There’s no quick and easy way to move from conventional farming—using the same management and a few hybrids on all acres—to variable-input technology (VIT) management. In fact, it might take several seasons. “You might not be able to implement every aspect of VIT management at the same time, but every step you take is a step up from conventional crop production,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. “Each step builds on the previous one and lays the groundwork for success with the next one.”
As we conclude our series on VIT—the best hybrid at the right population on every acre—here’s a review of the 10 key steps, which will lead to higher yields and more efficient use of inputs.
1. Create Soil Management Zones
Use as many layers of data as possible. Identify each zone’s strengths and weaknesses. Continue to collect good data every season.
2. Fix Fertility and pH Problems
“Test the soil in each management zone,” Ferrie says. “This is one of the main layers of data required for VIT management. Correcting pH, phosphorus and potassium deficiencies is one of the easiest steps. If you don’t have variable-rate application equipment, you can delegate to your fertilizer retailer.”
3. Sharpen Your Fertilizer Management
“Plan how you will manage the strengths and weaknesses of each zone to supply what is needed by the crop,” Ferrie says. “For example, if a zone has low nitrogen-holding capacity and a high risk of loss, decide how you will meet the nitrogen requirements of that zone, as well as the rest of the field.
“Design your fertilizer program so corn never has a bad day. Remember how hybrids flex. Starter fertilizer helps those that flex in girth. Nitrogen helps those that flex in length. Keeping corn green late in the season, with late nitrogen and fungicide applications, helps those that flex in depth.”
4. Recruit a Winning Team of Hybrids
Choose hybrids that make the most efficient use of available water and sunlight in each management zone. “This requires understanding hybrid characteristics,” Ferrie says. “With this knowledge, you can put together a winning team of hybrids and plan how to coach the weakest members to better perform.”
Ferrie compares a hybrid team to a college basketball team—besides the starters, it includes players on the bench ready to step up as needed. “The coach’s staff collects statistics on current players and future recruits,” he says. “This data details the team’s weaknesses and strengths. The coach studies potential recruits and signs those whose skills will improve the weak aspects of his team. Likewise a farmer visits hybrid plots, studies data and tests hybrids in plots to find new ones that fit his operation.”
Once you have identified all the hybrids suited to your farm, separate them into offensive and defensive hybrids. “Remember a defensive hybrid in one field might be an offensive hybrid in another,” Ferrie says. “After a hybrid makes your team, place it in the right position and coach it to its full potential.”
5. Learn to Match Hybrids in a Field
Planting two hybrids in a field calls for a higher level of planning and management. Maturity, resistance to insects, diseases and herbicides, and seed treatments all must be considered.
- Maturity. “As you select hybrids for each zone, consider the number of growing degree units (GDU) to black layer and to flowering,” Ferrie says. “If you have a spread in GDU to black layer, different moisture levels at harvest will be a problem. Even if two hybrids have the same number of GDU to black layer, they might dry down at different rates. “Putting 110-day and 115-day hybrids in the same field will cause problems,” Ferrie continues. “The only exception is if one hybrid is planted only in dryland corners of an irrigated field and can be harvested earlier.” If two hybrids flower at different times, you might still opt to plant them in the same field. But it will require more intense scouting by your pest team. “Pollen-feeding insects are attracted to the freshest pollen, so they might move from one hybrid to the other,” Ferrie says.
- Insect resistance. “You might want to plant a hybrid that only comes with certain traits, such as Bt corn borer resistance,” Ferrie recommends. “But if the other hybrid in the same field doesn’t have resistance, your pest team must be prepared to scout for borers.” If second-generation corn borers hit tall corn and only one hybrid is resistant, you probably will need to spray the entire field because aerial applicators don’t have VIT capability. “If your ‘bench’ contains traited or non-traited hybrids that fit both zones, you can plant resistant hybrids in each one or plan to spray the entire field if borers become a problem,” Ferrie says. When it comes to insects that attack the seed or roots, pairing non-traited seed with rootworm-resistant seed won’t be a problem if you don’t have rootworms in the field, Ferrie adds. “But if you have corn rootworm pressure from continuous corn, you’ll need protection. Some VIT-equipped planters can apply insecticide in parts of a field, but with others you’ll have to treat the entire field.
