Making the most out of your crops is all about finding the right balance of both the art and science of agronomy. Joining Todd Steinacher today is Whitney Monin, the New National Agronomy Manager at AgriGold. Whitney is here to expound on how you should be navigating your field when it comes to planting and investing early. It’s all about the balance of knowing when to go with your gut and when to go with the data that you have. She shares what to look out for in terms of your soil conditions, dealing with diseases, optimizing fungicide technology, evaluating hybrid data and more. Keep your ears glued for more tips on how to maximize your yield and minimize harvest loss on this episode!
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The Art & Science Of Agronomy With New National Agronomy Manager Whitney Monin
This episode is about bringing awareness to agronomic concepts as many growers start to venture on the front edge of harvest for 2021. I would like to introduce our guest, newly appointed National Agronomy Manager for AgriGold brand, Whitney Monin. Welcome to the show, Whitney.
Thank you, Todd. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Whitney, as a fellow new AgriGold employee to the brand, a lot of folks maybe aren’t aware of you. Maybe they’ve seen you in the past on some social media promoting good agronomics out there. Tell us about your agronomic journey that led you to AgriGold.
It’s been a bit of an agronomic and personal journey that’s led me to AgriGold, and I’m ecstatic to be here. If anybody doesn’t know me, a little bit of my personal background, I grew up on a small hobby farm in Central Kentucky. No sooner than the ink was dry on my thesis, I found myself moving to pursue my passions in agriculture and agronomy to Central Iowa, which was a big deal personally because I am a Kentucky girl, born and raised.
I found myself in Central Iowa working for Monsanto as an Agronomy Associate, an agronomist in training. I thought that the traineeship was only going to be a couple of months long. It ended up being a much longer stint as I found myself working for about three growing seasons in Northwest Iowa as a Channel Technical Agronomist. When the opportunity presented itself, I was able to relocate back to Kentucky. I was a Channel Agronomist in Kentucky and Southern Indiana supporting farmers for about another three growing seasons.
I’ve also worked for the DEKALB Asgrow brand as a Customer Business Advisor for a little over a year. My tenure and my career to this juncture have all been agronomic in focus, but I’ve walked fields and supported farmers everywhere from Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. I have a real passion for teaching, learning, and being a boots-on-the-ground practitioner of agronomy. If anybody has ever met me in the field, I would hope that what they would say about me is that I’m a passionate teacher of agronomy. That’s a little bit of my background, Todd. I’m thrilled to be here at AgriGold where we’re continuing to take agronomy to the next level. I’m proud to be a part of that.
Thanks, Whitney, for sharing your agronomic journey thus far. One thing I always like to have guests do since you come from all areas of the AgriGold footprint, but specifically in your part of the world. I always have folks tell me what the major challenges were for the growing season for farmers and maybe customers in your regional areas. You’re part of Kentucky. What would you say are some major yield-limiting opportunities out there that your regional farmers face?
If I look holistically at the 2021 spring growing season and conditions, I feel like we’re saying this a lot when it comes to spring, Todd. It’s one series of challenges after another. For us in Kentucky, that was no exception. We had a great opening planting window where some folks were able to get early. We had April the 3rd to the 7th. We had some good fieldwork days where we cracked some stuff wide open, and we’re going full throttle on getting beans and corn in the ground equally very early. Of course, that’s trends that we’ve been seeing across the whole of our industry.
No sooner we got that nice early start, we got smacked in the mouth by Mother Nature and had some wet cool conditions, struggling to accumulate GDUs, and very hot instances of early-season pest pressure. Whether that was from slugs or corn seed maggots, it’s making it hard for us to get the crop up and out of the ground because we didn’t have the heat units to get up and growing. The longer you’re below ground, you’re foddering food for the insects and pests that reign below. We had some significant struggles there.
With those cool, wet conditions, we had a perfect breeding ground for early-season seedling disease, maybe more than I’ve ever seen in certain pockets of Central and Western Kentucky from a Pythian perspective and damping-off in our corn crop. There’s nothing more frustrating than you get out to the field early and you get the corn planted, but the bugs are eating it and then the disease is taking it from you. When we lose stand like that early, it is often hard for us to make up for the loss of those plants in the field. Those were some of the critical challenges that we faced upfront.
The collaborative spirit is what makes agriculture a beautiful place to work in.
As we’ve moved into the growing season, unlike a lot of other parts in the US, we’ve had relatively timely rain here in Kentucky and Southern Indiana. We’ve had some million-dollar rains throughout the course of the growing season. There were places where that rain came a week too late. Especially in parts of Kentucky, you could see those hills, thin soil types and coarse texture ground, as a farmer would say, burning up from an overall perspective. Maybe we’re not going to have as consistent yields across the field as we had in 2019 or 2020. The good parts of the field are going to be good though. That’s a snapshot of some of the things that we faced in our local environment here in Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
Thanks for the insight there, Whitney. From my part of the world territory, in Central Illinois where I’m located, it’s called a disease transitional zone. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen tar spots steadily come further south. In 2021, it got way south and southern rust got way north, usually outside of its realm of where it likes to thrive. There are going to be some yield-limiting impacts from it. Even in my part of the world, I found some fields where some white mold was even creeping up.
