Innovations in the Field

Sponsored by BASF

This yearlong endeavor looks at how four farmers are evaluating technology and agronomic information that can boost the productivity of their operations.

Grant Strom

Grant Strom

Blog Entry #3: May 26, 2015

Finding Value Beyond the Numbers

In the business of farming, we deal with a lot of numbers. To be quite honest, we are often fixated on them. What are the commodity prices today? How much rain did we get? What is the soil temperature? My break evens are what?!?! We are constantly figuring cost versus benefit-analysis of seed purchases, fertilizer, crop protection, land, and equipment purchases, just to name a few. It makes sense. Numbers don't lie. That is why I loved math in school. It was challenging, and there was always an exact right answer. Obviously, we are not dealt many problems that have exact right answers in farming. Upon completion of harvest, we can look back and know there was a right answer, but we just have to hope we had made the right choices in the beginning. In the end, we can figure out by the numbers what each input cost us and what it made for us. But how do we determine the value of the things that are not associated with numbers? For example, how do we value the look of a clean farm shop, neatness of mowed roadsides, the convenience of your own farm storage, or a little time off? Not everything has a number, but it all has a value.

One thing that has tremendous value for me on our farm is my people network. Recommendations, opinions, product information, land sales, sports, and even farm gossip. You name it, and I have it just a phone call, email, text, or social media post away. My network is comprised of a variety of individuals. Friends and peers from school, leadership training, Farm Bureau, livestock exhibition and family connections are one leg of the network. With them, information is shared based around our social engagements and our careers. Some are farmers, some are involved in ag business, and others have little connection with agriculture. With this group, there is no sales pitch. Their answers and information are genuine and to the best of their knowledge. This information is truthful and trustworthy to their knowledge and opinions. One thing to keep in mind is that they may not be an "expert" with the information they give you; so if you are unsure of something, bounce the idea or information off of another part of your network. Another growing part of my network is social media and media contacts. These are the "experts" that you don't know really know on a personal level. Some I may have met before and others I never have. But, these are people who pass along good information that can be useful in business, recreation and advocacy. This is the area of my network that is growing the most.

A large part of my agronomic, marketing, technology, and economic information comes from the "expert" portion of my network. Market consultants, sales staff, product support people, co-op employees and finance specialists are a large part of this group. To become a member of this part of my network, you first have to have a quality product that I am interested in or that I know works-seed, chemical, precision equipment, etc. To stay in this group, they have to perform up to my expectations. This means developing a relationship that is symbiotic, but also making sure you are working with people that understand your needs and are willing to give you advice or sell you the products that you need and not "overselling" what you don't. The best members of this group tell me straight up if a competitor might work better or if they have a product they are not sure I would be satisfied with. In the end, I work with those that understand that being a part of my success will reward them with their own success. With this group, for their product and information to be of value to you, you have to treat them with respect. They may technically work for you, but they have to find success and value in the relationship as well. I pride myself on being able to negotiate good deals, but I know where to toe the line to not be insulting. Loyalty matters. I shop around a lot, but in the end most of my business ends up in the same areas. But looking around for pricing keeps those in your current network honest with pricing.

Establishing a number value on having a good network is hard. How much more revenue do I generate because of all of these people? I can't answer that. What I can say is that without question I am better at my job and more profitable because of them. Many of the people in my network don't even realize they are a part of it, but they understand the importance of a good relationship. Don't be afraid to thank them. It is easy to think you are thanking them by your purchases. You are. But if they go above and beyond what is necessary to serve your needs, make sure they know it and that you appreciate it. Be careful about accepting "gifts" from those trying to earn your business. You don't want to be in a position where you feel like you owe them something. Make them earn it through providing top-end service coupled with a quality product. Don't let a trip to Mexico make up your mind about who you are going to work with. You can't drink the water anyway.

