Technology Drives Tillage, Tiling and Nutrient Application

11:01AM May 31, 2019
Nitrogen fertilizer is a major input in corn production and anhydrous ammonia is a widely used nitrogen fertilizer
( Margy Eckelkamp )

In today’s tight margins, Janesville, Minn. corn and soybean farmer Tim Malterer is keeping a tight hold on his pocketbook. Every dollar counts, and error by ignorance just doesn’t cut it—especially when it comes to nutrient and soil management.

“It’s our responsibility to be sustainable,” Malterer says. “We apply enough nutrients to optimize production, not necessarily just to maximize, and manage soil with drain and tillage practices.”

With precision technology and mindful awareness of soil needs, Malterer uses variable-rate technology to give every acre what it needs—and not a cent more. In some areas that means greater seeding and nutrient rates, while for others it means he cuts his losses and lower both. It all boils down to what the ground ‘tells’ him to do.

“We grid sample every acre and from those samples we work with an agronomist to make nutrient recommendations and apply variable rate nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium,” he explains.

They use the Advance Yield System (AYS) program to get the fields’ prescription. It analyses both yield and financial implications of nutrient application and provides recommendations based on the farmer’s goals.

Tim Malterer

“Because of this I know if my conservation practices are good for the pocketbook, too,” Malterer says. “We’ve been doing variable-rate nutrient application of P and K since the late ‘90s and added nitrogen in the past four years. Adding the precision of the AYS program is giving us 4- to 5-times our money back.”

The return comes from saving money on inputs where yields are less and adding nutrients where they can drive yields higher. In addition, tracking this data and cost helps quantify returns by acre and practice.

“We’re learning every year and each field reacts differently to practices,” Malterer says. In addition to nutrient application, he’s tracking the effect of tile drainage and tillage by acre.

Based on his data analysis, he’s hesitant to go 100% no-till. On his cool Minnesota soils it’s just too great a risk during planting season. Instead, he’s striking the balance between tillage and keeping soil where it belongs. And one way he’s doing that is with tile.

“The majority of our fields have tile in them to differing degrees to keep excess water away from saturated soils,” he says. “We’re also doing less tillage on steep hills and trying more vertical tillage and shallowing up our disk ripper. We find if we do a better job sizing residue and make the disk ripper pass shallower we have better yields.”

The disks on the disk ripper are shorted to about 10” versus 12” and that small change is making a big difference as it preserves more of the soil. He’s seen that soil stays on the farm, instead of in one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. A win-win for Malterer and the state’s citizens.

“No matter what, you’ve still got to be hands-on scouting,” Malterer says. He’s also an agronomist by training who works closely with other experts to ground truth every new practice by getting his boots dirty and seeing what’s going on in the field.