Past perspective helps farmers hone in on zone management
Before looking to the future for answers, it’s best to look at history and consult the experts. When the West was homesteaded, the land was distributed in 160-acre parcels. Think about how these parcels were managed, says David Clay, a South Dakota State University soil biochemist.
It was basically site-specific management. Fast forward to today, and Clay has been working with farmers to implement zone management for 10-plus years. Clay estimates that state yields could increase by 10 bu. to 20 bu. per acre during the next five years if farmers successfully implement zone management.
While homesteaders were limited in what they could do, today’s technology puts farmers in the driver’s seat. Now, the limiting factor is the availability of agronomic information for recommendations.
Brown is the new gold in that what you know or don’t know about your soils can put you in the red or black. "We are limited by our knowledge of the soil," explains Brent Myers, a University of Missouri plant sciences specialist. "The resolution of our precision ag tools exceeds our agronomic capability."
While much easier today than five years ago, Glenn Harsh of Delaware, Ohio, says zone management still takes commitment. Harsh, who has been practicing zone management since the early 1990s, farms about 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans, owns Precision Soil Tek, a consulting business, and sells a variety of seed.
Since 1991, he’s been applying variable-rate lime and fertilizer. It wasn’t until 2007 that Harsh started managing nitrogen by zones. Most recently, Harsh has added variable-rate seeding to the mix.
His business has benefited from others’ mistakes. To avoid pitfalls, Harsh advises farmers new to zone management to build a strong foundation that reflects the management and attention to detail of farming 160 acres with a few key tips.
It’s critical to the wallet to start with quality core soil samples. "Your lime, fertilizer and nitrogen applications are all based on these samples," Harsh says. "Not every sample is a good one, so make sure you get multiple cores."
Harsh suggests riding along while samples are taken. A well-trained individual will examine each core, pay close attention to the collection site and clean out the bucket to prevent cross contamination.
Look at Landscape.
Focus on the landscape of a field and make sure the application makes sense. Take soybeans—Harsh says that while really good soils can support higher planting populations, it might not make sense because the plants get too big, reducing yield potential.
Verify Computer-Generated Maps.
"Some programs use county soil maps and topography zones," Harsh says. "They spit out maps that look and sound good but aren’t to the degree of accuracy needed." Map field boundaries with the tractor, he says. Don’t draw them off of aerial photographs because it can throw the planter off by 20' to 30'.
Compare Different Treatments.
In helping determine the right zone treatment, Harsh set up strip trials to look at different nitrogen rates. Then, based on the response, he was able to tweak his formula for the larger scale to get the desired results.
Make Precision a Core Value.
When you’re crunched for time, it’s easy to say "forget it," Harsh says. But that’s a short-sighted approach. "You might gain a few hours by moving on, but you lose your data integrity, which is what your future decisions are based on," he says.
This article is a part of the Farm Journal Media series, Farming in the Zone. Use this multimedia series as your precision technology guide to better understand zone management and the tools that make it possible. The goal is to maximize yields, minimize inputs and improve stewardship while increasing your bottom line.
To learn how to get started with zone management and see more data from real-life case studies, visit www.agweb.com/IntheZone.