Blog Entry #2: March 13, 2015

Reducing nutrient loss and increasing efficiency

Brrrrr... It's cold outside... The weather has been the lead topic in every conversation I have had the past few weeks. I guess living in the northern half of Illinois, you just kind of get used to it. As I write this (3/3/15), we have received 6+ inches of snow in the past six days, and the low temperature for the next two nights is predicted to be -1 degree and 2 degrees. Beats the 12 degrees last week anyway. Illinois recorded its seventh coldest February on record, and Chicago tied a 140-year-old record for the coldest February. I have had the opportunity to be in Nashville, Tenn., and Belton, Texas (one hour south of Waco), within the past three weeks, and in both cases I encountered freezing rain and/or snow, including 1.5 inches of snow in Belton on Feb. 25. Needless to say, the prospects for an early spring are out the window. Hopefully everything still gets moving at normal time, but the next few weeks will be critical to see if that happens.

One thing that has me more nervous about the upcoming crop season, besides the prospect for negative margins, is that for the first time since I started farming full-time in 2003, we have applied zero nitrogen to our planned corn acres for 2015. In recent years, we have been reducing the amount of fall-applied anhydrous, a practice that has been very popular in our part of the Midwest. Our reason for applying no nitrogen came about due to cost of nitrogen, lack of sufficient post-harvest weather, a trend of seeing increased yield from spring and sidedress applications, and a hopeful attempt to reduce overall nitrogen use. So the questions for us will be: How are we going to apply it all? What form of N are we going to use? What role will the weather play? All I can do is reveal the plan and see what happens.

All of our farms will have nitrogen applied a minimum of two times, three if you count the low rate included with in-furrow starter. On headlands and fields that are difficult to sidedress, due to slope and irregular shape, we will apply anhydrous ammonia preplant. All fields will receive an UAN application prior to planting. Rates of UAN vary depending on rotation. Full-tillage fields receive a residual herbicide with the UAN and no-till or minimum-till fields receive the UAN in a separate pass from herbicide to provide for more effective weed management. Most fields will receive nitrogen through some form of sidedress. A lot of these fields will be sidedressed with anhydrous from V2 to V4. Others will be sidedressed with our self-propelled sprayer. Starting in 2006, we began testing sidedressed nitrogen with our sprayer using drops that simply dribbled nitrogen between the rows. Many of these applications were done during the V8 to V10 growth stages. This method proved extremely effective if a nice rain came about within a week or two of application, especially in years of very wet Mays and Junes that caused nitrate loss. For 2015, we are equipping our sprayer with a set of 360 Y-Drops to more effectively place nitrogen and other nutrients closer to the base of the plant where less water is needed to move the nutrients into place. We have some fields and situations that will receive UAN preplant, anhydrous preplant or sidedress, and Y-drops along with in-furrow starter. Weather and growing conditions will determine the rates used during each application. Our plan is to use the same or less overall nitrogen by utilizing application timing and reducing the amount of run-off or leaching in the soil. We plan to use soil-nitrate testing and weather monitoring to assist in making application decisions.

So why go through all the extra work and hassle of splitting our nutrient applications? Well, first and foremost is, hopefully, to realize increased yields from proper application timing and realize savings from less overall nutrient application. But also because there is a freight train coming down the tracks, and we better be ready for it when it gets here. I am talking about nutrient loss and the steps that need to be taken voluntarily to prevent nutrient loss into ground water, streams, rivers, lakes, and ultimately oceans. If we can't make them voluntarily, then the decisions and restrictions will be made for us. In case you have missed it, "nitrate" and "phosphate," words that define essential nutrients for us in farming, are being shed in a negative light. Recently the Ohio State Senate, in an attempt to curb algae problems on Lake Erie, passed a bill that would restrict fertilizer and manure application during certain ground and/or weather conditions. To learn more, visit

In Iowa, Des Moines Waterworks has recently filed suit against supervisors in three Iowa counties for high nitrate loads from which the watershed for a majority of their water supply originates. This suit has the potential to set great precedence for future nutrient loss/application laws. Learn more at for more information. Here in Illinois, the IEPA has released the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which has the goal to reduce phosphorus and nitrate loads by 45%. For more information, go to

It is easy to be guilty of over-fertilizing and using the most convenient application methods. But we have to ask the question, am I really doing what is the best for my crops, my pocketbook, and the watershed? Perhaps you have been innovative and figured out ways to reduce nutrient loss and increase efficiency. I am willing to bet we can all look at the hundreds of megabytes of data we have collected and tell ourselves, "Yeah, I can do better." Make 2015 the year that we find out how much "better" we can be.

