Renewable Farming

How these 10 technologies work together to widen your 2016 profit margins

We’ve seen farmer enthusiasm run high at several “biological farming” conferences and seminars this winter. Very few farmers at these meetings were moping about low grain prices. Instead, they were usually asking about new production ideas which promise to enhance profit margins — while building soil productivity.

Here’s a summary of technologies, management methods and marketing opportunities which these innovators plan to use and improve:

1. Sap testing of growing crops, to make foliar feeding more precise and profitable.

We’ve run hundreds of foliar feeding yield trials on corn and soybeans since 2008, searching for the right blends of NPK and micronutrients. But even with conventional tissue testing, it’s difficult to discern exactly what nutrients a crop needs, and apply them in time to avoid yield drag. Result: The typical foliar feeding blend is a shotgun array of micros from zinc to manganese to iron and others — just in case. Problem is, over-application can impose a drag on crop metabolism just as severely as a deficiency. 

Sap testing shows promise of offering at least a two-week advance reading on what elements the crop is starting to scavenge from older leaves to fuel new growth. You get that message in time to foliar-feed before yield drag sets in. European Union fruit and vegetable growers have been refining this technology for several years. A database is building with the main U.S. distributor of this service, Crop Health Labs of Ohio.

So far, samples are being sent to NovaCropControl in the Netherlands for analysis, but response times are just a few days. Crop Health Labs intends to set up a lab in the U.S. as soon as possible. To see an example of one of our soybean sap analysis reports, download a copy of the PDF. It shows severe potassium deficiency. There’s more information in a PDF presentation on sap analysis at this link.

These are getting more affordable on the used market

2. Affordable high-clearance field sprayers and combine yield monitors

The “news” here is that used precision yield measuring combines and good, used high-clearance sprayers are becoming more affordable for the mid-size farmer with, say, 500 to 1,000 acres of row crops. You don’t need a $200,000 GPS sprayer to deliver accurate rates of foliar nutrients. Our old hydrostatic high-clearance Hagie, which we call the “pterodactyl” because it looks like a flying fossil skeleton, is calibrated exactly for 25 gallons per acre at 5 mph. We manage field speed with a hand-held GPS. Our whole rig cost $1,750 five years ago. We’ve browsed Craigslist and elsewhere on the web, and noticed listings of GPS, 90-foot boom sprayers such as a Miller for around $50,000. 

We’ve learned that gaining the most control with foliar spraying works best if you control your own self-propelled, high clearance sprayer so you can keep spraying through the growing season. You can control the timing, so you’re out there in early morning instead of allowing the co-op rig to arrive at noon when it’s 85 degrees and rising. Also, you gain the freedom to mix your own formulations. Sometimes a co-op or custom operator won’t spray anything except the materials they sell.

You don’t need a pesticide applicator’s license to apply foliar nutrients. (Even if you do buy an old sprayer for non-pesticide work, it could be safer to continue custom-spraying if you are using toxic products like fungicides… staying away from the health and liability risks.)

3. A widening array of improved foliar nutrients. 

Since 2008 we’ve field-tested about 30 brands of foliar nutrient products on corn and soybeans. They probably all have some value, but without tissue testing in advance or knowing the crop’s needs, we’ve seen significant yield response from only about one of three products. Most of these were micronutrients. Some of our clients have reported a similar success rate by simply spraying foliars without being able to test the crop’s actual needs. They often spent $10 or $15 an acre extra and found, “all the fields came out about the same.” 

The past four or five years, several specialty fertilizer firms have come up with unique chelating methods and nutrient sources which raise the odds of crop response to foliars. Some of these methods use amino acid derivatives. We’re working with a Florida firm, testing nutrient chelation with phosphites, which are known to offer crop health benefits.

One thing we’ve seen in yield results year after year: If a foliar nutrient product delivers a 5-bu. yield response by itself, adding WakeUP Summer to the tank mix is almost sure to add another 4 bu. yield response for a total of 9 bushels. 

4. A new generation of plant growth promotants is emerging.

Sometimes these growth promoters are embedded in foliar micronutrient blends. The registration and regulatory control over auxins and cytokinins and other “messenger” molecules have not imposed a rigid barrier to innovation in this area. The most interesting PGR we’ve worked with, on about 400 strips over two years, is a developmental stage dry soluble product called with the research name Lignition. It’s refined from lignin, and enhances chlorophyll efficiency. 

