Farmers rely on technology management to reduce costs, improve profit potential

Ronnie Lumpkins would never presume to speak for other farmers, not even the four North Texas corn growers who shared a stage with him on a producer panel at the recent Ag Technology Conference at Commerce, Texas.

But no one argued with his assertion that a primary goal for 2003 is to make more corn with less cost.

The five panelists, Ronnie Lumpkins, from Leonard; Butch Aycock, McKinney; Jay Norman, Leonard; Ben Scholz, Wylie; and Jimmy West, Roxton, each offered a unique perspective on production practices they use to improve profit potential. They also noted common techniques and shared concerns.

“Agriculture has changed a lot over the past 30 years,” Lumpkins said. One of the biggest and most challenging changes, panelists agreed, is the difficulty they face in making profits with higher production costs, lower crop prices and uncertain markets.

They're adjusting management to accommodate a more complex farming environment.

“I've given up on anhydrous as a basic part of my corn fertility program,” Scholz said. ‘I lost a lot after application.”

He has switched to a 10-34-0 analysis, with zinc. “I'll also put in 200 to 250 pounds of nitrogen with a coulter after the crop gets up.”

Lumpkins has changed his fertility program “to save time. I have a lot of acres to cover. I put out some phosphate on blacklands in the fall, with a little magnesium and zinc. I'll put down a little magnesium and zinc in the furrow at planting. I don't use anything else at planting.”

He follows the planter with an application of 32.

“Sidedressing might help but I can't get to it,” he said. It's easier to apply 500 pounds per acre of 32.”

Norman uses a 10-34-0 with zinc at planting and 200 pounds of 32 afterward (a 32 percent nitrogen solution). He'll sidedress part of his nitrogen each year. I may use a 40 percent/60 percent mix, of early fertilization and sidedress. A 30 percent/70 percent mix might be better. I've seen corn really jump from a sidedress application.”

He said he missed a 32 application on part of his crop once and “it hurt for 10 days.”

Aycock uses 18-46-0 in the winter with K-mag. He also uses 2 gallons of 10-34-0 with 2 quarts of zinc and 200 pounds of 32.

“I sidedress everything. I have to balance the situation to get the sidedress on in time. I'm convinced it pays on poorly-drained soils but may not be an advantage on drier fields. I start with the dry fields and finish up with wetter ones.”

West uses 8 to 10 gallons of 10-34-0 with a pound of zinc and 2 pounds of magnesium. He sidedresses 30 gallons of 32, “when the corn is big enough. I'm considering a coulter application with herbicide.”

Farmers rate chinch bugs the most troublesome insect for North Texas corn, but they keep an eye out for rootworm infestations. If they are not already using some kind of seed treatment technology, they're considering it for 2003.

“Chinch bugs are my number one insect problem,” West said. “I've used Regent and other materials and will try a seed treatment in 2003.”

Aycock has used Counter on blackland soils at about half the maximum rate. “I don't run continuous corn, so rootworms should not be a problem. I'm considering a seed application.”

Norman uses Prescribe, a seed treatment, and Counter. He prefers the Prescribe.

Scholz says he used Counter one year at a half rate while a neighbor used another product. “His control was not nearly as good as Counter.” Scholz will try a seed treatment this year. “A big advantage is eliminating pesticide handling,” he said.

Lumpkins also likes Prescribe because it gets him away from handling products. “I used it in 2002 and will again this year. “We've been looking for an effective seed treatment for years,” he said. “This one seems hard to beat.”

Seed treatments also eliminate seedbox adjustment difficulties.

“Sometimes we'd get the seedboxes calibrated just right and then the humidity would change and we would have to do it all over,” Lumpkins said. “With a seed treatment, we know the product is on the seed.”

Rotation plays a key role in insect management programs. Scholz used a three-crop system, corn, cotton and wheat, “until I dropped cotton. I'll stay with wheat and corn.”

Lumpkins also uses a corn/wheat rotation but says some of his best yields have come from corn planted in fallowed ground.

“One year I couldn't get wheat planted, so I left it fallow,” he said. “That fallow ground helped yields. I seldom plant corn behind corn because I'm concerned about rootworms.”

He has seen some wireworms and other worm pests, but not enough to cause significant damage.

Norman rotates wheat and corn and “rarely plants corn behind corn. With better technology, we may be able to plant continuous corn,” he said.

Aycock plants almost all corn and has seen corn in fields for as many as nine years in corn with no significant losses.

West likes to plant half his acreage in corn and a fourth each in soybeans and wheat.

“I prefer to follow soybeans with corn,” he said. “But low soybean prices will be a factor. I'll try it for a few more years.”

All five are trying to cut back on tillage as much as possible, primarily to reduce trips across the field, which saves fuel, labor and equipment wear.

