Time to start preparations for the 2018 wheat crop

With fall planting for the 2018 wheat crop quickly approaching we are getting geared up preparing to have prescriptions ready when planting gets underway in just a few weeks. The majority of wheat production in our area is dryland and with that being the case there is always a risk of not having enough moisture to raise a crop, and since wheat has about a 10 month growing season the risk is spread out over a long period of time for dry weather to set in. For this reason risk management in the form of managing inputs precisely becomes very important.

Industry data and University studies would tell you that wheat needs about one pound of nitrogen (N) per bushel you produce in yield. I know there are a lot of acres that get somewhere close to this standard with somewhere between 40-100 pounds of nitrogen applied depending on yield goal, either prior to the crop being planted, or sometime in season usually in the spring when the crop breaks dormancy. Most take a similar strategy with phosphorus (P), applying 20-40 pounds of P, again, depending on yield goal. In years with adequate moisture in this area 60 bushel seems like a common goal, with some higher and some lower. This has always seemed in line with expectations to me leading up to the last few years when we really started to focus on fertility programs for this crop.

Once we started mapping fields and collecting data on acres that follow this production system and running them through our program to create variable rate recommendations we found that we could be much more efficient with inputs in a lot of cases. If we can be more efficient with these two major inputs and reduce the cost per acre of these products, typically applied months ahead of when it is needed by the crop in hopes we receive moisture, then at the same time we can reduce risk.

Here are some common questions we get

1)      How much more efficient can we be?

Ø  Over the last two years we have seen on average 30% reduction in applied nitrogen rates and about a 20% reduction in applied phosphorus.

2)      How is this possible?

Ø  When we collect data on a field to find variability in key soil properties and return back to pull soil samples we can account for the variability in nutrients and analyze if those levels are adequate. Once these layers are combined with productivity we create a variable rate prescription for each product to apply optimum rates.

3)      With those reduced rates you must see a yield penalty?

Ø  Actually we have seen the opposite in most cases. By applying optimum rates for each zone in the field we have maintained, and in a lot of cases increased yields when compared to flat rate programs on the same farm, or comparing to flat rate checks within the same field. Wheat that gets over-fertilized with N usually has a tendency to lay down making harvest a challenge and losses can occur.

4)      Aren’t you mining the soil by reducing rates like this?

Ø  Yes and no, with a plan. Yes on nitrogen, it is a nutrient that is mobile in soil and will move out of the root zone as moisture moves through the profile taking N with it. It is a use it or lose it type nutrient if you will, so managing it to what each crop needs where it needs it is a more efficient long term goal. Phosphorous is not mobile and we treat it differently, think about balancing your checkbook, but having a minimum dollar amount in mind to either build to or not go below. We end up redistributing this product more than overall reducing rates, and from that we have seen a yield response.

5)      What is the typical cost savings?

Ø  This can vary, but if the average flat rate for nitrogen is 60 pounds and 25 pounds on phosphorous let’s do the math.

·         60#’s N @ $0.40 / pound total cost is $24.00 per acre

·         25#’s P @ $0.625/ pound total cost is $15.62 per acre

o   30% reduction in N rate down to 42#’s is $7.20 per acre savings

o   20% reduction in P rate down to 20#’s is $3.12 per acre savings

o   Total cost reduction is $10.32

*This is a generic example using some average prices for common fertilizer used. Let’s look at a real one!

We had a field, and many like it, but this field we took from the grower standard flat rate of 50 pounds of nitrogen that had been used for years and with data we collected we reduced the average rate of the prescription to 21 pounds of nitrogen! This equated to $12.33 per acre savings on just this product.

How did we do? We got rain! The yield ended up exceeding what we set out for as a goal by right at 20 bushels to the acre on these reduced inputs!

Here is the grower’s comments: “We didn’t set out to reduce inputs from the beginning.  Our farm wants to raise the most bushels it can every year and reducing inputs like fertilizer and seed has never even been considered.  We shoot for high yields and we put what we think the crop needs to attain these high yields.  In our area many guys have irrigated acres, but we do not on our farm.  This has led us to treating our acres like a guy treats his irrigated because that’s all we have.  By not guessing and continuing the cycle of year after year doing the same thing over and over again, placing the right amounts of fertilizer in the right spots ultimately led to the reduction of inputs.  More over here, less there, and so on.  How’d we get to this point?  Soil samples, yield goals and a highly dialed in plan using soil maps we had collected.  If it was going to rain and be great growing conditions, we had the amounts that we needed for a great crop.  If it didn’t rain and we didn’t raise a good crop, well, we weren’t in it quite so deep from an input standpoint.  Make sense?? We didn’t over-fertilize and we didn’t under-fertilize for the outcome that we wanted.  But, we did have lower inputs up front and at the end because we weren’t guessing and did not blanket (flat rate) apply our nutrients.” 

Cory GilbertComment