ANKENY, Iowa (DTN) -- High commodity prices have farmers willing to spend more on nutrients and crop protection products to maximize crop yields. But only if it's worth the investment.
Ag retailers are getting ready for a potential surge in demand for fungicides and insecticides to protect high-dollar corn and soybeans this growing season. Retailers also expect in-season nutrients, such as nitrogen and foliar feeding products, to be more popular as farmers hope to pack on more bushels.
"I encourage my growers that every year should be the year to push crops as much as they can," said Matthew Beumer, a central Missouri farmer and key account manager for farm supply and marketing cooperative MFA Incorporated. "But this year it's even more critical because of the chance to put even more dollars in our pocket."
After years of modest to nonexistent profits, farm revenues are on track to be the highest in eight years. In this special DTN series, we explore a variety of ways farmers can "Keep the Good Times Rolling" by making smart investments and business decisions that will pay off when the price cycle heads lower.
This second story in the series explores what farmers are doing agronomically to help pad the bank account. But our series will also cover how to build a strong marketing plan and negotiate cash rents this fall. Experts will share financial do's and don'ts and how to make sure your new equipment purchases will serve you for years to come.
FARMERS SET AGGRESSIVE YIELD GOALS
In general, Beumer said many farmers he works with decided to become more aggressive this year to boost and protect yields to capitalize on high prices. It started last fall when Beumer talked to clients about yield goals and ways to better them by at least 10%.
Here are some agronomic solutions Beumer's customers chose to use for the first time or increase:
-- Grid soil sampling to precisely apply fertilizer.
-- Variable rate seeding to boost yield potential and control costs.
-- Additional herbicide applications if needed.
-- Fungicide application(s) on corn as needed to improve plant health.
-- Fungicide application on corn at tassel combined with a slow-release nitrogen and boron product.
-- Top-dress or side-dress corn with urea or UAN.
-- An in-season micronutrient application to corn, soybeans or both.
-- Soybean seed treatments to protect against pests and diseases, such as soybean cyst nematodes and sudden death syndrome.
Farmers who were reluctant to spend a lot of money on crops in the past are spending more this year, with some willing to spend more than $100 extra per acre on crop protection and nutrients, Beumer said.
If a farmer decides to apply a fungicide and a slow-release nitrogen product to corn at tassel, the return-on-investment (ROI) could be significant.
On average, it costs $28 to $32 per acre to buy and apply fungicide on corn, according to Purdue University's 2021 Crop Cost and Return Guide. Beumer said adding a slow-release nitrogen and boron product and applying it at 1 gallon per acre will cost about $10 per acre. James Anderson, a Growmark FS nutrient specialist, said premium slow-release nitrogen products applied at 1 to 2 quarts per acre costs $4 to $10 per acre.
Research in 2008 and 2009 at the University of Missouri Greenley Research Station at Novelty, Missouri, examined yield results from various applications of fungicide and slow-release nitrogen on corn at tassel. (Find the study here: https://greenley.missouri.edu/…)
One of its findings concluded that 3 ounces of fungicide and 1 gallon of slow-release nitrogen applied to corn per acre at tassel increased yields by 23 bushels per acre (bpa) compared to corn without the products.
A 23-bpa increase in corn production at $6 per bushel is $138 extra per acre. The fungicide and slow-release liquid nitrogen application can cost as much as $42 per acre, according to research from Purdue University and nutrient retailers.
"The best way to add more dollars to our pocket is to grow a better crop," Beumer said.
Grain farmer Craig Armstrong of New Castle, Indiana, will foliar apply micronutrients on all his corn and soybean acres this year. He'll use Homestretch and Homestretch Ultra -- a combination of manganese, zinc and boron -- by Meristem Crop Performance. It will cost a little less than $6 per acre.
Based on past use on his farm, Armstrong said the micronutrient blend boosts yields by 10-to-15 bpa in corn and 3-to-6 bpa in soybeans compared to acres without it. Armstrong is a minority owner in Meristem Crop Performance, a direct-to-farm input company.
