Ben Riensche shifted attention from volume to efficiency as the era of $7 corn has closed.
“We have been through a charmed period when everything worked pretty easy,” says Riensche, Jesup, Iowa. “Our focus was on raising more grain, not farming our acres the most efficiently. Now, with $3/bushel corn, margins are grim and it is time to sharpen our farming spear.”
With land and fertilizer costs in the top two positions in 2016 crop budgets, both are getting lots of attention as Riensche plans for next year’s crop.
“We clearly need to reduce land costs,” he says. That’s meant some tough negotiations with landlords to get them to understand the challenge of tighter margins and have realistic expectations of what land is worth.
As for spear-sharpening on the crop input side, fertilizer efficiency – growing top yields with least amount of fertilizer possible – is the main target.
Feed crops when they need it
After relying primarily on blanket applications of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium during his operation’s rapid growth phase, Riensche is planning variable-rate and just-in-time nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium applications on half or more of his acres in 2016.
“We can either put on less overall nutrients, cut our bill and hopefully raise the same size crop, or put on the same amount of nutrients and get a better crop,” he adds. “That’s what we are looking at,” says Riensche.
“With $3/bushel corn, there isn’t much incentive to put out extra nitrogen fertilizer for the extra bushel,” he adds. “Maybe you should trim off the last 10%.”
Riensche is planning to move away from fall nitrogen applications to a combination preplant and sidedress program on many fields. He’s making the switch based in part on what he’s learned from Climate Corp.’s nitrogen management model on test fields in 2015.
“For simplicity, it is tempting to put on fall nitrogen, but our financial model is showing that smaller applications closer to the time the crop needs it is better,” he says. “We don’t think this is a magic solution, but it is a start. The hardware and software are there to make it work.”
No more blanket rates
To accomplish that, Riensche plans to diversify his nitrogen strategy. “There’s no more one-size-fits-all blanket applications,” he says.
He’s planning to apply about half the crop’s nitrogen needs preplant on most fields. For in-crop applications, he will rely on several existing liquid side-dress rigs, plus a new John Deere R4045 sprayer outfitted with a dry nutrient spinner spreader.
The self-propelled rig’s higher clearance will allow applications when corn is better than waist high. It will be dedicated mainly to corn-on-corn acres, as well as fields where nitrogen is most susceptible to leaching.
“We looked at several late-season application approaches and decided this was best for us,” he says. The decision was dictated in part by the operations’ use of 12-, 24- and 36-row planters, which makes marrying planter and applicator widths a challenge.
“Dry nitrogen through a spinner over the top is more flexible,” says Riensche, who plans on applying a “protected” nitrogen product to reduce potential losses before rainfall moves the fertilizer into the soil profile.
Riensche also is planning prescription phosphorus and potassium applications driven by recommendations from two key agronomy advisors, WinField Solutions and Premier Crop Systems.
“Over the past six to 10 years, we have just spread a blanket rate of phosphorus and potassium based on removal rates and maybe higher,” he says. “Now that we aren’t in the expansion mode and we have time to focus on this, we think can get more bang for the buck by putting it in the right place.”
For 2016, that means targeting higher applications to more productive parts of fields, and lower applications in less productive areas. “This is not so much about budget cutting, but can we put it in the right spot,” he says. “We are not cutting the phosphorus and potassium budget at all, but we are hoping for a 3-5% yield bump from doing a better job.”
Given the major change ahead for the operation’s fertility program, Riensche is expecting growing pains. “This is a monumental change to accomplish over several thousand acres,” he says. “It isn’t necessarily going to be smooth the first year, but we have to start somewhere. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
“We are no longer in an aggressive expansion phase,” he adds. “We are interested in doing better with what we have. Being a better farmer is the new black.”