Probably no year has ever illustrated the need to master multiple production systems better than 2019, says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie — and those conditions could continue into 2020.
The fall of 2018 was wet in many areas. Farmers who use only one production system, such as conventional horizontal tillage or strip-till/zone tillage, were unable to complete their normal fall field work. It continued to rain right through the 2019 planting season.
“That derailed the plans of many growers who were locked into one system,” Ferrie says. “They were forced to plant using practices for which they did not have equipment or experience. The result was uneven stands, slow early growth and reduced yield.”
Ferrie shares this real-life example: A farmer who normally ran a chisel in the fall and field cultivator in the spring could not complete fall tillage in 2018. So he planned to no-till, an unfamiliar practice for him. He forgot about winter annual weeds, which he usually controlled with his field cultivator. With all the rain in early spring 2019, his weeds got too tall to control with herbicides. So he worked his soil wet with a horizontal tillage tool, which caused a compacted layer and an uneven stand.
Then the weather turned dry, and his corn’s roots couldn’t penetrate the compaction to reach water. When harvest rolled around, the corn yielded 140 bu. per acre instead of his normal 240 bu.
“I know a number of farmers who did something similar,” Ferrie adds. “If those growers had been able to correctly implement a system such as vertical tillage, spring strip-till or no-till, the outcome could have been a lot better.”
Besides wet weather, there are other reasons to diversify your production systems. “In normal years, you want to apply the most efficient, profitable and sustainable system to every soil you farm,” Ferrie says. ”It’s best to gain experience with one or more of these systems before the situation arises.”
Three Steps to Diversify Production Systems:
1. Transition your soil into a vertical format. “That’s what makes it possible to move between multiple systems,” Ferrie says.
Farming in a vertical format requires removing dense layers and trying not to put them back in, Ferrie explains. His studies show when roots encounter a layer of soil with a different bulk density, they tend to spread out along it rather than grow through it. Likewise, water tends to spread out on top of a dense layer, creating a wet spot, instead of penetrating deep where it can be stored for use later in the season.
2. Identify the weakness in every field. A field might have poor drainage; poor soil condition; light, droughty soil; low fertility or pH; compaction; or it might be too steep for tillage. Choose the best system to manage the weakness.
“There is no software to help you find a field’s weakness,” Ferrie says. “It requires communication between your pest team, who study fields all season long, and your management team. Along with personal observations, consult old yield maps and scouting reports.”
3. Choose your additional system. If you no-till, you might add vertical tillage or strip-till for fields that are poorly drained, slow to dry out and slow to warm up. If you are doing full-width vertical tillage, you might implement no-till on sandy fields that run out of moisture or suffer from wind erosion.
Next, think about what machinery adaptations are required. For example, if you institute no-till, you will need to install row cleaners on your conventional planter.
“Look for tools and tractors that work in all your systems,” Ferrie says. “For example, a planter equipped for no-till will work in any condition. Get rid of unneeded equipment, and continually assess your horsepower needs.” (The Iowa State University Ag Decision Maker can help analyze your machinery lineup. Visit extension.iastate.edu/agdm, click on the ”Decision Tools” tab then select Machinery.)
Expect a learning curve. “Implement your new system slowly,” Ferrie advises. “It’s easier to learn how a system fits together on 40 acres than on 400 or 4,000.”
Once you master an alternate production system, it might save the day on other fields when the next wet fall or spring rolls around.
Systems Have Weaknesses, Too
Just like soils, every production system has weaknesses. Educate yourself about your new production system, then find and manage its weaknesses. “For example, if you have been controlling winter annual weeds with a chisel plow and field cultivator, and you switch to no-till, you will need to apply a burndown herbicide,” says Ken Ferrie, Farm Journal Field Agronomist. “Plan how you will manage insects and diseases. If you use a custom applicator, make sure he understands the requirements of your new system.”
Why You Should Implement Multiple Systems
Managing each field’s weakness is the first reason to become skilled in more than one crop production system, and it’s the last step to true precision farming. But there are many other reasons, points out Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie.
- Adjust your production method when conditions change.
- Cater to a landlord’s needs or desires. Being able to no-till, or to farm conventionally, might be the deciding factor when you try to rent a new farm.
- Qualify for government incentives, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program.
- Reduce costs while maintaining yield by eliminating field passes, labor, fuel and machinery inventory.
- Be more timely with planting and harvest.
- Transition each field to its most profitable,sustainable system.
Systems for Success
Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie helps you zero in on the best production systems for your farm to close the last link in your precision-farming chain at AgWeb.com/systems-for-success