From a disease standpoint, the moisture temperatures, everything is flexing outside of their typical realm. That’s been one piece and it’s been unique for me to watch, scout and have conversations with. It’s crazy. Regardless if we’re out in the countryside, there’s always a pest, critter or something trying to attack the corn plant, which is biology. At the end of the day, we still need moisture to make sure we got good nitrogen and grain fill. That’s always challenging as well. I do appreciate you bringing that to the table.
Whitney, one thing that I want to coin in our conversation is the art and science of growing high-yielding corn. There’s a lot that goes into growing corn. Maybe it’s the ten-year average or the APH for the county. When we’re working with growers who want to achieve higher than what they’ve had the season before or years past, from our standpoint, we’re being challenged to help growers produce more corn and how we make it more efficiently.
What I’d like to spend talking about are the opportunities at strategic parts through the growing cycle of a corn plant and evaluating the science and the art. When I say science, there’s always data out there that tells us we should or should not do something. Sometimes it’s your gut, the art. In 2020, there are many fields that were planted with corn and the soils were cool.
From a science standpoint, it tells us, “Don’t go till the soil when the temperatures are turning upward,” but our gut is telling us, “Soils are cool but they’re dry.” We’re going to go and plant for it because we’ve got good seed treatments. We’ve got good vigor. We’ve got all these good things. You’ve got to balance the arts and the science. As we move forward with recommendations, I want to spend this episode talking about your thoughts and theories on the strategic times that we can influence higher yield potential.
You’re right, Todd, there is a distinct art and science when it comes to maximizing yield. When it comes to that art and science, there’s a certain amount of art that is only gained with years of experience. Knowing your own ground, knowing your management, and knowing the logistics of your operation are the things that often make the biggest difference. Sometimes we don’t take them into account, Todd. It’s not always black and white. The art is often a shade of gray.
Whitney, I have the growing season broke down into some categories. It’s hard to sit back and say, “How am I going to manage this whole crop season long?” It can be overwhelming to know where to start or look for research. To me, if you break it down into key categories, and I’m not saying you’ve got to reinvent the wheel or do 180 with it, but how can you tweak it a little bit?
The first category that I would like to bring to the table is early planted corn. It seems like the last couple of years, we’re getting the planters out a lot sooner. That’s typically what we’re not taught to do but from a yield standpoint, we are getting good yields out of that. What are some arts and sciences of “planting corn early” that you can advise folks on?
Let’s break it down, Todd. That would be the easiest way to think about it. We’re trying to maximize yield potential by planting earlier but what are the mechanisms that we’re trying to influence from a scientific perspective within the physiology of that corn plant? By pulling your planter out of the shed, assuming that the soils are in the right condition to be going out into the field, what we’re trying to do is multifaceted. We’re trying to help that corn plant beat the heat at pollination so we can maximize our fill when it comes to putting grain on that individual year. We’re trying to lengthen our time period of grain fill, so we are maximizing our kernel depth and making sure we’re packing all of that starch into the kernel as possible.
We’re also taking those two mechanisms. When you combine more kernels on the ear with heavier kernels, ultimately, that means more yield. That’s the basic sense from a scientific perspective of what we’re trying to do when we plant corn early, but there is an art to it. There are some other things where you have to use your gut in your own personal fields and your own personal soils. You have to understand your local environment. We all have to look into our crystal ball and think about what could happen.
I’ve worked with farmers that have said, “Whitney, I can go over here and plant this field today. The soil conditions are in shape, but the river is going to come out in 10 to 11 days and it’s going to take the whole field. I’m not going to put my time, effort and resources on April the 2nd to come over here and plant the field that the river might take. Instead, I’m going to go over here where the soils are equally as great where I have yield maximizing opportunity within this soil type in this environment. I’m going to hedge my bet from a risk mitigation perspective and I’m going to plant over here.” Therein lies the art.
We know when you’re pulling your planter on April 2nd, April 3rd, April 4th, whatever you consider early for your local environment, that there’s also an art to saying there is an incremental risk of stand loss, whether that’s the disease, pest pressure or imbibitional chilling loss because we are having incredible swings in spring temperatures that a lot of us are experiencing throughout the Corn Belt. That might mean that you need to plant a little bit more population to ensure that you have the final stand that you want. That’s a gut feeling.
Only that individual farmer is going to know, “Is that the right decision to make given the management decision that I’m embarking upon?” Those are things that come to mind for me, Todd, when you talk about the art and science of early planting. We want to do it to maximize yield, but we don’t want to do it at the expense of what we already know about our ground and our soils because some soils and some environments can be forgiving and others cannot.
When growers are thinking about, “How do I take my yields to the next level?” It seems like there are two ways to think about it. This is how I explained it to growers. “Am I going to take the best of my acres and make them even better? Or am I going to try to raise the low end of my acres that are always pulling down my overall farm average?” When you think about planting corn early, I usually advise growers to think about those fields and those opportunities that are their best acres, and how we can take those best to the next level to increase overall farm averages. That’s the way I think about it, Todd. A lot of times, planting early is a way to do that.
