Mike Cerny doesn't apologize for being practical. While he counts yield contests as valuable learning tools, it's economics and not necessarily top-end yield that drive his cropping decisions.
The 2015 season really hammered that philosophy home, says the 65-year old Sharon, Wisconsin, soybean, corn and wheat grower. "To break even this year will be a success. I look at profitability this way: If I pulled the plug on my farm operation today, after 45 years, can I pay my bills?"
Operating profitably is as much about developing sound judgment as it is about stalking costs. Cerny relies on research, scouting, farm data and sticking with inputs and practices that have proven to pencil out over time on his farm.
For example, Cerny had his best soybean yields ever in 2014—68.5 bushels per acre -- with 165,000 plants per acre (ppa), the lowest seeding rate he's ever used. That prompted him to trim seeding rates further in 2015 to 140,000 ppa ($71 per acre cost). That's $10,145 in seed savings over 500 acres, when compared to the 180,000 ppa ($91.29) rate he planted just two short years ago.
THE ANSWER IS
Cerny has learned his soybean yields correlate most strongly with soil type, soil water-holding capacity (from soil organic matter and strip-till or no-till) and drainage. This year is the first time he will walk away from cash rent ground that is too pricey for today's economics.
Being just plain curious has also made him money over the years. Cerny's on-farm research and involvement in research organization boards help distinguish between yield-building practices and profit-building ones. As an officer of the farmer-led North Central Soybean Research Program (www.soybeanresearchinfo.com) and the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board, he's exposed to "the best minds in the business" combating soybean problems, he says.
He admits, "It's hard to change my ways," based on research. When he began no-till trials in 1985, he "honestly didn't want them to work," he says. "But, based on my own trial results, I became 100% no-till by 1993."
Then, eight years ago, Cerny began strip-tilling the ground he planned to plant to corn the following year. Three years ago, he devised a novel combination of a no-till/strip-till system for bean ground and tested it in replicated tillage plots.
He strip-tills on 30-inch centers, planting in 15-inch centers -- the equivalent of 12 strip-tilled rows (8-inch strip) and 11 no-till rows between the strips. "I don't even like tilling just the 8 inches of the 30 inches I'm planting, but the yield boost is way too good to ignore," Cerny says. This year, he harvested each row individually to identify the yield difference (still unknown at press time). This modified no-till/strip-till system embodies the best agronomics from each system, which he operates for $14.83 per acre. (That includes equipment, fuel, and repairs for his Case IH Steiger 400 tractor and Krause Gladiator strip-till equipment.)
RETURNS OR ELSE
"I don't scrimp on inputs that proved themselves in the past," Cerny says. For example, he also continues to use a combination seed treatment/micronutrient ($4.50 per acre cost) at planting, because it's been effective on his farm.
Using the same logic, he abandoned another seed treatment because it failed to prove itself in two years of side-by-side trials on his farm. He also uses independent research to help shape decisions.
He's confirmed the fungicide savings amount to $40-$45/acre for his operation. Weekly scouting can save him $40-plus per acre on fungicide use by weighing what's unfolding in his fields (and those he custom-farms) to target sprays only when disease exists, at the most opportune time for treatment.
Sometimes you have to outsmart disease, too. Research by University of Wisconsin pathologist Damon Smith indicates risk for white mold can be sidestepped if the fungus is controlled when soybeans blossom. Spraying right when the fungus begins to germinate can help with pathogen control, Smith says. The goal is to spray when both white mold spores and bean flowers are present. The lack of either means no need to spray, saving thousands of dollars, Cerny says. "On the other hand, if both are present and you don't spray, it can cost you thousands in lost yield."
As a seed-bean grower, Cerny accesses the latest genetics a year earlier than most. That's especially valuable in combating his biggest challenges: White mold, aphids and soybean cyst nematode (SCN). Growing seed beans has also separated fact from fiction regarding the common belief that extra-large bean seeds build yield. Above a certain size, he says large beans are harder to plant.
Crop rotation is enormously valuable in breaking soybean disease and pest cycles, Cerny says. It's the logic behind wheat as a third crop in his rotation. Although wheat is less profitable, it adds profits to his soybeans. He adds further value to it with a custom seed-cleaning business for public varieties.
"Crop rotation can impact grain yield from 0 to 30%," says Joe Lauer, University of Wisconsin agronomist. Although Lauer's research only tracks the influence of rotation on corn yields, he's convinced it greatly reduces soybean disease.
Some of the research Cerny tracks can be a game changer. For instance, Shawn Conley's research shows that soybeans continue to take up nutrients beyond the R6 growth stage. Conley is a University of Wisconsin soybean specialist. "Soybean nutrient partitioning research finds that today's soybeans are reproductive for longer periods," says Conley. "And, soybeans spend 10 to 14 days more in the reproductive stage [when yields are determined] and one less week in the vegetative stage than they used to."
That means growers need to be more diligent in applying phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) to their soybean crop and more cautious with tillage and residue management, Conley adds. "The plant has a higher harvest index, which means they [growers] are taking off more grain and leaving behind less residue. This also means with increased yields and increased removal, they need to be carefully watching maintenance levels to make sure they are not shorting themselves on fertilizer and the resulting yield," he says.
FEED THE CROP
Cerny says he's paying "more attention than ever" to fertility and the yield and agronomic records he's accumulated over the past 22 years. Ironically, those details reveal that the most fertile grids aren't always the highest yielding. "High fertility grids may have a host of other issues like drainage, soil type and tree lines," he notes.
"I don't scrimp on inputs that proved themselves in the past," Cerny notes. He's not cutting back on P and K, as some management experts recommend to farmers in lean times. Although potash is Cerny's primary fertilizer in strip-till beans, his farm records show 40 parts per million of phosphorus is the best level for his soybeans. He applies 100 to 175 pounds per acre of K plus DAP and some nitrogen, as indicated by soil tests.
No-till and strip-till minimize his overhead and moderate variable weather's impact with good soil structure and adequate tiling to preserve yields."
He's also learned a lot about soil structure on the 3,000 acres of custom strip-till and harvesting he carries out over a wide range of fertility systems, genetic packages and agronomic approaches. "It's like free research," he says.
TIPS FOR TACKLING COSTS
-- Lean years have a way of prioritizing costs. The trick is to make sure reductions in cost per acre don't come at the cost of productivity. Wisconsin farmer Mike Cerny works to make sure per-acre cost savings result from using inputs that are backed up by science and his own on-farm testing. For example, reduced soybean seeding rates are saving him over $20 per acre compared to seed costs in previous years, but it is a seeding rate tested and proven on his farm and in his cropping system. His customized no-till/strip-till system costs only $14.83 per acre -- a nearly $32.00 savings over conventional tillage systems, based on a crop economic/benchmarking model called CropZilla (www.cropzilla.com). However, the tillage system is one he's devised based on years of testing and weighing costs versus benefits on his farm.
Other management moves and learning opportunities are harder to quantify in dollars and cents but have real value in Cerny's view.
Tactics and practices that result in higher productivity and a better bottom line for Cerny include:
-- Extending crop rotations to break disease and pest cycles
-- Using on-farm trials
-- Keeping up on leading-edge research
-- Having a natural curiosity and constantly questioning how things are done
-- Using IPM practices to slow resistance development to herbicides, insecticides and fungicides
-- Learning lessons from custom work
-- Doing his own scouting for pests and agronomic issues
-- Analyzing extensive farm records that go back several decades
-- Using the latest crop genetics
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