This yearlong endeavor looks at how four farmers are evaluating technology and agronomic information that can boost the productivity of their operations.
Steve Cubbage is no stranger to adversity. A fourth-generation farmer based in southwest Missouri, Cubbage coaxes crops of corn, soybeans and wheat from red clay-based soils that are saddled by paper-thin topsoil. He often jokes the ancient glaciers that blanketed the northern part of the state in deep, mineral-rich topsoil decided to stop a few miles short of his farm, which is based near the community of Nevada.
"We always consider ourselves about two weeks away from drought at any given time," he says, only half in jest.
That's just one reason Cubbage, along with three other farmers located in parts of the Midwest and South, are participating in the Innovations in the Field program. This yearlong endeavor will look at how farmers use information and technology to make decisions and implement agronomic practices that boost productivity and efficiencies on their operations.
For Cubbage, farming the family farm has become a multigenerational effort as his father, Robert, though semiretired, still helps out at planting and harvest. In addition, two of Cubbage's original employees from his precision-farming business, Justin Ogle and Brad Majors, have assumed management roles in the farm and are working toward personal ownership in the operation.
"It's been great to have the next generation involved in moving the farm forward," Cubbage says. "Justin and Brad are part of a team that will keep this operation innovative and growing."
Going into 2015, Cubbage says the current tight margins on grain, much like a moody Mother Nature, are just one more obstacle to overcome on the road to success. His strategy to deal with the financial uncertainties ahead is to look for practices that can help his 3,500-acre grain farm achieve a higher level of performance. "I think by exploring ways to use technology, understanding fungicides and insecticides, and just the timing of agronomic practices better will help us nurture our crops in ways we don't currently know about," Cubbage explains. "Even simple things can make a positive difference, like planter clutches, which have helped us save seed and increase yields," he adds.
Like Cubbage, Heath Whitmore expects the new program will help his family fine-tune the practices on their 1,200-acre centennial farm. Along the way, Whitmore hopes to pick up new information on row spacings, planting populations, fertility practices and even equipment. "I'm looking for anything to help us maximize bushels on our existing ground," says Heath, 38, a fourth-generation farmer who partners with his dad, Kirk, in southeast Arkansas near St. Charles.
During the next 12 months, Innovations in the Field will follow the agronomic practices put into play by the four participating farmers. Along the way, they will share the reasons behind their decisions as they prepare, plant and harvest their crops. In addition to ongoing magazine articles, the farmers will personally detail the results of their experiences via individual blogs and a series of webinars.
During the year, BASF innovation specialists are working closely with each of the farmers. They will provide localized agronomic information, collaborate on cropping practices and management decisions, help problem-solve on challenges that come up and evaluate cropping outcomes.
Nationally, the company's 50-plus field-based innovation specialists serve as stewards for BASF's cutting-edge, industry-leading agronomic solutions, which guard against fungal diseases, insects and weeds. As of 2015, the company has introduced more than 30 products and eight new active ingredients to the market. Each is the result of more than 10 years of research and $250 million in research and development.
"In order to bring these innovations to market, we realized there's a need to transfer our expertise to the farm and provide education on how to use these products for maximum benefit," says Scott Kay, vice president, U.S. crop operations for the company.
Education is a valuable component of the relationship between each farmer participating in the program and his respective BASF innovation specialist. Whitmore credits innovation specialist Brad Koen for being a valuable crop-consulting resource for the father/son partners when they decided to grow corn, a relatively new crop for farmers in the mid-South. In Arkansas, total corn acres doubled in the past four years, reaching 1 million planted acres in 2013, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS).
"When we started with corn seven years ago, we shot for 200 bushels per acre," Whitmore says. "I wouldn't call that a failure today, but 235-bushel corn is more common, and some people are ringing the bell at 250 to 260 bushels," he notes, adding that 100% of his family's acres is in some type of conservation tillage and under row irrigation.
Cubbage credits BASF innovation specialist Kaleb Hellwig for playing an instrumental role in keeping his fields free of weeds, especially herbicide-resistant ones. "With Kaleb's help, we're being proactive now instead of reactive," he says. "We didn't have a persistent wave of waterhemp cropping up like we've had in previous summers, and that was a huge plus."
The use of cover crops is a fairly new aspect of Cubbage's weed-control strategy. As he firms up his knowledge base and management expertise, he is expanding the number of acres planted to them. "We're increasingly seeding our open acres to cover crops to hold the soil in place on our thin soils. Plus, it has taken the place of our fall herbicide protocol," he says. "Anytime I can exchange an expensive herbicide program and build the soil to boot, I call that a double bonus."
As the 2015 Innovations in the Field program picks up steam this winter and into spring, you can follow the four participating growers right here. This special feature will include each farmer's blog, information about their agronomic decisions and management practices, as well as additional program details.