Guidelines to help you safely enter the waters of zone management
For farmers who aren’t comfortable diving into zone management head first, you can wade in slowly. Chris Barron of Carson and Barron Farms in Rowley, Iowa, has spent the past few months planning and preparing his crew to test the zone management waters. Below are a few guidelines to follow.
1. Focus on a single variable. Barron, who also writes the "Business Matters" column for Top Producer, says his approach is much like that of setting a combine—you don’t want to change two variables at the same time. "This way, I will know exactly what to attribute the outcome to," he says, noting that he will focus first on nitrogen application.
2.Take a long-term approach. "We might collect two to three years of data just for nitrogen-based zones," Barron says. "It is important that applications be replicated through different environmental conditions." Intensive nitrogen management is how Barron refers to it, explaining that the more effort and energy you put into managing the input, the more you’ll get out.
"If we worked to increase our average yields by 20 bu. per acre throughout five years, that would be a 10% increase in profit."
3. Identify on-farm expertise. In the process of investigating zone management and getting started, Barron has asked, "Who in my operation has the technical skills to approach this new strategy holistically?"
4. Consider bringing in outside expertise. For those who seek off-farm knowledge, Brent Minett, a precision ag field manager for Beck’s Hybrids in Atlanta, Ind., recommends bringing in your fertilizer and chemical applicators. "If you’ve not been the one making the applications or farming the ground, you need to bring those people who see the field conditions and know what variables are at play around the table," says. "Naturally, if you have a precision ag person, that person needs to be heavily involved."
5. Collect as much data as possible. This includes yield data, tile schematics, soil types and historic knowledge of the fields. Most farmers already have all this data; it just might not be in one place. Minett takes all this information and sits down with farmers to develop zones. For a 5,000-acre farm, it might take four to five hours of time upfront to complete the first draft of zones.
6.Evaluate your zones. "After your zones have been created, you’ll want to sit down and evaluate them," Minett says. "We can tweak them based on your goals and knowledge. Many farmers regularly work to fine-tune their zones."
7. Focus on yields. Given the outlook for 2014 and leading into 2015, Barron says that while farmers can’t control prices and market direction, they do have a bit more control over yields. "That’s what we are naturally better at," he says.
"If we worked to increase our average yield by 20 bu. per acre throughout five years, that would be a 10% increase in profit," Barron explains. "Zone management is one tool that can help us increase our yields and minimize inputs. There’s real opportunity here."
8. Manage inputs. Minett works with corn and soybean farmers across the Midwest to turn data into decisions. "If a zone is only capable of producing 100 bu. per acre, we don’t want to invest in a high planting population if it’s not going to give us a return," Minett explains.
9. Keep your eyes wide open. "Don’t enter into zone management just because you heard the guys down at the coffee shop talking about it," Minett says. "Those that will benefit the most from implementing zone management are those farms with a high level of variability."
10. Identify all of the variables that you want to manage. These might include planting population, fertilizer and plant protectants. In the future, farmers might vary seed hybrids to achieve a yield bump. "Our research shows a yield increase of 16 bu. to 18 bu. per acre," Minett says, admitting that the technology isn’t commercially available yet. "It’s coming," he adds.
Lead Your Landlord
Implementing zone management can be used to better show landlords how you are adding value to their land. "It’s something that you can sit down with them and visually show what you are doing," says Chris Barron of Carson and Barron Farms in Rowley, Iowa. "If you don’t already, you can show landlord yield data, soil maps and tile schematics."
Another thing that farmers can show is fertilizer as-applied maps; however, Barron says too many farmers, including himself, don’t ask for them.
"We have prescribed maps but not the GPS as-applied maps," he says. "As producers, we need that information. We don’t expect perfection, but we expect information and data. If the person is slightly off and overapplies in one spot and underapplies in another, we can fix it the next time around. But if we don’t know that, we can’t fix it."
Barron says that’s also something you can show landlords—both the prescription and the as-applied maps throughout the year. "That will help them know that you are managing the details, doing what’s best for a productive crop and maintaining soil quality.
Editor's Note: This article is part of the Farm Journal multimedia series, which is designed to help improve bottom lines by maximizing yields, minimizing inputs and improving stewardship. Use this as your business guide to understand and implement zone management and the tools that make it possible.
- January 2014