not a real good indicator of what your sulfur levels are going to be through the season. You’re familiar with nitrate testing. We pull nitrate test ahead of side dressing and we know how much nitrogen to put on that side dress season. A nitrate test is not a good test to tell us how much nitrogen we’re going to need 1, 2 or 3 years from now. For pulling a soil test and we’re looking at sulfur while we can see the sulfate level in that soil, it’s not the best predictor where we’re going to be 1, 2 or 3 from now. A soil test is a tool but it’s not a good tool.
The tissue test is a good tool to take and you can take it throughout the season to see, “Are we maintaining the sulfur load that we think we should?” Visually being able to know sulfur is immobile. You’re going to see it at the top of the plant when the deficiency shows up like yellowing and yellow striping up on top. Knowing what a sulfur deficiency visually looks like and a tissue to back it up that says, “This is sulfur.” That can help decide which fields are going to respond to the sulfur and then we push hard. If you don’t believe in sulfur, let’s go out and let’s do some strip trials, use sulfur in the program and see what response visually. A visual response has to be noted even if it’s not a yield response because the corn is talking to you. It shows a darker greener stripper that sulfur has been applied.
It’s telling you for some period in this plant’s life that it was deficient in sulfur. That may not be the limiting factor that you’re looking at in the end but it’s telling you if that plant is bigger and greener when you applied to sulfur, it’s responding to that sulfur. It used to be that by the time we got to side dressing on normal soils, it was too late to get a good sulfur response unless you were in irrigation systems where sulfur deficiency was a battle throughout the year on the light soils. With the product like Y-drop, for instance, we are now starting to see. In some of these soils, we can still get a response as late as side dressing. Up until then, that was tough to get a good response out of our side dressing applications compared to our pre-emergent applications.
That’s great insight there, especially it’s a very hot topic as folks look to improve yields. It seems like the first thing folks tried to correct is nitrogen. There’s only so much we can correct on nitrogen and get it managed. I’ve read multiple times where sulfur might be the most next important nutrient behind NPK. With nutrients, we need to make sure we understand and manage. Listen to what the corn plant is telling you. It’s talking to you. If you see a visual response, it’s telling you something. We have to go back and be a student of our soils and corn plants and react accordingly. If we don’t believe we need it, do the strip trial test. That’s the only way we’re going to know across your own farms and fields with given geographies if it’s going to have any type of play.
I’ve also seen where growers mistake sulfur deficiency for N deficiency. This was a good year. Cold, wet conditions. We ended up with a lot of yellow corn and growers are thinking that it was a nitrogen deficiency. They’re adding more nitrogen to the picture. Unfortunately, if it is a sulfur deficiency, adding more nitrogen tends to make it worse. Adding nitrogen as ammonium sulfate, that’s a different story. Understanding the yellow top is sulfur, the yellow bottom and a pale green plant is going to be nitrogen. Making sure that they’re fixing the right one when they go out there. It’s not uncommon that you could pull tissue and be deficient in nitrogen and sulfur. Usually, if you’re deficient in sulfur, you’re going to be deficient in nitrogen as well. You need to fix the sulfur problem and the nitrogen problem will take care of itself.
It’s always important to know exactly what nutrient we’re going to fix because if we are going to spend money to go and correct it, we want to make sure we’re correcting the right problem. Ken, as we change gears a little bit. I’m thinking about 2021, planting time, and hybrid placement, what are your thoughts on the importance of good consistent emergence and proper placement of hybrids?
In the emergence part, we talk a lot about the picket fence stand, photocopied plant and photocopied year and that’s all about uniformity. Of those two, the photocopied part is the most important but the picket fence stand is right in there as well. We don’t have near the picket fence stand problems with planter malfunctions that we used to years ago. Nowadays, planters are doing an amazing job of plugging this stuff in the ground right where it needs to be. It’s rare that you go out and you find misplaced seeds and doubles compared to what we used to many years ago. In 2020, we had a lot of gaps due to seed that didn’t make it out and the conditions it was planted in, but if you dug down, you found the seed. You know it wasn’t a planter malfunction at that point.
Uniform emergence is a little bit different. That’s all the things above. Planning depth, sidewalk compaction and seed to soil contact and all those things. That’s a must. We’re running into a little more inconsistency in uniform emergence than what we’re used to. I’m going to blame it on too much technology if you can believe that or not. I’m running into too many times where the grower is paying attention to the monitor and the cab. He’s got the smooth ride, ground contact, looking for in that type of thing and he’s not getting out and ground-truthing it enough. The situation we go out there and we find a sidewall smear in your seam in the slot. He was out digging behind the planter all the time.