“Ideally, I'd like to plant al my corn no-till,” West said. “But with erodibility and hard rains, the land gets rough if we don't till it some. I plow as little as possible.”

Aycock at one time shredded stalks, deep tilled and cultivated several times before planting. “I've cut out at least half those trips. I still use a disk harrow once but no more than two times.”

He also uses a shank plow that keeps soil surface residue in place. “I manage the residue with a coulter rig.”

Norman plows twice with a tandem disk, usually in October and November. “I don't touch it again until planting. I want to look at strip till, but with the kinds of rains we get here, I'll need some tillage.”

Scholz said he's gone as long as two years without tilling. “I'd harvest, shred stalks and apply Roundup. I plant into stubble and make the fewest number of trips possible.”

Erosion has caused problems in some fields.”

Lumpkins runs a tandem disk over wheat stubble in July and August. “Then I let it lay until fall fertilization. I put in a disk to cultivate it in and the next trip is to plant.”

He said planting on a bed likely would provide some advantages in his area. “The soil would warm up quicker in the spring, but we work so many acres, we couldn't get around to it.”

Row spacings are either 24 inches or 30 inches.

West plants 30-inch rows with a 16-row planter. Aycock uses 16-row equipment and switched from 24 to 30 inches in 2000. Scholz uses a 12-row planter set on 30-inch spacings.

Norman plants 24-inch rows with 16-row planters, and Lumpkins uses a 24-row planting rig on 30-inch spacings.

Weed control options have run the gamut of just about every herbicide available for corn but panelists indicate a tendency to Round-up Ready varieties and fewer herbicide treatments.

“I've used atrazine, Accent, Distinct, Celebrity and other herbicides,” Scholz said. “I use Roundup over-the-top and a second shot in-season on Roundup Ready varieties.”

“I've used just about everything in the past,” Lumpkins said. “But now I use all Roundup Ready corn, and apply no pre-emerge herbicide. If I get ryegrass infestations, I'll apply a one-half to one-pint rate of Roundup before planting.”

Norman has used a Lasso treatment with other herbicides but says: “Roundup Ready makes the process less complicated. I have not used a pre-emerge on Roundup Ready corn.”

But that may not always be wise, he said. “In the future, I may apply some atrazine, maybe a pound with the fertilizer to slow weeds down.”

Aycock says adverse weather conditions early in the season could delay Roundup applications and affect yield. “An April rain could keep us out of the field,” he said. “If we can't get in on time and we had no pre-emergence herbicide down, weed pressure could be heavy enough to hurt yield.”

“We need over-the-top applications on some acreage,” West said. “I like atrazine in the fall to control henbit.” He's also looking at Roundup to reduce costs.

Panelists considered the challenges of making a profit in a tight agricultural economy and offered suggestions for research that would help them remain competitive.

“Marketing has to be the weakest part of my management,” Lumpkins said. “We can produce it but we also have to sell it right.”

Scholz agrees. “Marketing is a key, but we also need to do something about aflatoxin. We can't sell for board prices because the threat of aflatoxin hangs over the market. Maybe aflatoxin corn can be used for ethanol or for other by-products.”

“The time factor provides our biggest challenge,” Norman said. “Getting the crop planted on time always pushes us. And labor problems. It's hard to find someone capable of operating our equipment.”

“Marketing,” Aycock said, “is our biggest failing. We don't do the best job of selling our crops. And we need to do better planting on time.”

West said production inputs are so expensive farmers have a tough time making ends meet. “It's hard to squeeze out a profit.”

They've considered specialty markets but have found nothing that works in North Texas.

“We've considered food grade corn but have found no really economically viable market,” West said. “Seed corn is an option but cross pollination creates problems.”

Aycock tried food grade corn but said quality stipulations are so strict it's not feasible. “Tolerance for aflatoxin is zero,” he said.

“Along with aflatoxin, we have test weight concerns,” Lumpkins said. “And we'd have to isolate either food grade or seed corn. We'd need bins to segregate the crops.”

Lumpkins has storage capacity for 90,000 bushels and says the bins help him harvest his crop in a timely manner. “I normally haul as much as I can and put the overflow in the bins.”

Scholz has no on-farm storage so he tries to space his harvest to deliver out of the field.

Norman delivers almost all his corn to a local elevator. “I try to get corn out timely and get the land back in wheat.”

Aycock is in a partnership with other farmers in an elevator, which “handles most of what we grow. It's a reasonable deal.”

West “markets most of the corn through local channels and sells as much as possible to end users. I have on-farm storage to make it convenient for my buyers and also for our own use for a cattle operation.”

Farmers would like to see more research devoted to prevention of aflatoxin. “If the Midwest begins to have problems with it, breeders might get interested,” Norman said.

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