Renewable Farming

Ways to cut crop production costs by leveraging “free” biological fertility

Several of our WakeUP clients are making comments like this: “With $2.65 corn, I’ll simply have to cut back or eliminate fertilizer this fall. Maybe cut spring nitrogen rates too.”

Here are several ideas our “biological” farmers are using for reducing crop production costs and putting cash into fertility choices which offer highest odds of a positive return. 

This fall:

1. Accelerate biological digestion of corn and soybean residue, so their nutrients are available early to nourish 2017 crops. When cornstalks are left undisturbed on the surface and don’t break down until late the following spring, the energy and organisms needed for digestion are competing with nutrient needs of the emerging crop.  Ideally, most of the stalk residue would have mellowed out and disappeared by June.  If that happens, you’ve “earned” about $31 worth of fertility, as counted by Michigan State’s analysis of NPK content of stalk residue. 

The actual benefit of vigorous fungal digestion of stalk residue is greater than the value of so many pounds of fertilizer. The bloom of mycorrhiza and “good bacteria” colonize early crop root systems and multiply the crop’s ability to dissolve/transport soil mineral nutrients. 

When we encourage farmers to shred stalks and spray a residue digester right behind the combine, we often hear: “Too busy with harvest to get that done. And I can’t spray when freezing weather hits.” However, tight budgets lead to substituting management for money. Farmers find ways to get it done on time, accelerate the biological cycle of nutrients, and earn a healthier profit. Jim Mitchell of Eaton, Ohio, for example, lines up extra help to run the sprayer while he combines. The residue breakdown spray, including Residuce from AgriEnergy, hits stalks within a day behind the combine. And the stalks are tilled in very lightly… the top few inches.

Jim and his wife, Shirley, began their biological farming journey in the 1980’s and has migrated to almost all continuous corn on his 1,500 acres. He has consistently high yields while holding down NPK fertilizer input costs. “There’s no yield drag with continuous corn in a biological program,” he says. “AgriEnergy’s Residuce, SP-1 and Trace Pack are our basics. Get those stalks broken down. By spring, it should be hard to tell if it was a cornfield the previous season.”

Jim also uses variable rate, GPS-controlled seed populations and variable rate side-dressing to save money. Years ago, he found that non-GMO hybrids consistently outyielded traited hybrids of the same parentage and maturity. So he uses cost savings on seed for investment in biology, which “compounds” with soil health. He’s close enough to non-GMO markets to cash in on the non-GMO premiums for corn and beans; that adds another bonus.

He meters out fertility with in-furrow application with the planter — a sharp difference from growers who go for bigger centrally filled planters and no nutrient refills to “slow them down.”

Jim also side-dresses 30 to 40 pounds of nitrogen as 28%, plus some potassium. “Your fertilizer dealer will not support your wayward methods of saving money on fertility,” quipped Jim at AgriEnergy’s January 2016 grower seminar. (I also gave a presentation at that seminar, and commended Jim Mitchell for a proven “biological” track record.)

2. Investigate non-GMO hybrids and varieties early, for choice of the best numbers. If you’re long accustomed to traited seed, count the savings from shifting at least part of your 2017 acres to non-GMO. This season was apparently the peak season for percentage of U.S. GMO corn and soybeans. Dealers report rising demand for non-GMO. Lots of reasons: Cost savings, weeds resistant to glyphosate, and other motivators.

3. Divert part of your fall fertility budget into gypsum (calcium sulfate) if a quality supply is available in your area. We buy ours through BRT Ag & Turf, one of our WakeUP distributors. Typically we have it stockpiled here, then blend it with an equal amount of high-calcium lime as it’s loaded into a spreader. The combination has greatly increased soil tilth and soil life for some very low-quality, poorly drained soils we’ve had to cope with. Gypsum encourages soil life; the gift that keeps multiplying through the fall until the soil freezes. Then it turns on again in the spring, and where it’s really cooking, the microbiome organisms warm the soil a bit. 

We saw evidence of that several years ago after we visited Jud Harward’s farm near Springville, Utah, south of Salt Lake City. His family shot an aerial photo of their biologically active blocks of  cropland after a light snow. Because of active soil biology, their soil was warmer than the surrounding fields — and the snow on their farm melted first. (Photo above)


4. Plant a cover crop this fall. Dr. Bob Kremer, retired USDA microbiological scientist, commented at a seminar that each species of plant nurtures its unique array of fungi and bacteria. Some estimates are that each species helps propagate 10 or more microbe species. Old-timers will recall that Dave Larson, founder of AgriEnergy Resources, always hammered a point at our Renewable Farming seminars decades ago: “The most fertile soil is the soil with the widest array of beneficial fungi and bacteria.”

Thus a seed cocktail of cover species is more beneficial than just one, like tillage radish alone or cereal rye alone. Our preference is for cover crops that freeze out in winter, avoiding the need for chemical burndown in the spring. (We’re still working on that non-glyphosate burndown blend.)

A fall-planted cover crop in effect extends your growing season:  You are growing your “littlest livestock” underground, where soil temperatures retreat much slower than average air temperatures in late fall. You’re harvesting more sunshine, stashing nutrients in the soil. You cash in on that biological life the following season. Abundant mycorrhiza colonize emerging crop roots, and amplify nutrient-gathering ability of the root system. The acids in mycorrhiza are 10 times more effective than root exudates for dissolving and transporting soil elements from NPK to zinc, manganese and boron. (Dave Sasseville, developer of Foliar Blend, told farmers at Bob Streit’s supper session earlier this week that “Boron is deficient in 90% of Midwest soils.”