Two thoughts. One, I tend to find that we’re planting into relatively good soil conditions so we tend to get a root development that doesn’t have a lot of restriction points. It can lead to better uptake of moisture nutrients throughout the season, and deeper penetration for water uptake later in the season when we get a little drought here. I tend to find inversely when we’re planting late and we’re up against the calendar, we might push that envelope a little bit and we’re going to get sidewall compaction. We’re going to start getting a little bit of plow layer in some areas from tillage going over.
To me, from a root development in the season-long way of thinking of it, we’re probably better off, as long as soils are good, leaning to that front side of maybe a little bit early, as long as they’re still making good agronomic decisions. That’s where we get some of this value, as well as having the longer grain fill. We’re speeding up against the pollination in the grain fill window. What are your thoughts on that root development piece by planting early versus waiting until the traditional time and we’re up against some wetter conditions?
The thing about it is when it comes to the root development of a plant, often what farmers forget or don’t think about is that your primary root development is all happening prior to that tassel coming out. Once the tassel comes out, it’s game, set, match. We might do some root regeneration but it’s going to be nothing like the root mass that we accumulate prior to moving into that reproductive phase. Anything you can do to maximize root integrity early season is important.
In terms of, “Do we maximize root development by planting earlier?” I don’t know if I totally can agree with that. We have to be careful when it comes to roots all-in-all and not to get runny. We all have many acres to plant in the countryside. If you’re a grower that’s planting a lot of acres, there’s always going to be one window that was the best. Sometimes it’s the early window, sometimes the middle windows, sometimes it’s the late window. When you’re planting many acres of corn, we have to make certain concessions. That’s the reality because we don’t farm in a greenhouse or in a lab.
There might be places in fields where you make concessions. This field goes from three different soil types, but 75% of the field is at a place where it is checking all those boxes for soil conditions being ready to plant. At a certain time, we’ve got to rip the Band-Aid off and go. If that happens to be early and we can try to have great route development to support those great yields, then that’s what we have to do.
Don’t dispel your gut. If there’s something you don’t like, there’s probably a reason why.
Another consideration I found, Whitney, is as we’re planting earlier and we might not get the corn up in our typical seven days, maybe it’s going to take a little bit longer to get our 120 GDUs, what I found is planting depth becomes a management practice that needs to be evaluated. In 2020 when we had some customers who were planting into some of these cooler trends, soils were still dry in early April. We’re questioning how much insulation the soil is having.
I had digital meat probes hooked to an app on my phone tracking surface, 1 inch, 1.5, 2 inches within a 72-hour period of seeing how much movement of soil temperature risk there was. What I found is if you were as close to 2 inches as you could be, even if the air temperature got down to freezing, it got down into the 1 to 1.5 inches zone but did not penetrate the two-inch layer. Some of those nights where you’ve seen these pictures with the soybeans with frost on them.
To me, if we are going to be planting into some of these challenging air conditions, evaluate your planting depth or even make sure the planting depth is staying consistent to make sure we’re not getting these big swings and shallower seeds. That’s what’s going to have our germination issues and eventually, it’s going to lead to dead plants and non-marketable years.
You’re spot on, Todd. I can’t even tell you how many fields, specifically this spring and even in the spring of 2019, that I walked where we had those cool conditions that set in after we planted. You could separate the men from the boys when it came to seed placement and consistency placement across the field. Your ambient air temperature is always going to fluctuate and we see that often. The soil acts as an insulating layer. In the countryside, it’s a blanket for your seed.
This goes back to the art and science because there are people probably reading this saying, “Whitney, if I plant my seed on my ground at 2 inches deep, there will be a crust and it will break. It’s not coming out of the ground.” I don’t dismiss any of that. The reality is you’re right. From a perspective of protecting that seed from imbibitional chilling risk, the biggest fluctuation in temperature is going to be at that inch or sub-inch level.
I know in our territory, we had a snow event that happened on April the 20th, 2021. It snowed in Kentucky. It was just a dusting, but going out that next morning and taking temperature readings at an inch deep, that temperature was 39 degrees. At 2 inches deep, it was still 41. By the time we got to 11:00 later in the day, that soil temperature at 2 inches was back up to 51 degrees. If we can do anything to insulate and protect that seed from what Mother Nature is going to throw at it, that’s absolutely something that we have to do.
Here we have this cornfield planted. We’re shooting earlier and we’re keeping it depth appropriate for the field and geography wherever the growers are at. Let’s jump into how we feed it. How are we going to feed these new plateaus differently to shoot for higher yields?
It’s an important question that a lot of growers have been asking themselves. In the last couple of years, Todd, from my perspective, there’s been a resurgence in wanting to understand from a feeding perspective, multi-faceted because I want to increase yields. Also, from an efficiency perspective on the farm, the cost of inputs is not going down. Everybody reading this would understand that. Can I be more efficient with my inputs while maximizing yield? That’s the point that everyone wants to get to.
Even at AgriGold, I feel proud because I feel that we understand what’s going on inside corn plants more than anybody in the industry when we talk about it from a scientific perspective with our growers and partner with them. Based on this family-style of corn genetics, you’re going to get incrementally more yield from the flex and girth of this product. If you’re looking at side-dress opportunity, split applications, this product is going to benefit more versus maybe this family of products that you’re maximizing yield by a flux in length.