In micronutrient fertilizer trials from 1976 to 2017, Ohio State University data shows yield responses to individual micronutrient applications are not common. However, an application of a micronutrient blend of boron, manganese, zinc and sulfur, on average, increased soybean and corn yields by 0.9% and 4.3%, respectively. (Read the study here: https://ohioline.osu.edu/…)
Meristem Crop Performance President Rob McClelland said there's been an uptick in in-season plant health product use during the last 20 years that he calls the "biological revolution." Better profit potential will likely accelerate adoption, he said.
"There are some good products that help plants produce certain auxins and amino acids to allow them to use nutrients better," McClelland said.
Dan Kaiser, University of Minnesota Extension nutrient management specialist, expects farmers to sink grain profits into more soil testing and corrective fertilizer applications, which are often cut back when times are tough. Doing so will pay dividends for years to come.
"Farmers may have areas under fertilized that need attention going into the 2022 cropping season," he said.
DROUGHT THROWS INVESTMENTS INTO QUESTION
Some farmers are leery about investing more money in expensive and potentially hard-to-get inputs if yields are a concern. Production questions exist in parts of the Dakotas and Western Corn Belt because of drought conditions.
(Read about tight chemicals supplies here: www.dtnpf.com/agriculture/web/ag/crops/article/2021/04/23/farmers-retailers-face-tight-supply)
"If we don't get more rain, farmers are done spending money," said Jeff Schmiesing, agronomy manager for Central Farmers Cooperative based in Marion, South Dakota. "Some crops are barely hanging on."
Crop specialists recently cautioned farmers about spraying fungicides on drought-stressed crops. Since disease pressure tends to be more problematic in wet and humid environments, which has been mostly absent in many growing areas, fungicides may not be needed as plants mature.
"I would probably be targeting (corn) fields that are showing less moisture stress," Jeff Coulter, University of Minnesota professor and Extension agronomist, said during a webinar late last month.
As for soybeans, University of Minnesota Extension Agronomist Seth Naeve said fungicides won't protect plants from drought stress. He recommended farmers hold off spraying unless disease pressure warrants, which is unlikely at this time.
"There's no reason to put money into a fungicide if we're not going to have fungi in the canopy," Naeve said during the webinar.
If you want to compare how different fungicide and insecticide programs affect your bottom line, the University of Nebraska provides a 2021 agricultural budget calculator that can be customized to your farm. You can find it at https://farm.unl.edu/….
Drought conditions across the Northern Plains and northern Midwest are likely to worsen this summer as hot and dry conditions persist, according to DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick.
The DTN forecast calls for above-normal temperatures in July and August. Drier-than-normal conditions are expected in July for the Central and Southern Plains and upper Midwest. Better precipitation chances are forecasted across the Eastern Corn Belt. In August, below-normal precipitation is predicted across nearly all major crop areas.
"This will likely put pressure on growers across most of the country's main growing regions on how to maximize their profits in adverse conditions," Baranick said. "That is not to say that all areas will see adverse conditions for the rest of the growing season. There will undoubtedly be areas that are more fortunate with regards to precipitation timing and amounts. But those producers are likely to be rarer than those that face harsher conditions."
Mark Licht, an Iowa State University Extension cropping systems agronomist, highlighted several steps farmers can take to preserve and increase yields:
-- Scout fields for pests, disease and signs of nutrient deficiencies. Tissue testing can pinpoint the latter.
-- Consider high-clearance sprayers or airplanes to apply crop protection products and rescue-applications of nitrogen on corn if necessary.
-- Disease pressure is usually lower in warm and dry conditions. However, southern corn rust is one disease that can thrive in these conditions. He also suggested keeping an eye out for northern corn leaf blight, grey leaf spot and other pathogens.
-- Spider mites like dry, warm weather. The pests could be more problematic in corn and soybeans this year.
"Not all pesticides actively work on spider mites, so keep an eye on labels," Licht said. "The decision to spray fungicides is easier with high commodity prices. But you need conditions that are conducive to have diseases present to get a return or benefit."
Licht said higher prices also puts a priority on preventing harvest losses. Smaller corn ears are possible this year since many plants were determining ear size in mid-June when rain was scarce.
Combine settings are different for ears that are 18 to 20 rows around compared to 10 and 12 rows around, Licht said.
"We want to make sure whatever grain that is produced is captured by the combine," he added.
Matthew Wilde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @progressivwilde
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