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Systems Approach To High Yields

March 26, 2011
By: Darrell Smith, Farm Journal Conservation and Machinery Editor
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To finish strong at harvest, crop management must be top of mind year-round for farmers.  

It’s getting harder to schedule a fishing trip in the middle of the summer. That’s because crop management runs all the way through harvest season—and then the cycle starts over again.

That management technique is called a "Systems Approach," explains Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. It is a concept you must master before you can reap the benefits of improved crop genetics and new technology, such as auto-guidance and variable-rate application.

"A Systems Approach is easy to talk about, but it’s harder to carry out," Ferrie adds. "But it’s worth the effort, especially with today’s corn prices." At this past summer’s Farm Journal Corn College, Ferrie shared tips for mastering systems management without getting swamped by the details.

The Systems Approach requires understanding how one process influences others (see the pyramid below). Or, as Ferrie puts it, "the key to high yields is in the details."

The approach starts with a foundation of balanced fertility, a deep rooting environment and timely operations. "These, along with drainage, soil pH and fertility, are basic steps for high yields," Ferrie says.

The health of a corn plant’s roots tells a lot about field conditions and yield potential. "Take a spade to the field and look closely at your corn roots," Ferrie says. "Are the roots growing horizontally because of compaction or dense layers? Failure to get the necessary depth of rooting has been the downfall of many farmers’ systematic approaches."

Understand your stand. "When it comes to stand, ‘pretty good’ is no longer acceptable," Ferrie continues. "You must be able to say: ‘I planted 34,000 seeds, got a final stand of 28,000 and wound up with an ear count of 26,000—and here’s the reason for the low ear count.’

"If your stand is full of doubles and triples, you need to evaluate your planting techniques. Ask yourself if you have the right equipment and if you are running it correctly," he adds.

The timely and efficient field work required by a Systems Approach becomes more challenging as your farm operations grow, Ferrie says. You may need help covering the details.

Fortunately, assistance is available from many sources, including consultants, fertilizer dealers, seeds people, universities, equipment dealers, the Internet "and even your friends at the coffee shop," Ferrie says. "Take advantage of every source. Knowledge is the glue that holds the crop management pyramid together."

planting pyramid 11You and your support team must be on the same page and moving in the same direction. "Keep your staff and advisers abreast of your short- and long-range goals," Ferrie says. "Discuss your plans ahead of time, including your tillage system, rotation, GMO versus non-GMO crops and equipment needs."

Besides understanding crop production, you must know your abilities and time constraints. "You may need to delegate a couple of operations to someone else because you’re too busy or not a detail-oriented person," Ferrie says. Areas to assign might include seed selection, fertilizer application, tillage, record keeping and pest control.

Pest control, a key facet of the Systems Approach to corn production, has been the downfall of many farmers. "Think of pest control as protecting your hybrids," Ferrie says. "Designate a pest boss. If you don’t have one, don’t plant susceptible hybrids.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Early Spring 2011

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