We have to make sure that corn plant goes into that reproductive stage and is not hurting from a nitrogen perspective or, “This product fluxes in kernel depth.” That’s where you’re going to get a significant amount of yield. If we run out of nitrogen at that time, we are significantly going to short ourselves up in the field. We should adjust our program to this granular level of understanding at a field and hybrid level. This knowledge and expertise are helping growers take their farm to the next level from an AgriGold perspective. The industry is hungry for this information as well.
This goes back to the science perspective. I’m noticing trends from folks making changes to their planter so that they never would have done before. People are investing in wide-dropping equipment that maybe they would have never done before. All of this is to meet the corn plant where it is and maximize ourselves from an efficiency perspective, but also from what that corn plant needs to take itself to the next level. It is an exciting time for us as an agronomist to explore nutrient management and nutrient cycling at a granular level like that.
If I could connect some dots here, Whitney, when you said, “Take your great ground. We’re going to make it a little bit better. We’re going to go find those average areas and maybe make them better farms or fields.” We’re not here to reinvent the wheel. From a nitrogen standpoint, we’re not telling anybody, “Instead of using whatever you’ve been using for nitrogen, go do 180 and start changing your whole nitrogen program.”
If you sit back and look at some of the threats, specifically to nitrogen, and we’re having more rainfall events, maybe losing some nitrogen, maybe we’re in rotation, but one thing that is clear is the hybrids that we have, have a longer grain fill window. They’re pushing back when it’s wanting to maximize the grain fill, taking it up. If we get a corn hybrid firing prior to tassel, I know that something went wrong from a nitrogen standpoint.
To me, we’re not telling anybody to go and reinvent the wheel of how they do nitrogen, but figure out, “This is how I’m currently doing nitrogen. These are 2 or 3 areas where it’s vulnerable towards not going to be there to maximize yield.” All these concepts as far as the split nitrogen, making sure we’re using our stabilizers, and specifically having a 2×2 system, it seems like all these little systems work to defeat it along the way. The neat thing is our tissue samples are validating this concept.
I got some growers that I worked with and they were doing a great job front-loading their crop. Tissue samples validated that. Once it hit pollination, it was falling off and they weren’t getting the yields they wanted. We started to make some minute changes. In 2021, I evaluated their last set of tissue samples. They follow the trend of our benchmark season long. It’s not that they had to go and change or get new equipment. They just tweaked how they do things. Nitrogen is still one that we need to buckle down and better understand, from a pure yield standpoint, we’ve got to have for these high yields.
You’re right, Todd. By any means, I’m not saying that the only way to improve from a yield perspective is to make investments incrementally, and more iron or more equipment or more add-ons to the planner. The key is maybe taking a step back from your nutrient system and evaluating what you think is working and what you think is not. A lot of times, it doesn’t matter who we are as farmers or industry professionals, we all become a little bit biased or we have preferences that we bring to the table every single day.
When it comes to what we’re learning about the depth of nutrient limiting factors to grow upper echelons of corn yield, sometimes maybe we have blind spots. I would advise anybody who’s reading to hopefully partner with their AgriGold agronomist. Find that person, whether it’s your fertilizer person, retail person or corn or soybean gal. Sit down and say, “Here’s what I’ve been doing. Where are the gaps? Where are the holes from a scientific perspective?” Marry that with the art of what you know about your own operation and see where there are opportunities to get better.
We all get better by breaking things down at a granular level and sometimes open up the doors and get feedback from others because there might be a blind spot that a person is not aware of. It takes a small management change to maximize yield potential because we know that a 500-bushel corn can be grown. With every management decision we make, whether it’s at the wrong planting window or maybe we could have done this differently with our nitrogen, it’s a descending staircase. Five hundred bushels is the maximum yield potential and it sits in a bag. Every management decision or what Mother Nature sends our way takes us down a stair.
There are places, times and opportunities in the growing season where we can regain something that was lost from Mother Nature or loss from management practice. Even if we have a corrective decision that we make, we never get back to what we have lost. Every single year and while you’re sitting in the combine maybe reading this and thinking about what you’re seeing as you go through the field, it’s a great opportunity to put all the chips on the table and say, “Where are my gaps?” Maybe it only takes a small change to have a maximum impact.
Whitney, if there’s one thing that I can pull out of that, it is that there’s a lot of value in having a good network of some agronomic folks. I bring that up because I’ve got some customers who will come to me in the offseason or they’re getting ready to start doing their nitrogen or even weed management programs. They’ll come to me and say, “Todd, here’s my game plan. I want you to shoot holes in it.” I get to shoot holes in it based on some regional things or some weird things that may happen and let them know, “If all these stars don’t align, you’re going to have some hiccups in here. I want to point those out to you.”
We can’t be afraid to be vulnerable in our own knowledge and our own learnings.
Often, if we talk with people in our typical circle, we might not get some new ideas. It’s always good to try something new. Go to a meeting, watch a webinar or chat with an AgriGold agronomist on some nitrogen concepts. To me, there’s a lot of value in having that big, strong network that can help put all the pieces together.
