M ore than 20 years ago, I moved to the U.S. from a family farming operation in England to work for Kentucky-based ag retailer Miles Farm Supply. Owner Billy Joe Miles had a chain of retail locations across southern Indiana, western Kentucky and northern Tennessee, in addition to a wholesale distribution network across six states. Miles first visited England in the mid 1980s, where he quickly observed that producers were able to consistently achieve 140 bu. to 160 bu. per acre wheat yields using state-of-the-art management practices. By comparison, in his home state of Kentucky most farmers treated wheat like a stepchild and wheat yields were stagnant, in the 30 bu. to 40 bu. per acre range.
Miles had the vision to bring 10 European agronomists to the U.S. and couple them with agronomists from the U.S. and Canada to form a group called Opti-Crop. Their goal was to
introduce and expand a European-style crop management system in the U.S. By 1995, Miles had taken at least six groups of U.S. wheat producers across the pond to show them England’s
intensive wheat management practices firsthand. Many producers soon recognized that they didn’t need to look any further than the basics to increase their yields and profits.
Miles invested heavily in a research team that conducted multiyear replicated research trials to help determine which European crop management principles would produce the greatest return on investment in the U.S. For Miles, the gamble paid off big-time, and the Opti-Crop team contributed to wheat yields doubling in Kentucky during a 20-year period. Yields soared into the 70 bu. per acre range, with some of the most aggressive wheat producers exceeding 100 bu. per acre.
Frequently, the practices that generated the highest return on investment required the smallest changes; many didn’t cost anything to implement.
Improving uniformity. When I and the other agronomists started working closely with U.S. producers and their wheat crops, we saw huge opportunities to improve the consistency of wheat stands and product applications. It seemed like everyone was aware of the effects of poor corn stands, but few were aware of the yield losses that resulted from poor wheat stands.
Using data from replicated trials, the Opti-Crop group was better able to understand optimal ranges of head counts at harvesttime, so as head densities dropped or extended above ideal
ranges, potential yield losses could be determined. Some of the differences in stands could be traced back to seedbed preparation and deficiencies in seeding equipment.
We were hesitant to promote no-till initially, simply because we had seen significant yield reductions in specific rotations, especially when wheat was no-tilled into cornstalks. However, we soon began to learn how to manage no-till wheat. Cooperative research initiatives with the University of Kentucky and other agronomy groups helped narrow the gap to only 1 bu. to 2 bu. per acre. Most growers now use no-till to establish their wheat, and the savings in fuel, labor and equipment expenses more than pays for any potential yield reductions.
Another area of production that my group of agronomists focused on was the uniformity of nitrogen applications. Again, money was being spent on nitrogen fertilizers and spreading
operations, but in many cases poor standards of distribution were causing streaking and major yield losses.
We spent lots of time pattern-testing dry spreading equipment to improve distribution. Frequently, variation in the quality of the material being spread was the culprit, so spreading fertilizer with spinning-disk technology was virtually abandoned.
Most growers quickly made the transition to air trucks or liquid nitrogen application systems, which improved distribution accuracy across the width of the equipment and consistency of rates applied across every acre.
Tramlines. Tramlines are another tool that have been found to increase yields with minimal investment. While tramlines are widely used in Western Europe to boost yields, very few farmers were using this kind of technology in North America.
Tramlines are basically unseeded strips placed within wheat fields at seeding time that allow row-crop spraying equipment to make passes through the fields without running over the wheat, compared with using auto-steering systems and running down the wheat. The secret behind tramlines is that seed is diverted to both sides, allowing sprayer tires to run down the unseeded strips that match the width of the sprayer pass.
Initially, seeding equipment widths had to evenly divide into sprayer boom widths, but tramline kits are now available to allow most seeder widths to match various sprayer widths. Tramlines can also be configured to work with auto-steering systems to further boost efficiency and accuracy.
Timing. While growing up in England, I often heard that "the difference between a good farmer and a bad farmer is a week."
The principle was to encourage good timing, but today I believe products that include fungicide applications to suppress fusarium head scab at flowering need to be applied within a 48-hour window. So perhaps the difference between a good farmer and a bad farmer is now only 48 hours!
Sprayer capacity is critical to achieve good timing. This is evident from the number of high-capacity sprayers sold every year in the U.S.
The European-style wheat management techniques that the Opti-Crop crew introduced to U.S. farmers nearly 20 years ago are still applicable to boost yields today. Remember, it’s often the smallest changes that have the highest returns.