The kids couldn’t figure out why he planted corn. The kids are planting the corn and it’s been three fields since he’s been out and diagnosed the actual or did any work in the furrow itself to make sure that this planter is handling every soil type for every condition. We’re not applying too much downforce or not in situations where we get out there and we find sidewall smearing and open slot. The grower says, “I had 100% ground contact so I know I had enough downforce.” They are realizing that he probably had 80 or 90 pounds too much.
The planter pass is the most important pass. We need to spend more boots on the ground behind the planter and then take this technology and make it easier for us. Everything from downforce to row cleaner settings. It all can be done from the contractor now which is cool because we can change it from field-to-field and even from soil-type-to-soil-type. I just think it needs to be ground-truth a little bit tighter than it has been in the past years.
With technology, it allows us to know when there’s a problem but sometimes, we don’t know the correctiveness of it if it had another lingering issue whether it be too much down pressure. Some of these fields, we’re getting into it when the field is 80% ideal. We’re planting early and they were pushing a little hard. There’s always going to be that 30% or 20% of the field that’s not ideal and that’s where we can have some issues from consistent emergence which ultimately leads to the consistent and viable marketable ear. What would you say to growers who are finding a lot more issues out in their fields? It’s not as ideal or if they’re doing the flag test study and they’re not quite getting everything emerged within 48 hours of each other. What are some things you would guide them down?
Part of this goes back to what we say the pest team. The team that’s up there doing the early scouting. When they see uneven emergence, you can’t note it and say, “This field had even emergence.” Somebody needs to dig into why and do their due diligence on figuring out why did these fields emerge well and these ones didn’t and that type of thing. Sometimes, technology is a great realm. I’ve been in a number of fields in spring where we’re fighting sidewall smearing. That leads to a lot of uneven emergence. I’ll ask, “Let’s look at your as-applied maps.” When we look at the as-applied maps, the story starts to come out. They ask, “My downforce was 80 or 90 pounds too much.” It’s excessive downforce.
Why did we have excessive downforce? I was trying to run my highest speed planter, I could maintain 95% ground contact until I got to this amount of downforce. It’s a chain reaction type of thing where if they would’ve slowed their planter down in that 20% of the field has given them trouble. The faster we drive the planter, the more downforce it demands to stay in the ground. In this case, they overcompensated for speed through downforce. As they went through that 20% of the field that wasn’t fit, all of a sudden we have sidewalls smearing and opening slots and we got pulled emergence.
Granted, you don’t want to give up 80% of the yield for that 20% that’s given you. With nowadays technology and a little bit of training, both from the operator and the grounds crew, the pest boss that’s out there identifying those tough spots, we can make some adjustments on that planter date to get rid of some of the trouble that we’re having. Farmers sometimes are patient before they pull the trigger on the first field.
Conditions are perfect and they start planting, but as soon as they plant that first field, it’s a green light on and everything. We ended up planting fields that could have used another week or they could use some assistance to get themselves ready before they were planted. Once the planter starts to roll, it’s hard for growers to go around a field and go to another one that’s more fit. Start with a great seedbed then the technology is phenomenal on what it can do above that.
There’s a balance. They always say in farming, there’s a balancing of the arts and sciences of it. In a lot of cases, in modern ag, as we’re trying to produce higher bushels on more acres and less time, there needs to be a proper balance between the operational logistics and the agronomics because sometimes we can give a few of them up. If we wait for everything to be agronomically sound across all fields, we’re going to be having logistic issues back and forth.
To me, as growers seek to hit higher yields across more acres, understanding this balance between the logistics of wanting to be able to go faster but also what’s the repercussion of it from an agronomic standpoint. Understanding the spots of the fields that 20% of the acres, how can we proactively tweak that plant a little bit to where we don’t have these issues. If we know we have the issues, know where that 20% of the area of those fields. They’re going to need a little bit more help throughout the growing season to help supplement that crop. It’s important to understand both sides of this.
The settings that we need in that 20% may be the wrong settings for the other 80%. If you don’t have the technology that will adjust on the go and you’re trying to pick one setting for that field, you’ve got to set for the 80%. What you want to be is aware of. If I was to come and visit the field and say, “How are we doing?” “The low ground has got open slot because I had to carry the downforce there too much, but the rest of the field is perfect. I knew it the day I was planting and it shows up now. I knew from the beginning that I was making the wrong call on that soil but I went anyway.”
That’s a different deal than getting into the field. A guy has got knee-high corn with an open slot and he’s surprised. He’s shocked that the slot opened up. When he’s shocked that the slot opened up, anytime we have sidewalls smearing, that’s visible the day of planting. That tells me as his consulting me, he wouldn’t know that planter and the toughest spot of the field, he didn’t bother checking that. If he knows already and he made a judgment call based on the calendar and where it’s at, I got to get the other 80% planted out. I’ll sacrifice 20%. That’s a grower that at least made a decision based on management and what he’s doing versus somebody who’s surprised that his closing spike wheels or whatever and he didn’t do the job. He would have known the day of planting if he got out there and did the actual follow up behind that planter.
