Renewable Farming

Expending more management, less money can help with 2017 corn, bean budgets

I’ve tried assembling a realistic 2017 corn and soybean production spreadsheet that shows a positive cash flow — but achieved it only with heroic assumptions about cash rent and yields that would make a banker roll his eyes.

Nov. 29, 2016  By Jerry Carlson — The best I can do for you in helping you with crop budgeting for 2017 is suggest several practical, reasonable tactics to test on your own Excel spreadsheet. You have a few months to massage the numbers and make your final choices on seed, fertility, chemicals and field operations. 

If you don’t already have a crop spreadsheet on your computer, you can begin by downloading one or more examples from the comprehensive array offered by Alejandro Plastina, Iowa State University extension agronomist. The crop budgets are at this link.   He doesn’t have 2016 adjustments updated yet, but the 2015 numbers are a good start. You, of course, will insert your own actual costs for each production item, from seed to herbicides to rent. 

In Illinois, you can check out the crop budgets posted by the Illinois Farm Business Farm Management Association.  The University of Illinois has a huge array of easy-to-use spreadsheets which you can download free of charge.  Here’s the link to get started.

Here are some ideas to test in those budgets. The intent is to use limited cash outlays in ways that maximize yields. Specific examples for corn production:

1. Transition a significant share of acres into non-traited hybrids. Use the savings for carefully managed and metered nutrients applied via in-furrow, side-dress and foliar. You may be able to shave $40 to $50 per acre planting top-rated non-GMO numbers. The most recent reader survey by No-Till Farmer shows the trend to non-GMO corn hybrids has accelerated the past two seasons.  

For example, Jim Mitchell raises mostly continuous non-GMO corn hybrids on some 1,500 acres near Eaton, Ohio. He has been doing so for about 15 years, and finds that non-GMO hybrids typically outyield by 15 to 20 bu. the same isogenic lines loaded with triple-stack traits. Jim told an AgriEnergy seminar audience last January, “The seed companies don’t want you to know that.”  Because of his production volume, grain quality and location, he’s also able to earn a non-GMO premium per bushel.  On 200-bu. corn, a 40-cent per bushel premium for non-GMO helps to move the margin significantly toward the positive side. Jim tells us that his break-even price for soybeans is close to $10.30 a bushel. Local cash bids are within a dime of that now at Eaton, Ohio. Adding the non-GMO premium of $1 to $1.50 per bushel “makes in all work for us,” says Jim. “Our 2016 average soybean yield was 73.8 bu. per acre, or about 10 bu. above our long-term average yield.” These are non-GMO soybeans. For a bit of background on Jim, check out this link.

2. Equip your planter for in-furrow nutrients and biologicals. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom of recent years — strip the planter to basics and keep rolling because time is precious when planting. However, applying six or seven gallons per acre doesn’t take much refill time. Our test plots have taught us this: The highest-return fertilizer dollar is in-furrow application of a high-quality blend of NPK like 9-18-7 with trace elements, plus a reliable biological such as AgriEnergy’s SP1 or other mix of mycorrhiza and beneficial bacteria.  We’d also lace the in-furrow liquid with 10 or 20 grams per acre of Lignition, a growth promoting product we’ve tested for three seasons. A good fulvic or humic product also helps, with minimal cost.  And of course, we can make a strong case for mobilizing the in-furrow mix with 3 ounces per acre of WakeUP Spring.

3. If you can also slice in some 28% nitrogen 2×2 with the planter, the row support is an excellent way to save money on nitrogen. Jim Mitchell applies about 14 gal. per acre this way. 

4. Equip for variable rate seed population. Most of the savings comes from reducing population on the poorer ground.

5. Use variable rate side-dressing after corn is up. On the best soil, the rate may drop to zero, but rise to 40 or 50 units where available N is low.

6. Tissue test or sap test starting at about V4 to monitor nutrient needs, especially the traces such as zinc and manganese. Shotgunning foliar blends without getting a good reading of what’s needed may not show a clear-cut return. Sap testing can give you several days’ lead time in knowing what to foliar apply, before yield drag sets in. 

Start thinking about season-long nutrient feeding, to keep the crop healthy and alive two or three weeks after everyone else’s corn has died down. One advantage of being 80, is that I can remember corn where the stalks remained green while the ears matured and hung down in a white husk, testing 16% to 20% moisture.  Check out the national corn yield contest winners: Virtually all of them don’t put the sprayer away after the second weedkiller pass… they keep foliar-feeding into August or even September. If it’s green, they’re spraying as crop symptoms make the call. University of Nebraska foliar feeding research indicates that foliar feeding delivers nitrogen 10 times more efficiently than soil application.

7. Review our January 2016 list of 10 technologies that can improve profit margins. The report is at this link.  The ideas are even more timely for 2017 than they were for 2016.

Those ideas are just samples. You’ll have your own list of things to try out on paper.  Once you get comfortable with an Excel spreadsheet on corn production costs, you can enter the costs per acre for, say, an in-furrow fertility blend – and estimate that this expense will result in an extra 6, maybe 10 bushels. As you check various “scenarios” and make small adjustments, you’ll get a sense of balance on what’s reasonably cost-effective.