Blog Entry #1: February 13, 2015

Hello from Knox County in west-central Illinois. I am excited to be a part of the BASF Innovations in the Field program. I look forward to sharing some of the innovative technologies and trials we are working with on our family farm and discussing the overall climate of farming in our area of the country.

2015 Outlook

Of course, the big question on many people's minds is-what will U.S. farmers plant in 2015? Well, I can't answer that for everyone in the Midwest, but I can say we don't anticipate much change on our farms. Our farms are quite diverse. Rotation, agronomics and production ability drive our decisions above basic farm economics. Of course, costs play a role, but our focus has always been to make the decision to grow the best and highest quantity of crop we can. For 2015, our rotation will feature about 56% corn and 44% soybeans. That is down a bit from our normal 60-40 rotation, but it has more to do with rotations than economics. Neither crop pencils out that great right now, but here's to hoping good profit opportunities arise.

These are "a few of my favorite things"... from 2014 anyway

My Dad and I love trying new things in the field. In 2014, we nearly overwhelmed ourselves with everything we were trying to do. You would get tired from reading if I outlined them all, so I will focus on my favorites. These are the ones that seemed to really make a difference on our farm, and that will be used and researched more extensively in 2015.

Planter Precision: Our planter was in need of some maintenance and new parts for the 2014 planting season. After thorough research, we retrofitted our Case IH planter with Precision Planting's vDrive, DeltaForce, 20/20 SeedSense and FieldView. The difference in seed placement was remarkable in the first year. We have large variations in field conditions, so the quick, hydraulic down-pressure adjustment gave us placement accuracy on slopes, clays, wet and dry conditions better than we had ever experienced before. Spacing saw some improvement, but for me the placement in the soil trumps spacing every time. With FieldView, I was able to learn so much more about my planter and notice problems immediately that would have gone unnoticed before.

Variable Rate Planting: Love, love, love variable-rate seeding. 2014 was the first year we implemented it across our whole farm-corn and soybeans. The results were undeniable. While I will admit truly defining yield advantage on top-end yield was difficult, the removal of yield disadvantage was very evident. We already push the envelope on high population for 30-inch-row corn. The distinct advantage we saw was more consistent yields across normally lighter-yielding areas by having lower populations and allowing the corn plants to flex. This also translated into seed savings. In soybeans, we went the opposite way. Dad and I have been in a "less plants are better" mode for the past several years. We had been planting static populations of 140,000 to 150,000 in 15- to 20-inch rows the past few seasons, down from the 180,000 to 190,000 seeds of five to 10 years ago. In 2014, we used variable populations ranging from 130,000 to 180,000. The higher populations on slopes, clays and timber soils where plants usually struggled for height and canopy definitely improved yields in those areas.

Pop-Up: 2014 marked the first year we used a "pop-up"-an in-furrow starter on our corn planter. We chose a mix of 3 gallons of 6-24-6, 1 quart of zinc and 1.5 pints of ammonium thiosulfate per acre. In heavier rotated soils, we saw very little visual and/or yield difference. On the other hand, in corn-on-corn situations and lighter, drought-prone soils, the visual difference was staggering. At V2 to V4, you could drive by at 55 mph and really pick out the check strips. I fielded lots of phone calls wondering what was going on. If the pop-up was applied to an entire field, or none was applied, the field looked normal. But people really took notice of the shade of green and vigor of plants in the side-by-sides. In the end, we saw varying results of 0 to 7 bushel yield increases. We will be trying different formulas and rates for the 2015 season, as well as utilizing the system to add fungicides and other products in-furrow. At the very least, I am able to spread out nutrient applications and not really spend much more per acre on fertilizer.

Looking forward to 2015

2015 will bring about many new challenges economically, environmentally and agronomically. As this experience moves along, I will share more of the things we are looking forward to implementing in 2015. An area of extreme focus for us this year will be nitrogen management. We have made drastic improvements in this area the last few years, but we are still a ways from perfecting it. This will definitely be a topic I will discuss in future posts. I hope some of my "favorite things" from 2014 will encourage you to try something new on your farm.