It seems like scouting in general has become a lost art. We think about scouting being ready to spray for weeds or diseases but scouting is still important following the planter to make sure these issues aren’t there or pre-scouting to make sure errors of the fields are fit. To me, it’s almost invaluable to that time being spent in those fields and understanding how all this works. You can jump at a planter. In modern days, there are more monitors and gadgets in there than a spaceship. It seems like sometimes but it can be overwhelming.
What is all this data telling us? Sometimes, we still got to go out, get in the field, get our spade out, dig up a little bit and understand what’s going on in the field. The second part of that original question was on proper hybrid placement. I’ve always told guys that if we have a good hybrid, high yielding product but if we put it in the wrong place where it doesn’t want to live, we could have a lot of challenges with it. Virtually, we could take a poor hybrid and place it in the most idealist conditions we could find and have decent success with it. As we’re striving for higher yields, what are your takeaways on hybrid placement?
It’s big. We looked at hundreds of thousands of acres of yield maps for our customers every year. As a soil tester, I would like to tell you that soil fertility is number one on the list that affects yield. Of all the things that you noticed that have changed the yield from grower-to-grower, field-to-field, there are two that step out way above everything else. The biggest one is hybrid placement or hybrid selection. Number two is water management. Water management is a big topic. That’s compaction issues, irrigation, drainage and everything that you can do as a farmer to manage that water site. One of the big dog or the biggest dog is picking the right hybrid. We can sit here and watch hybrids come through where one grower is saying, “I wish I planted more of that. That’s my best hybrid. That’s my lead hybrid.”
The next grower in the door is saying, “I’ll never plant that one again.” You realize it’s management placement and where it belongs. We don’t sell hybrids or anything like that through our customer base, but we spend a ton of time trying to help them put in hybrid plots, evaluate hybrid characteristics and try to get them to think about that hybrid. Have a spot already picked out for that hybrid before you purchase it? Why did you buy that hybrid? It’s the best yielding in the plot. What else do you know about that hybrid? I’m trying to get them to be able to recognize their hybrids in the field as well as some decided, “I want to put this hybrid here because,” not because it was the first one inside the door when they started loading pallets of seed. Where does that hybrid best fit?
Once we get over that hump and get them to start thinking in that way, it’s amazing that some of these guys start to do a better job every year of deciding where their hybrid is and where it belongs. When you get a year like this where some of those hybrids let them down but they knew why they let them down. It was a weather factor more than a genetic factor. They’re not throwing that hybrid out. They’re recognizing the fact that there was a weakness in that hybrid that didn’t like no rain in August and that hybrid got caught. It’s not pitched out because it fell to the bottom. It’s why did it fell to the bottom and what would be different? We’re always about mitigating risks. We can’t have the same characteristics across our whole farm operation but we can get ourselves in a lot of trouble like some people did in 2012. It wiped out a yield because they didn’t have a defense against that season.
For years, we could categorize hybrids as offensive-defensive. It seems like anymore, we still have some hybrids that might lean one way or the other. Would you agree, Ken, that most hybrids, in general, have increased not only their offensive ability but also have increased their defensive ability? It seems like fields that struggled even top 150-bushel corn with some of the modern hybrids we have based on root structure and some of the genetic backgrounds. It seems like it can handle some of these rough environments to where even this rougher ground now is yielding tremendously better than what we’ve ever expected.
Genetics has kept improving. Some of that is with the traits we can put in there. That takes away some of the threats that we have but the whole genetic packages are improving across the board. If they aren’t, they aren’t making the cut, meaning the competition to build a better, stronger hybrid is there across all companies. Genetics is what’s going to keep moving us forward. It’s moved us a long way now. We’ve still got to understand those genetics because if we put a race or someplace where it doesn’t belong whether that turns against us, it’s going to fall flat. We’ve got to be able to accept that. It’s a situation where I’ve made a gamble and I lost versus the world of genetics is no good, I’m going to throw it out.
A lot of our new genetics depends on grain fill at the end of the season to kick it out of the park. For a lot of areas, in Illinois, anyway, we didn’t get that water. We went the whole month of August into September without it and that created some trouble for that type of hybrid. Other hybrids don’t like to have too much struggle on the front end of the season. They didn’t like April that we had. Understanding the hybrid becomes part of placing it and that’s where a good seedsman can help you out and deciding why certain hybrids belong on your farm and some don’t.
On agriculture agronomy, we spend a lot of time evaluating where products need to go. We spend more time trying to figure out the strongest weaknesses of a product. We can find good products out there but we try to find what is the greatest weakness of something and try to make sure placement doesn’t go that direction. There is no silver bullet when it comes to hybrids. As much as we’d like to think, that’s being invested time, energy and capital into building new hybrids.
