By Tom Dodge
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
Springtime mornings start early on the Krusemark farm, near Trimont, Minn. At sunrise, 23-year-old Caleb feeds the 30-head cow/calf Simmental and Angus herd while his father Brad tends to the 2,400-head of contract feeder hogs. After chores, it's a quick breakfast over some of his mother Rochelle's fresh pastries. Around the table, they catch up on tasks for the day: which fields need to be sprayed, where Caleb will start to till so Brad can get going with the corn planter, and where Rochelle plans to plant the 70 evergreen seedlings she's just received.
There's also that hydraulic hose to repair on the seed wagon, so as Brad heads to the shop, Caleb fires up the John Deere 9530T and maneuvers the 55-foot-wide field cultivator down the driveway. So far, May 2014 has been ideal planting weather, and the Krusemarks are a full 10 days ahead of the previous season. By the end of the long day, Brad will have planted around 250 to 300 acres of their 900 total corn acres.
EASY DOES IT
Brad Krusemark, a self-proclaimed eternal optimist, takes any day's technology glitches in stride as he checks over the planter and reviews his array of precision-planting monitors. It's a cloudless morning, and everything is good to go. As he wheels into the field, he chuckles and says, "Like they say, you only have one shot at making a crop every year." But that one shot is the culmination of myriad decisions.
Precise decision-making is more important than ever, as corn and soybean prices fall from their record highs of recent years, and profit margins tighten up. To Brad's way of thinking, prices are getting back to reality. During the salad days of recent years, he could concentrate on making the most of input or seed purchases, he says. "We even have to go beyond what we've done because this year, I mean, let's face it, corn is going to be below $3, and inputs aren't coming down that fast.
"We've been building our fertilizer during these good years, so we have a reserve out there. And now, we may have to use that reserve over the next couple years and add a little nitrogen and a little phosphate and potash, in addition to manure," he says. "Seed also doesn't sound like it's going to move much. We're going to have to do something we haven't had to do the last few years, and that's sharpen the pencil.
"Fertilizer is going to be our main target. Our chemical program isn't going to be able to change a whole lot, because you try to stay on a bare minimum with that anyway and still control weeds," Brad continues. "So about the only other inputs we can control are machinery costs, and we're not going to be trading machinery for a while. These last few years made it possible to upgrade, so we have the equipment to weather these types of things."
INVESTMENTS IN FUTURE
A series of lucrative seasons also made it possible for the Krusemarks to invest in pricey precision-planting technology. "I think what we're using -- from yield maps to precision-planting programs like FieldScripts -- better help us to space our plants to the point where they are uniform so you can better avoid doubles or skips, and optimize your plant populations," Brad says. His goal is to be at a seeding rate within 99.6 to 100% of his projected corn populations, which range from 28,000 to 42,000 plants per acre, averaging around 36,000. "Population is perhaps more critical than seed depth," he says.
With the aid of his agronomist, Jeff Crissinger, of NuWay Cooperative, Brad uses 2.5-acre grid-sampling and yield-monitoring to determine site-specific seeds and the regimen of his variable-rate fertilizer program. "We're choosing hybrids for specific fields," he explains. "Now, with variable-rate planting, we can go up or down with a crop across the field, either with our prescriptions from Jeff or through FieldScripts."
"It comes down to doing a better job of placing the right hybrids and varieties in the right fields," Crissinger says. "If they're put in the wrong place, you'll take a yield hit." He says that top production acres are tied to soils with better water-holding capability. With variable-rate planting, those are the acres where seed populations are pumped up. In acreage with lower water-holding capacity, seeding populations are lowered.
Crissinger recently reviewed yield statistics from the past couple of seasons and has determined a 4.6-bushel-per-acre increase using variable rates. "Most of that increase comes from poorer pieces of ground with less water-holding capacity and where population rates are reduced," he says. And that is due to higher fertilizer rates on that lighter soil. "It's not about cutting out inputs but putting them where they need to be. Efficiency is going to be key."
With auto-steer on his Deere 8360RT tractor, Brad can better concentrate on the equipment. "You pick up things a lot quicker -- say, a plugged row or a root ball dragging along pushing the seed out of the ground," he says. "With the Precision 20/20 monitor and iPad, you have row-by-row visual accuracy. A broken seed tip might get stuck in the unit, and every 30th plant is a skip. Then a little box comes up on the screen with potential loss per acre. Before these monitors, you just wouldn't have noticed it. Those types of things will become an important factor with a loss of income."
GET IT RIGHT
Another important factor is manure-sampling and its correct application. "We use 12-inch sweeps that spread manure out over 12 inches, whereas most spreaders are double-disk, dump manure on ground and cover with dirt," Brad explains. "I've seen more issues with those, such as streaking, that you see in the young corn. The corn eventually catches up, but what's that do to the yield?"
"We test Brad's fields for manure prior to the planting season to determine what the application rates should be in the fall," Crissinger says. "Our goal is to cover as many acres as possible with manure, then come back with a split-application N program."
The Krusemarks' corn-planting regimen begins with a sprayer application of pre-emergent herbicide with 32% N ahead of the field cultivator. The herbicide mix includes atrazine and TripleFLEX, which controls glyphosate- and triazine-resistant weeds. "We haven't exactly gone away from Roundup," Brad says. "But we've been using some other products to help clean up resistant weeds." After planting, they spray with Roundup and Callisto for broadleaf control.
With soybeans, there is no preplant herbicide application, but before the plants crack the ground, they apply Authority. "We lay it over the top and hope for rain," Brad says. "Then, we come back with a post-application of Roundup and Outlook to control grasses and small weeds."
Brad's goal for corn yield is 190 to 200 bushels per acre. "Of course, for the cash-flow analysis you aim for, whatever the insurance guarantee is ... I like to be conservative on cash-flows. If they work conservatively, then they'll work anywhere." His goal on his 400 acres of beans is 45 to 48 bushels per acre and perhaps 50 to 55 bushels in the cash-flow analysis.
After a record-setting wet June in 2014, Brad received barely an inch of rain in July and, by mid-August, was praying for rain and heat. "Beans need August rains to fill out. We really could use an inch of rain every week until the end of August," he says.
Despite a few drown-outs in June, the pace was still on for potential record yields, which further threatens to pressure the market downward. "Our main thing next year is that we'll have to be precise, and we can't be wasting money out in the field," Brad says. "But that's reality. We should have never been where we were with prices. Heck, anybody could've been farming then."
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