5. Major investment is underway for microbial enhancement products.

The big seed/chem multinationals are buying up small, innovative firms with several years of research in beneficial bacteria and fungi. This is a broad recognition that the soil “biome” or community of mycorrhiza and other microbes is much more important than the fertility industry has acknowledged for decades. AgriEnergy Resources, for example, is encouraging clients to include the Haney Soil Test as part of their fertility analysis. Rick Haney, USDA/ARS scientist at Temple, Tex., and several associates developed this test, which provides an “inventory” of biological activity along with available NPK and traces. Here’s a YouTube Video by Rick Haney. His webinar presented at AgriEnergy’s Jan. 26 seminar had many convincing facts pointing to the need to know your soil biology, not just a “mining assay” of NPK nutrients. One of the biggest surprises was a chart, a scatter diagram, showing that there’s little correlation between money spent on applied fertilizer and the final yield. Soil biology plays a huge part in the crop response equation. Do a web search for Haney fertility test and you’ll see a wide array of information on this excellent technology.

6. Rapidly advancing cover crop knowledge and enthusiasm.

Farm publications are giving a lot of space to cover crops. Recognition is spreading that widening the diversity of plant species in the field also multiplies diversity of beneficial mycorrhiza and bacterial species. Your “underground livestock” inventory expands greatly with cover crops in the rotation It’s well-known that the good fungal hyphae surrounding the root can unlock 10 times the soil nutrients than roots can do alone. 

Cover crops are a fitting companion for no-till and vertical tillage, both of which encourage a stable subsoil “biosphere” for microbial life. Certified organic growers learned that “once you get your soil full of life, weeds aren’t much of a problem.”

Weeds, as Carey Reams always said, are nature’s attempt at fixing soil deficiencies and rebuilding microbial populations.

7. Precision planting and in-furrow placement of biological nutrients.

Farmers who are focused on planting several thousand acres tend to buy huge planters with central seed hoppers — but with nothing else on the planter to slow down planting. They miss the benefits of in-furrow or 2×2 row support. They’re after timing efficiency.  But farmers in that 500 to 1,500-acre range of corn/soybeans are learning how to keep planters rolling plus adding a few gallons per acre of nutrients and biologicals as row support. Good tradeoff.

The past couple of years on our research plots, we’ve found good responses to in-furrow fertility and biologicals. The nutrients and inoculants near the seed apparently “kick in” about V2 and V3, multiplying the proliferation of fungal hyphae. Then, when we foliar-feed a few nutrients plus WakeUP Spring, the surge of plant sugars pumped down to the rhizosphere can feed a massive family of beneficial organisms. It’s a symbiotic relationship. 

8. Upgraded non-GMO corn hybrids and soybean varieties.

Not all the innovative seed firms have been swallowed by the biotech multinationals. This is too big a subject for details here — but be assured, there’s first-level seed technology out there which is both non-GMO and organic. No inserted genes to impose yield drag.

9. Profitable pricing for organic corn, soybeans and wheat.

At the AgriEnergy seminar, my longtime organic farmer friends across central Illinois didn’t want to talk about crops. They wanted to discuss buying more land. Several years of growing 200-bu. organic corn, and soybeans that match GMO yield levels, have built their cash flow. Organic feed corn prices held above $10 a bushel through most of 2014 and 2015. Organic feed soybeans averaged well above $20 a bushel in those years. These prices have eased to around $9 and $20 respectively now, but 200-bu. corn at $9 offers a considerably different cash flow than $3.50 corn. 

Organic growers are probably the segment of producers most intent on multiplying their soil biological fertility sources.

10. Easy web access to a wide array of “Biological Farming” expertise

Once you look outside the usual array of ag websites run by the commercial publications, you can discover a rich array of “biological” knowhow that doesn’t depend on GMOs as the future of humanity. As a former managing editor of Farm Journal, I’m aware of the limitations constricting ag editors who actually want to investigate and report the benefits of soil biology that’s not damaged by the chelating chemicals such as glyphosate. 

One “index” to such sources is in the online magazine, “The Organic & Non-GMO Report.” It contains a “non-GMO Sourcebook” guild to suppliers across the spectrum of seed to fertility products.  

Also, we try on this website to refer you to some of the most interesting fertility and biological breakthroughs available, regardless of where they originate. 

Oh yes, did we mention… remember WakeUP to make foliars and in-furrow products perform most effectively! 

Published Feb 6, 2016 — By Jerry Carlson