There’s so much value in that, Todd. A collaborative spirit is what makes agriculture a beautiful place to work. All of us are looking for those allies who are going to walk arm-in-arm with us when things are great, but also when things are tough and challenging. There are places in our market that are challenging. Inputs are a specific one.
The time is now to be more efficient. The time is now to take a step back, get fresh perspectives, and see where we can apply the art in our gut of what we know about our farms and our operation, and double down there. There are also opportunities on every farm that I’ve ever worked on to try to get better. That’s the great thing about working in agriculture. We’re all here to help each other be successful, in my opinion.
I always coined the phrase, student of your fields. If we’re willing to listen, our corn and soybean crops tell us a good story. They tell us when they were unhappy, hungry, thirsty and too wet. If we follow these little subtle signs, at the end of the day, we see the yield map or the yield monitor of what the field made, but that doesn’t tell us what the field went through.
I have a love-hate relationship with it because I always get called out this time of the year to ID why a hybrid or a field yields the way it did. You almost have to do corn scene investigation to go backward and find out why we lost yield. If you find those spots in your fields that are deficient or if a particular farm isn’t yielding the way you’d hoped to, now is a great time before the combines go through and evaluate where that yield was gained and lost. That can help make decisions for the future year. Even though it can be challenging at times, I do like that process in the fall of the year.
There’s so much value. You touched on something important for even farmers. We’re all always so busy. I’ve worked with many growers who spend a lot of hours in their field scouting, looking and getting those observations that you talked about, Todd, but sometimes we don’t catalog them. Sometimes, we don’t keep a running notebook. Sometimes, we don’t make notes to ourselves.
You said the crop is telling us when it’s hungry or when it’s unhappy. From a farmer’s perspective, I don’t know what the tool is for you. I don’t know if it’s the notes on your phone, a scouting app, or whatever it is for your personal operation, but keep track of some of those observations. Keep track of what you’re seeing, even from the combine.
Some of the best farmers I’ve ever worked with keep a notebook, or they open up a notes tab in their phone and take notes about not only what the yield monitor is saying but also what they’re seeing because that is equally as important. Maybe sometimes we have the quantitative data in yield, but we don’t have the qualitative data. Sometimes the qualitative data can help us as much in making decisions for the next growing season. Quite honestly, take good notes. It’s important.
Whitney, a lot of folks might be reading this in the combine. One of my favorite things to do is watch the plants. If you see a lot of tops knocked out, got standability problems, don’t have enough ears coming in or the ears are inconsistent in size, or if you go in the tank and you’re finding small kernels, all those things are little nuggets of the scavenger hunt to find bigger yields. If you’re finding things like this, document it, go back to that agronomic network, and start figuring out the pieces of the puzzle. That’s great insight. I do appreciate your thoughts on this topic.
Whitney, we’re going to take a little bit of a rabbit trail. We’re going to plant corn early when it’s appropriate in all geographies. We’re going to rethink and tweak from a nutritional standpoint, nitrogen standpoint. We’ve got a season-long nitrogen supply to take advantage of these long grain fill windows.
Let’s dive into another topic, which is plant health/fungicide applications. I don’t know how things are going across the greater footprint. I know in a lot of territories, diseases are moving their way in and it seems like a higher yield in corn. If we put a little stress on it, maybe a disease coming in could take some yield off of it. What are your thoughts on disease management in a high-yield corn system?
Todd, there’s been so much that’s been done in this space. I feel intimately qualified because I tell people in Kentucky, “At the time that we plant corn in the ground, something is either trying to kill it or infect it.” We do sit in a beautiful disease transition zone, not unlike what you talked about in Illinois. There’s a lot of disease pressure in this area. From my perspective, watching growers that are reaching these upper echelons of yield, one of the main mechanisms that they are doing to reach that is split applications of fungicide. I know that’s easy to say but incrementally harder to do sometimes, and it is also expensive in certain situations.
I’m going to speak specifically to those seeking high yields. There might be places where guys are saying, “Whitney, I’m not going to make a split application across my entire farming operation because it’s not cost-effective from an ROI perspective and a breakeven on a certain farm or certain ground.” I understand that. If you’re trying to take those places on your farm that are good and make them even better, the way we can do that is by keeping the corn plant and that photosynthetic tissue happy and healthy as long as possible, so we can maximize that grain fill and not give up any kernels on that year.
What I’ve seen being super efficacious in our area is folks that traditionally were only a VT/R1 fungicide operation. They were going out there fully tasseled to green silk and making an aerial application or using their ground rig. That was the only application in the crop. I’m seeing a lot of those people say, “We’re getting incrementally more disease pressure later in the season from Southern rust, or we are worried about tar spot coming down from the north. It’s like disease Civil War out here. We’ve got to make sure that we’re prepared.”
They may be moving to split applications of fungicide and doing V10, V11 applications of fungicide when they can still get over it, maybe with their spray rig or with a high clearance rate that they’ve invested in, and then coming back. Instead of VT/R1, maybe that’s R1, R2. Making these dual applications is serving multiple purposes. You’re knocking down some inoculum loads in your field year-over-year and you’re controlling those spores in the canopy earlier.