5. Spray your cover crop with WakeUP Spring. This fall. That amplifies the sugar flow to roots and thus into the soil, where it spurs good fungi. The fungi are essential for converting crop cellulose and lignin residue into active humus, plus the “glue” which improves soil structure — glomalin. Download and read this PDF summary produced by NRCS to get a quick understanding of the role of this important, recently discovered soil compound. 

Illinois agronomic researcher Jim Porterfield analyzed corn root response to a WakeUP spray and found that root brix readings (sugar and other dissolved solids) rose about 70% after the plants were foliar-sprayed with WakeUP Spring. Here’s a summary of his work, showing the data. Download the PDF here.

In 2014 we sprayed tillage radish foliage on Sept. 25 with a combination of Lignition and WakeUP, and found a 12% increase in brix levels in the foliage seven days later. This fall we’ll repeat the trial and check the root brix level after WakeUP spraying.


Next Spring:

1. Max out fertilizer efficiency per dollar with in-furrow application. A combination of a little high-quality NPK, a mycorrhiza and bacteria blend, Lignition — all mobilized with three ounces of WakeUP Spring per acre. You can deliver an effective blend in a total solution of 5 to 7 gallons per acre. The right combinations of course depend somewhat on your soil analysis, but the important goal is to provide emerging roots a quick feeding of nutrients and to colonize those roots with good mycorrhiza. 

You can also add a “biostimulant” like Vitazyme or Symbiosis AGx right in with that in-furrow solution. 

Encouraging early vigor helps each seedling emerge quickly. Corn yield contest winners emphasize the need to see every kernel spiking up within the same 12 hours.  

2. Spray corn with 5 ounces per acre of WakeUP Spring at V2. For years we’ve faced a challenge in convincing farmers to make this V2 pass.

Lots of objections. Here’s a sample:

“Most of the spray just goes on the ground.” 

“Too early to apply my usual postmerge herbicides.”

“Too busy finishing up soybean planting.”

However, once a farmer tests that V2 application with WakeUP Spring, and evaluates the benefits of root growth and final yield, they find a way to give that V2 spray trip a high priority. One of our clients had a skeptical crop-share landlord who balked at the ingredient cost (about $3.50 per acre for five ounces of WakeUP Spring). But when our client dug some corn roots where the V2 application had been applied, and compared those roots with unsprayed corn roots — the owner concurred it was a good deal.  

Here is one of the photos the farmer shared with us. WakeUP Spring sprayed roots on the left, untreated right.


3. Scout crops regularly. Tissue test. Or better yet, sap test for nutrient needs. And apply the needed foliars.

There are so many new foliar nutrient and “bio” products emerging in the market that we can’t imagine how a grower can sort them out and select the highest-return combination. 

Even using a well-established trace element blend on soybeans or corn is a roll of the dice unless you see or measure what that crop needs at the moment. Dave Sasseville, who developed the Foliar Blend micro product, emphasizes that a soil analysis does not correlate with a tissue analysis. We’ve run hundreds of foliar-product tests on soybeans. Only about one trademarked foliar mix out of four has shown an economical yield response on soybeans.

We’ve had the most consistent response with foliars using tissue testing or sap testing to identify what the crop needs. Then we get on it immediately, to reduce the days of hidden yield drag.  If you wait for leaf symptoms to show, two or three weeks of lost potential can’t be made up. Sap testing is the way to determine deficiencies at the earliest time. NovaCropControl in the Netherlands is assembling a large database of test results which can help you hone in on  what to spray. Currently, the U.S. collection point for samples sent to the Netherlands for analysis is Crop Health Labs, 93 Main Street, Belleville, OH 44813.  Phone 1-800-495-7938. We’re hoping that Crop Health Labs will set up the instrumentation to do the testing in the U.S., which would cut the turnaround time for results by about a day.

Yield-enhancing foliar products have one thing in common: If a foliar nutrient blend does give you a consistent 5-bu. gain in corn yield, including 5 ounces of WakeUP Summer in the tank will typically nudge up that yield response by another 3 or 4 bushels.  It takes about a 1.3-bu. corn yield bump to pay for 5 ounces of WakeUP ($3.50) unless you’re located in an area with a really lousy cash-corn basis. 

WakeUP Summer gets more of the foliar nutrient into the crop, and into metabolism of the plant. It’s a surfactant. Helps open up the cuticle barrier, making the entire leaf absorbent. Then, it carries the nutrient load into the palisade cells to help fuel building of sugars and other crop components.

We really understand why only about 20% of farmers regularly apply foliar nutrients. It’s hard to comprehend all the “yield booster” claims out there. You you probably appreciate that if you’ve done testing over several years. One of the most comprehensive searches for cost-effective yield enhancers led to a detailed PDF report by Canadian Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Rural affairs scientists. Spending 20 minutes reading the slides and data could save you thousands of dollars in wasted nutrient products. It’s called Soybean Strategies for Success; download it at this link and keep it on file for review.  We saw it compliments of our Canadian connection for Lignition, Dave Sutherland.

We’ve noticed one “plus” for foliar feeding in 2017: The cost of high-quality, slow-release nitrogen has eased considerably in the past 24 months. We like Kugler’s 2075 as a foliar for corn.  But we also use ordinary co-op 28%, being careful not to apply more than two gallons per acre with 5 oz. of WakeUP. We also use Pursanova-treated water. Field tests have show a 10-bu. response to this combination on corn.

4. Side-dress with additional nitrogen as needed.

This is nothing new, but we’re surprised at how few farmers track nitrogen needs with spring tests and follow through with one more field pass. Spike in in, dribble it with Y-drops, but it’s a high-payback option where it’s needed.  Another way to use that big sprayer and make some money. And you don’t need a very fancy sprayer to deliver nitrogen; it could be worth it to keep an old Hagie around, with y-drops, just to do side-dressing.