We could take the best hybrid in the agronomy lineup. We still find some placement struggles where we need to watch it. If we can’t, you shouldn’t plant all your acres to one and give it a hybrid. It’s important to look at plot data, yield summaries and to see what does vary. At the end of the day, if you’re going to select those hybrids, go back and also figure out what some of the weaknesses are so we place them right. You can get that top-end yield that you saw those plot data in those summers so you can experience it as well.
It’s knowing the weakness of your field. If we know the weakness of the hybrid, then it gives you some opportunity to farm around it and figure out what you can do. You may check every box on that hybrid for what you want on your farm except for the fact that you’re fighting Goss’s wilt and the hybrid has a poor Goss’s score. Even though everything else matched up, if you can’t control the Goss’s wilt in your operation, that doesn’t belong in there. That’s too big of a weakness. If its Northern leaf blight or gray leaf or something like that, we can manage that with a fungicide application as long as we’ve got a pest crew that’s there pulling the trigger at the right time.
Ken, in the last couple of years, you referenced from a disease standpoint. You’re starting to see a lot more tar spot come in. With the geography that you cover, what do you see specifically from tar spot and what are some recommendations that you’re giving growers on that?
We saw it a couple of years before it was identified and we couldn’t figure out what it was. The best we could identify it was a tar spot on a maple tree. As it came about and it came for us, it came from the Northern part of the state moving South and it’s about in every area that we work now. This is a bugger because it comes in late and it comes in the cool season. Some of our earlier fungicide applications may not hang around long enough to help us out with the tar spot. We’ve got to get more residual into the end of the fungicides, multiple applications or a situation where we’re going to have to be making two passes to keep this one under control if it continues to build at the level it is.
It’s a tough one to put a plot in because we’ll go out there and we treat for it. It is evidence that the check is zero or the treatment is zero. Meaning that if we add 100% control where I sprayed the fungicide, then we know how much the tar spot is taken away from us. We have been able to do that. We see a response to the fungicide but we still see a lot of tar spots where we sprayed the fungicide as well. There needs to be more research done in that area. The yield loss is going to be bigger than we initially thought it was when we get these heavy infestations of the tar spot. You do see variances across the hybrid plot early on. When we look at our early plots, certain varieties show the tar spot quicker than others. At the end of the season, it seems like about everyone in the variety of plots does have a tar spot.
It goes back to keeping boots on the ground, keeping that crew out there, observing items out there that we can identify that there is a problem. They can try to offset it. From a fungicide standpoint, we need to watch if something has got a good residual to it. If we’re worried about tar spot, do on-farm trials of different products, look at different hybrids and how the responses are not only early on the season but late in the season. A corn plant is going to talk to you, just be willing to listen to it. As we close up if you had to give one piece of advice to all of our audience going into this 2021 corn or soybean crop, what’s one piece of advice you’d give them to consider?
The one that we deal with every spring is patience for the growers, especially on corn. It’s to be patient and making sure that they’re going to the field when the field is ready and not when the neighbors go. Don’t let the neighbors dictate when you go to the field. Have your equipment ready. Be locked and loaded and be ready to take advantage of it. If we can plant corn in ideal conditions that first week in April, we should be planting corn. If we’re going to mud corn in cold soils in April, we should be doing something else. Maybe planting the soybeans but don’t let the neighborhood dictate that poor emergence before it started. “Why did you plant corn that day?” “It’s because everybody was planting corn that day.”
Be patient. This day’s genetics allow us to plant corn. As we see again in 2020 all the way into June, it’s still banging out some good yields. Don’t mud the corn in. You can be a little more careless with the soybeans and then think hard about having a pest crew. Somebody whether you hire, or you train somebody within your operation. Somebody has to stay on top of all the threats. This is somebody that can dedicate the time to do it. He has a load of cattle or bail and hay and those types of things when somebody needs to be in these fields.
Ken Ferrie, owner of Crop-Tech Consulting. I appreciate your time, Ken.
About Ken Ferrie
In 1991 Ken, with his wife Jeanenne, started Crop-Tech Consulting in Heyworth, IL. As an independent consultant Ken works with farmer clients and fertilizer dealers providing agronomic services and directions.
Ken is a native of Cresco, Iowa and grew up working on his family farm, tending hogs, cattle and a dairy herd. He holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science and agricultural business from Illinois State University. He also holds an associate degree in agricultural business from Ellsworth Community College. Much of his leading-edge agronomic training was received as an apprentice under Dr. Everett Dennis, private agronomist from Manhattan, KS.
Jeanenne is a native of Ridgeway, IA and grew up on her family farm milking cows. Jeanenne has an accounting degree from Hamilton Business College and is the office manager for Crop-Tech.
Ken and Jeanenne have four children. Isaac, Katie, and Zach work at Crop-Tech Consulting full time. Chelsea is an Iowa State University graduate that works on special projects for Crop-Tech.