Acre by Acre
Management - Acre by Acre
Eric and Megan Wallendal say their top jobs are managing risk and tracking profits, with their focus being on profit per acre, not yield.
The tools they use in this strategy include debt-to-equity and cost-of-production ratios. They also incorporate their respective skill sets in management of the operation.
A third-generation central-Wisconsin farmer, Eric's background also includes finance and accounting at Cargill. Megan uses drone, aerial imagery, sensors and agronomic technology to improve agronomic variables.
LONGEVITY THROUGH DIVERSITY
A range of specialty crops are part of the 53 years of success at Wallendal Farms, Grand Marsh, Wisconsin.
Farming with Eric's father, John, his sister and brother-in-law, and uncle Andrew, they diversify crops on their 3,200-acre central-Wisconsin operation, which includes silage, seed corn, sweet corn, tofu soybeans, soybean seed, snap beans, carrots, cabbage and 550 to 750 acres of certified organic squash, cabbage, corn and dry edible beans. They also rent 400 acres to potato growers. In five decades, they've grown more than 35 different vegetable crops. Eric thinks of vegetable crops as "less-mechanized commodity crops."
Organic produce commands a 140 to 250% premium over conventionally grown produce, or a 300 to 800% premium over commodity crops, Eric explains. The 22% of their land in organic production requires "lots of documentation and quite a bit more overhead to comply with regulations."
Their edible soybeans ship to South Korea for tofu production, earning them $0.75-to $1.50-per-bushel premiums for protein and oil content. They also sell pumpkins through Walmart and Target in Madison, 75 miles away.
The three-year organic certification period is costly, but just two years of organic crops recouped those losses. During the transition period, they grew cover crops on the organic fields.
The highest returns on investment have been irrigation, variable-rate technology/mapping and cover crops, Eric says.
They're fortunate to swap silage for manure with the dairy next door, so they can spoon-feed manure, as needed. Dragline application based on GIS (geographic information system) information is the most even and least-expensive application method, Eric continues.
The Wallendals map every field's soil with a Veris electroconductivity (EC) monitor to most accurately identify soil texture, type, organic matter level, clay content, cation exchange capacity (CEC), drainage, pH and salinity.
EC characteristics don't change, making them useful foundations for grid soil sampling, variable-rate planting and herbicide application, and variable-rate N (nitrogen), P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) prescriptions. The Wallendals variable-rate inputs and populations based upon three soil-productivity zones.
One-time EC field mapping saved them $1,000 per 160-acre field in potash alone, Megan says. Full initial Veris and EC mapping costs $12 per acre and is valid for at least 10 years. Maintenance and analysis is $2 per acre, Eric says.
"My grandfather helped to develop NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] maps, but we found them to be just 60 to 75% accurate, and they weren't georeferenced," he explains. "Veris is 85 to 95% accurate. So, your management zones can be off by over 50% due to how zones were created. Veris mapping is easily our quickest payback on the farm, saving $10 per acre annually."
Based on University of Colorado research, the Wallendals need 36 data points per field to accurately map this information given their 36% average soil variability. Their average field size is 120 acres but ranges from 60 to 160 acres.
Megan uses Precision Terrain Solutions (PTS) software to create nutrient prescriptions by zone based on previous yields and zone profit potential. "We apply only what's profitable and what crops need at a given growth stage," Eric says. "If a sandy soil can only retain 20 to 40 units N per acre at a given stage, that is all that we apply initially. Corn doesn't need supplemental N until 45 days."
Drone imagery provides stand counts at corn's V1 stage, plus timely insect, disease and weed scouting while problems can still be addressed. Megan flies a PaceSetter Precision drone with an RGB (red, green, blue) camera and a near-infrared camera to create NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) aerial field images. Using DGI and Google Earth software, she stitches images together to make composite images for diagnostics. (Slow rural internet speeds make it impractical to have vendors do this.) Each 160-acre field takes about one hour to fly and another hour to stitch the maps. "We typically save up to $5 per acre on soybeans and up to $20 per acre on corn by aerial scouting and timely remedies," Megan explains.
For example, early aerial white mold detection in bean crops allowed accurate, early fungicide spraying and cut mold's spread early. Based on a five-year amortization, the drone costs them $300 annually.
MOISTURE AND NUTRIENTS
Soil-moisture probes depict where roots and moisture lie in the soil profile so that water and nutrient-application timing is strategic. AquaSpy probes depict moisture and nutrients at 4 inches to 48 inches in the soil profile, with readings every 4 inches. They use one probe per crop (not per field) at a cost of $1,200 apiece, plus $700 per irrigation prescription.
The Wallendals use five irrigation prescriptions per field that adapt to weather and crop conditions. Each prescription is managed in 2-degree sectors, with 180 different possible irrigation zones. EC mapping indexes soil water-holding capacity, which guides more cost-effective irrigation. "By applying 0.18 to 0.6 inches per acre moisture per day or week based on probe readings and EC mapping, we save $20 to $40 per acre in electric costs and fertilizer applied through pivots," Eric says.
"We've increased yields with this technology. For example, if our nutrients lie at 12 inches deep and roots extend to 16 inches deep, we don't irrigate," he continues. "We try to keep nitrogen at 12 to 24 inches deep in the profile. Last year, after a 5-inch rain, we sadly watched N sink down to 44 inches deep; that was costly."
Variable-rate fertigation based on soil-productivity zone has saved $9 per acre in inputs and has increased yields by 5%.
With soil organic matter at 0.6 to 1.6% on their sandy soils, and potatoes being so hard on soil, they do everything possible to build up organic matter and soil resilience, Eric says. Spring strip-till makes it easy to band nutrients (2 x 4) before planting. They use a 22-inch Orthman unit with auto reset.
Narrower rows increased yields over 30s without increasing nutrient, herbicide or irrigation levels (except for seed corn). The relative increase in water/nutrient uptake efficiency also results in higher yields, he explains.
Most everything has annual rye cover crops or a multispecies mix, depending on soil-health goals. "This isn't easy to do, but if we don't address soil compaction, we'd see 30% yield hits," Eric says. "Vegetable production involves a lot of field traffic by various contractors without RTK (Real-Time Kinematic), making controlled traffic virtually impossible."
EXPERIMENT AND MEASURE
The Wallendals are always trying new ideas alongside control strips, using large plots. "Every population change we test is on 15 to 40 acres," Megan says. "On 22-inch rows, we compared 36,000- to 38,000-, up to 42,000-per-acre corn populations."
These trials are a continuation of three Wallendal generations hosting University of Wisconsin studies to stay in touch with new ideas.
"We base our success on understanding our risk and then determining whether to mitigate it or examine other factors," Eric says. "Technologies identify your mistakes and assign dollar values to them so that you learn."
The Wallendal's top two profitability metrics are debt-to-equity and cost-of-production ratios tracking progress against 10-year goals. They also track employee engagement, public opinion and progress toward future opportunities. They use customized Excel spreadsheets to analyze field and whole-farm profitability.
Core values for the operation are innovation, integrity, adaptability, upholding the family and being a partner of choice. Eric spends 30% of his time on strategic planning and 70% in the field to measure progress toward these goals.
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