By being there at a V10, V11 timeframe when gray leaf spot is trying to work its way up to your canopy, you’re getting out there and protecting that gray leaf even earlier in the growing season. We’re seeing some trends there. Of course, the market is responding to some in-furrow fungicide applications as well. Ultimately, Todd, I feel like the aim is all the same. Keep the plant clean as long as we can, so we can maximize grain fill. When we keep our solar panels healthy, we keep that food going to the plant, and then we can also maximize some of our other nutrients.
For me, I’ve seen growers do tests for years when it comes to in-furrow products or additional additives or even micronutrients, but they weren’t protecting their plant from a fungicide perspective and disease was coming in and taking it. It’s a confounding factor to all the other good things that we’re doing in the field if the plant itself is not healthy and able to grow. To me, it’s the baseline. If you were going to take yields to the next level, you have to use a fungicide.
Todd, your products are also changing the market. Everyone probably agrees that the fungicide technology that we have at our fingertips now is nothing like what we had several years ago. It’s an evolving space but one that growers, if they want to take yields to the next level, have got to invest incrementally.
When a grower does make that application of a fungicide, whether it be V5, tasseling or brown silk, it’s important for them to realize, “Why am I exactly doing this?” That’s why maybe sometimes with the V5, we don’t always see a strong return off of it. To me, if we’re going VT, we’re trying to protect pollination, some of those kernels at the tip, and the early side of grain fill in pollination for some of those diseases coming in early, specifically gray leaf, Northern corn leaf blight and tar spot. Some of those fungicides can peter out and not be there for grain fill that’s there to support for Southern rust and some anthracnose.
A grower needs to do some soul searching on a given year, where do you feel that your crop needs to be protected the most? That needs to be where it’s going to be ideal. I bring that up because several years ago, I remember there were early flush diseases so everything got sprayed early, but then there end up being a real late flush of anthracnose. Everybody thought of that the next year, so they plan to go late and then they didn’t go late and there was a big flush of Northern corn leaf blight that came in or something.
Look for those holes in the dam and fill it with knowledge, expertise, and people who are going to help take you to the next level.
The recommendations were reactive based on the last year not necessarily on what the crop in the environment was battling. It’s important for that. From my standpoint, I do like that application that’s going to be a little close to the grain fill, the brown silk piece because there is so much coming in late and we want to protect that last part of grain fill.
One thing that we’ve learned in the last couple of years doing some trials with some growers in my neck of the woods is once we get to about three-quarters milk line, there is still a desirable amount of yield left to be converted over. To me, it’s important to protect that backside. If you’ve got a healthy plant and good nutritional levels going into a lot of that, if we do hit some stresses, that plant is going to be able to withstand a little bit. If we’re not getting that depth or some of that yield, I would start looking at that three-quarter milk line and observe if they’re giving up any yield during that realm.
This goes back to what we were talking about. This is art and science stuff right here at its finest. There are probably people who are reading saying, “From a cost perspective, a logistical perspective, and all of these things, it’s hard for me to execute on my acres. I know which acres must only be sprayed with a V5 or V6 application because that’s the last time that the sprayer is going across. It’s a field that is shaped like a dogleg and we can’t get in here from an aerial application perspective. We wouldn’t bring a high clearance rig over here because we’ve run over too much corn to execute this.”
There is an art of knowing what’s right for your operation. From a scientific perspective, all the things you’re talking about from a grain fill, as a market, we used to take the stance that you would need to scout and react. The problem is when you’re trying to raise 250-plus or 300-plus bushel corn across your entire operation if you wait to react, the disease is already making its heyday. The proverbial cow leaves the barn pretty early. That’s the thing that we’re learning from a scientific perspective when it comes to fungicide use in our crop.
We have to make the best decisions about products, disease ratings, rotation and management of residues, and all these things to control diseases. If we’re going to use a fungicide as a strong tool in our toolbox, maybe we should start thinking about it as a proactive tool and not a reactive tool. Also, there are other benefits when you’re raising 300-bushel corn from a respiration perspective, lowering overall plant stress. All of these things are things that fungicide also brings to the table. We know we got plenty of other plant stressors in the field, so having a tool that can help us with that is positive.
I like your proactive stance on this because, as fungicides become more popular across the landscape, this means more growers who are going to do it. There are only so many good days to fly or ground rig. There are only so many rigs and so many people. To me, the sooner you can commit to at least what your plan is and get your maps, get your name on the spot, get your pre-paying with whoever is going to be doing the service for you so there’s a plan in place.
The moment you decide to spray because you find some diseases right as a tassel comes out and you see planes flying over, honestly, either you’re going to hear 1 of 2 things. One, we don’t know if we can spray it or you’re four weeks out. At that point, you lost money. There is value in being proactive in getting that game plan lined up ahead of time to make sure all your people who are supporting you have your product in place, have the logistics lined out so you can capture that opportunity.
We planted the crop early, we’re working on feeding it right, we’re giving it good health. The next thing to do is to harvest it. A lot of folks are probably reading this are probably sitting in the combine or grain cart chasing the combine. What’s some advice that you can give growers from obtaining higher yields even at a harvest level? It’s not so much to increase yield. It’s probably to minimize harvest loss as far as anything.