- “With below-ground insects, order hybrids with the same level of seed treatment,” Ferrie adds.
- Disease. “Check the resistance scores of each hybrid in a field,” Ferrie says. “Two hybrids resistant to different diseases create a challenge for your pest team, especially if the diseases show up at different times. This isn’t be a deal breaker, as long as your pest team knows what is going on.”
- Herbicide resistance. Finally, compare the hybrids’ herbicide resistance traits. “Planting two hybrids with different herbicide traits isn’t a deal breaker, either,” Ferrie says, “but it does bring challenges. For example, if you plant glyphosate-resistant and -susceptible hybrids in the same field, you won’t be able to use glyphosate to control weeds. When selecting hybrids, everyone must be involved. Your pest management team must plan how to control weeds if herbicides with certain modes of action are unavailable in some fields. Your sprayer operator must know what products he will apply on each field and when he will need to rinse the sprayer between herbicides.”
6. Shop More Than One Seed Company
“Finding hybrids to pair up in a field may require shopping across company lines,” Ferrie says. “One company might not offer enough choices unless they have a deep bench in your maturity range.”
7. Choose Your VIT Equipment
“There are many options to outfit planters and toolbars to vary seed population and chemical rates,” Ferrie says. “There are fewer ways to plant multiple varieties. You can buy a multihybrid planter such as the Kinze 4900 or you can modify an existing planter using the mSet seed selector technology from Precision Planting.”
8. Assemble a Seamless System
You will need four components: software to map your fields; a mapmaker, who will use the software to build application maps; software to “talk” to each of your implements; and hardware on each implement to do what the map tells it to. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Do plenty of research. “Be diligent in picking hardware, software and map suppliers,” Ferrie advises. “If you’re lucky enough to have an employee who can make equipment talk to each other, that’s great. But if you don’t, product support is going to be crucial.”
- Talk to farmers who already have a system. “Ask suppliers for names of farmers who are using their technology,” Ferrie says. “You want your system to be seamless, where the machine operator, implement supplier and mapmaker feel comfortable talking to each other. Look for experienced suppliers who play well together. It works somewhat more smoothly if you stick with one company, but that might limit your options.”
- Make maps and controllers mesh. “Select a mapmaker who has experience making various controllers work with his software,” Ferrie says. “Ask for references.”
- Don’t shop for bargains. “Buying technology on the internet at the lowest price will not turn out well unless you’re technologically savvy enough to make it work,” Ferrie says.
- Expect to use help lines. “Before you buy from a supplier, dial the toll-free help line and see how long you remain on hold,” Ferrie says. “Remember, it will take longer during planting season.”
- Read operator manuals. Answering your own questions can save a lot of time during busy seasons.
9. Practice Prior to Planting
“Most challenges for growers moving into VIT occur in the beginning, when they don’t yet know the system,” Ferrie says. “Once they get into a rhythm, everything goes fine.
“Practice loading fields and making changes in the monitor before you go to the field,” Ferrie continues. “If you put a defensive hybrid in tank A and an offensive hybrid in tank B, make sure it’s set up that way in the monitor or everything will be planted the opposite of what you intended.”
“Run your planter through a test strip on a grass lane to make sure everything is performing properly. Do this every year—but especially when you make upgrades to your equipment.”
10. Plant a Perfect Stand
“Once your VIT equipment is working as intended, planting is no different from before,” Ferrie says. “Follow the usual rules to get a great stand.”
Tools are available to vary the rate of every input for every soil type in a field. Ready yourself for variable-input technology by following along with this seven-part series at bit.ly/VIT-series