This yearlong endeavor looks at how four farmers are evaluating technology and agronomic information that can boost the productivity of their operations.
The view from the combine cab each fall gives Heath Whitmore a snapshot of the future. "With our minimum–till and no–till systems, we start determining at harvest what crop will go where and how we will plant next spring," Whitmore says. "If you wait until winter or spring to plan, you’re too late because you might’ve spread your stubble wrong. So many things go into a minimum–till system to make it work correctly."
Whitmore farms with his father, Kirk, near St. Charles, Ark. In 2015, they planted 330 acres of grain sorghum, 450 acres of corn and 420 acres of soybeans.
Proactive planning meant Whitmore planted four to six weeks earlier than many of his neighbors, because he did not have to work the ground first. That proved a valuable edge in a season with downright wacky weather.
"We finished planting our no–till soybeans while most of our neighbors were just getting started," he says. "Not only were we ahead in time, our crops withstood the summer heat well. We were extremely dry this season compared to most of the Mid–South. We had one significant rain, around July 1, the whole summer. By being early, our crop was matured enough to handle the heat and drought better than some of the area’s later planted crops."
Saving on tillage expenses is a bonus, but the benefit to timeliness is the big deal, says Brad Koen, BASF innovation specialist. "If a grower could change just one thing in his operation to improve yield, my recommendation would be to plant earlier," Koen adds.
Extreme heat during pollination trimmed rice, corn and grain sorghum yields by 10 to 20% this year. "When you deal with a 200–bushel–plus crop like rice and corn, 20% equals 40 bushels, which is a big hit," Koen says.
Being willing to adapt strategies laid out during harvest is important, too. This past spring, Whitmore abandoned his plan to plant rice. Instead, he planted his first crop of grain sorghum in the spring to take advantage of a potential price opportunity.
"The grain sorghum basis that originally looked attractive last spring has fallen because China devalued its currency in August," Whitmore notes. "However, we’re in good shape with what we’ve already booked; we started booking grain sorghum at $4.50 per bushel.
"We pushed the crop to get more yield, but we didn’t see the extra yield that I expected. We’ve cut 135 bushels, which is really good, but we were hoping to hit 150 bushels."
In late August, Whitmore and his father compared the costs and returns on their three crops—corn, soybeans and milo. They came out better with grain sorghum than they would have with rice, but corn still cashed out as their best crop. "Grain sorghum is less expensive to raise than corn, but I don’t know if it will be cheap enough to justify the return compared to corn," Whitmore says. "We still might plant grain sorghum again in 2016, especially on the forest–bordered land, where deer feed on our soybeans and corn."
In 2016, Whitmore also plans to test higher plant populations with his corn, which he plants in twin rows on 40–inch beds. His current plant population is 36,000 plants per acre (ppa); he might go as high as 40,000 ppa to 45,000 ppa, depending on the hybrid.
Koen explains, "The more plants you have, the more ears you have. If we maintain ear size with more plants, then we’ll increase yield."
Whitmore will use cover crops again this fall. Last year, he planted a preblend mix of five cover crops: tillage radish, clover, cereal rye, oats and triticale on three fields, totaling 50 acres. This year, he might split some fields, leaving a check to determine any yield difference.