This is an age-old challenge because there’s nothing that feeling of getting all the way to the finish line and being outside your grasp. From a harvest perspective, having that 250-bushel crop that we’re talking about in the field and you waited one week too long. I’ve heard it a million times from farmers and people in the field, “Those stalks may be cannibalized more than I thought they did and that late-season wind event smacked me. That product was getting weak and I didn’t know it. There’s a certain product that because of its grain type or test coverage, we lose a lot more from a phantom yield loss perspective, the longer it stays in the field.” All of these things, in my opinion, go back to your network, your seed ally, your agronomist, your person, and ultimately making the time to get out and look at those fields pre-harvest and try to identify where your risk factors lie.
In 2021, we had places where we got a whole lot more rain in the United States. We leached a whole lot of nitrogen and some of the stalks out here on a banana peel side, they’re getting weak and there are other places where we’ve had a tremendous amount of anthracnose dieback and anthracnose stalk rot out there in the field. Those plants have been dead longer maybe than a grower thinks. It’s twofold. You’ve got to talk to your people and know where the risks lie from a product perspective. Also, you have to take into account some of your management that has been done on your operation and Some of the things that you already maybe know about your fields or your soil types that are more litchi or your historic problem fields from a stalk rot perspective.
Get out there and do some looking and checking. What you find might scare you and it might motivate a little bit quicker harvest, specifically in 2021. In the places in the United States where guys have been incredibly dry, we do have to take all those things into consideration because we think about shank strength. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching ears fall back into the field instead of into the combine head. All of those things are risk factors that we’re going to have to be looking out for in the fall.
The follow up on the stalk quality piece, everything that we talked about leading up to this point, as far as having good nitrogen, good health, those lead directly into stalk quality along with any type of insects feeding on it. To me, these high-yielding products, if it can’t get it from the soil, it’s going to try to grab it from the root and try to grab it from the stalk to finish that year out.
Lack of nitrogen and lack of plant health within anthracnose and crown root rot, all these pieces can play into it. It seems like it can go from good to bad fast. That’s where having a good logistic plant harvest to knowing which fields probably need to go first. Look at some extended forecasts. Where’s this weather coming from? Is there going to be some big rain? Not too many years ago, I can remember coming out of college starting the industry and there are a lot of tracks on combines and a lot of fields that wait until February because we got so much rain. We don’t want to go down that path.
It’s also important when selecting hybrids with your seedsman to let them know, “I’m planning on harvesting these X fields last.” I got some folks who might harvest some fields for Christmas. You proactively know which hybrids have good intactness and specifically, which ones to stay away from. Then there’s also a lot of drying facilities that have been ramped up in the countryside whether it be at the co-op, independent or on-farm.
A lot of corn is being shelled with 23% to 27% moisture. One to start the logistic train, capture some of the yields from the phantom yield loss. By starting early, we’re going to potentially get done with those fields sooner to allow for field activity, for fertilizer applications. It’s all these other pieces. A lot of pieces play into that. It’s wise to sit back and see what your bottlenecks are and evaluate your decisions.
That’s a lot of personal and operational reflection. Ultimately, there are always going to be bottlenecks that are even outside of our control. There’s weather data and climate data that suggest we have ten fewer field work days in the spring than we’ve ever had before. Almost our spring fieldwork bottleneck is taking a lot of people to the solution of more on-farm drying capacity.
If we can get this crop out two weeks earlier, maybe that gives us time to do more tillage in certain parts of the US that’s to put on some anhydrous to spread. If we know our spring is going to be even shorter, then we have to maximize our harvest. It’s like, “God gives us one hand to take with another.” It’s always a balancing act that we have to navigate out here in the field. Every part of the US and every operation is going to have a different one.
Years ago, I’ve got some great advice and I still carry it with me. The gentleman is a progressive farmer. I was talking to him and he’s like, “It’s not my job to physically do all these things. My job as the farmer and the manager of this operation is to make sure it gets done.” Sometimes it’s hard to separate hiring out versus doing it yourself. There’s always some debate in there but at the end of the day, you’ve got to sit back. Where is your time’s highest and best use? How can you still get all your things logistically done? Your time is being spent wisely. I take that statement to heart from that gentleman.
To round out this conversation a little bit, we talked about a lot of conversations on shooting for higher yields. Right now, we’re strong in the fields evaluating products, whether they are the PATs or in regional areas, be it the PCRs or agronomic study trials. When you look at hybrid evaluation, fortunately there’s a lot of data being shared across the countryside, how do you evaluate hybrid data as far as making decisions for the future years?
I’ll take it two ways. When I look at data sets as an agronomist, I’m looking for several different things. I’m looking at wind percentage, but I’m also looking at the consistency of yield advantage across yield environments. That’s something for me that I’m pretty passionate about because I believe that consistency of the product is often the thing that makes farmers the most money.
They’re always those products that are the flash in the pan, the racehorse that everybody talks about. If you put it in the right place, all the stars align. You manage it to the hilt. You do seventeen different passes over the top, then you can hit that uber-high number. For me, as a practitioner of agronomy, and someone who loves working hand-in-hand with farmers, I know that the way we move operations forward is through consistency. That’s what I’m looking at on data.
I’m also looking at overall packages and how they can complement and support each other. I also want to know about my corn more than anybody else knows about their corn. It’s a personal thing. It’s not trying to be a corn snob. I want to know the good, bad and ugly of the products that I’m promoting, selling and supporting on-farm.
Some people who have worked with me in the past are like, “You are so hard on that corn.” It’s good corn. I’m not trying to be hard on the corn. I’m trying to accurately represent its weaknesses, strengths and opportunities it has to do the best on a farm. The great agronomist thinks that way. They want to represent the weaknesses and the strengths of a product, especially when we’re talking about the art and science of marrying everything we know about genetic families, flex in girth, flex in link, flex in kernel depth. Marrying that with the management practices that are being done on that operation. That’s when you take yields to the next level, not when you come to the farm and say, “I’ve got these three corns and this is going to work for you.”
I’m looking for that consistency in the marriage of genetics and management. That’s when we see operations taking a step up as they’d never seen before. That’s what I’m looking for when we evaluate hybrids. It’s not always easy, because sometimes the data tells you one thing, but what you’ve seen in the field and across different soil types tells you another. Being able to marry the art and science is a challenge all agronomists are tasked with.
I’ve evaluated a lot of yield data over the years. It seems like even if you take the single best hybrid that you can find across a given geography and don’t manage it right, it can probably end up in the lower third the next season. Even though you look at plot data, or maybe look at the local plot, take it into perspective, is what I tend to say. Let’s look at multiple plots. I like the percent winds.
Consistency is also important because I have multiple soil types, weather patterns and water holding capacity, and all these other pieces. When I look at plot sets, I want to look at the management. Was that plot sprayed with the fungicide? Did it have split nitrogen? Was it planted early or late? All these pieces come together. That gives us all the science, but then all that other intel is the art. That’s what speaks to your gut. What does your gut tell you to do? I rely on my gut sometimes and we have to do that as seedsmen.
I don’t know how many plots that I’ve walked or how many fields that I’ve been in my career. I shudder to think about it, but there are times when you walk in the field and you look at the corn and you’re like, “I don’t like that.” Even if the yield monitor tells you that this is good, I’m walking out here, I’m pushing the stalks. I’m seeing maybe the physoderma stalk rot, anthracnose and how it responds.
We didn’t have a lot of Southern rust pressure but this came in late and got eaten up. It didn’t affect yield this year but I know better and I know about the management of this grower, and this is not going to work. I tell all the growers I work with, “Don’t dispel your gut. If there’s something you don’t like, there’s probably a reason why.” There’s something in your wisdom of working with corn on your operation. If it doesn’t feel right, there’s maybe a chance that it’s not.
I feel the same way as an agronomist as I’ve walked through and evaluated plots. Sometimes I’m like,
“That one is not going to get a gold star.” That’s the beauty of what we do. We’re always learning. The best farmers and the best agronomists are lifelong learners because every year in the field, there will be something different. That’s where you marry all your wisdom with the science because there’s no way we can all anticipate what’s coming every single year, but we can build a pretty strong plan and mine our own wisdom and reflect on what has worked well to move forward.
Whitney, it’s been great chatting with you. Do you have any final parting words for anybody reading out there?
My final parting words would be when it comes to growing your best crop, it has to be a marriage of art and science. We can’t be afraid to be vulnerable in our own knowledge and learning. The only way we get better is to build a village, evaluate our practices, and see what we can do to make the next year an even more successful one. For anybody listening, that’s what I would encourage them to do. Think about your operation holistically. Look for those holes in the dam and fill them with knowledge, expertise, and people who are going to help take you to the next level.
I couldn’t agree more, Whitney. Thanks again. As a follow-up, we did spend some time talking about the overall arts and sciences of growing high-yielding corn. We took a deeper dive into evaluating early planted corn, how we feed that corn crop from a nitrogen standpoint season long. Once you’ve got it established, how do we protect that grain field through fungicide applications? Sometimes we’re stretching ourselves into maybe making a different application than we’re used to.
Looking from a harvest standpoint, maybe it’s about harvesting a little sooner than we typically would to offset some phantom yield loss and some of these stalk quality issues. It comes down to some hybrid evaluations, moving forward, and how to evaluate products as far as percent winds and consistency. All these things tie into that journey for higher ending yields. With that, hopefully everybody enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. Whitney, thank you so much. We’ll talk to you soon.
About Whitney Monin
Whitney is a self-proclaimed plant nerd and the AgriGold National Agronomy Manager. Lover of Agriculture and an advocate for women and youth in Agriculture. Whitney grew up on a small hobby farm in Central Kentucky. It was here that her passion for agriculture and rural communities blossomed. She holds an MS in Integrated Plant and Soil Science from the University of Kentucky, a BS in Agriculture, and a BA in Communication Studies from Western Kentucky University.
For the last seven years, Whitney has served farmers in the field through a multitude of Agronomic roles in Iowa, Indiana, and Kentucky. Using a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective she is responsible for supporting the AgriGold Agronomy organization in meeting goals and delivering the highest quality agronomic service at the farm gate.
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