Taking a Systems Approach
To get results from precision farming, some farmers need to change the way they think. By adopting the Systems Approach, they can consider how critical decisions in agriculture affect one another. Only then can the impact of decisions be deciphered and management changes implemented. Darrell Smith caught up with Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie to get an explanation.
By: Darrell Smith, Farm Journal Media
It’s getting harder to schedule a fishing trip in the middle of the summer. That’s because crop management runs all the way through harvest season—and then the cycle starts over again.
That management technique is called a "Systems Approach," explains Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. It is a concept you must master before you can reap the benefits of improved crop genetics and new technology, such as auto-guidance and variable-rate application.
"A Systems Approach is easy to talk about, but it’s harder to carry out," Ferrie adds. "But it’s worth the effort, especially with today’s corn prices." At Farm Journal Corn College, Ferrie shared tips for mastering systems management without getting swamped by the details.
The Systems Approach requires understanding how one process influences others (see the pyramid below). Or, as Ferrie puts it, "the key to high yields is in the details."
The approach starts with a foundation of balanced fertility, a deep rooting environment and timely operations. "These, along with drainage, soil pH and fertility, are basic steps for high yields," Ferrie says.
The health of a corn plant’s roots tells a lot about field conditions and yield potential. "Take a spade to the field and look closely at your corn roots," Ferrie says. "Are the roots growing horizontally because of compaction or dense layers? Failure to get the necessary depth of rooting has been the downfall of many farmers’ systematic approaches."
Understand your stand. "When it comes to stand, ‘pretty good’ is no longer acceptable," Ferrie continues. "You must be able to say: ‘I planted 34,000 seeds, got a final stand of 28,000 and wound up with an ear count of 26,000—and here’s the reason for the low ear count.’
"If your stand is full of doubles and triples, you need to evaluate your planting techniques. Ask yourself if you have the right equipment and if you are running it correctly," he adds.
The timely and efficient field work required by a Systems Approach becomes more challenging as your farm operations grow, Ferrie says. You may need help covering the details.
Fortunately, assistance is available from many sources, including consultants, fertilizer dealers, seeds people, universities, equipment dealers, the Internet "and even your friends at the coffee shop," Ferrie says. "Take advantage of every source. Knowledge is the glue that holds the crop management pyramid together."
You and your support team must be on the same page and moving in the same direction. "Keep your staff and advisers abreast of your short- and long-range goals," Ferrie says. "Discuss your plans ahead of time, including your tillage system, rotation, GMO versus non-GMO crops and equipment needs."
Besides understanding crop production, you must know your abilities and time constraints. "You may need to delegate a couple of operations to someone else because you’re too busy or not a detail-oriented person," Ferrie says. Areas to assign might include seed selection, fertilizer application, tillage, record keeping and pest control.
Pest control, a key facet of the Systems Approach to corn production, has been the downfall of many farmers. "Think of pest control as protecting your hybrids," Ferrie says. "Designate a pest boss. If you don’t have one, don’t plant susceptible hybrids.
"Pest scouting is not complicated," Ferrie notes. "Between insect heat units, pheromone traps and weather stations, we can predict a lot of problems before they arrive. If you don’t have your own trapping system or weather station data, have a consultant tell you when to start scouting and what to scout for."
Pest bosses must be aware of variability in a field, whether that stems from planting at different times or using different hybrids. They must get into the field and scout. "You can’t see silk clipping or many other problems through your windshield," Ferrie says. "By the time you see damage from the road, you will already have a disaster on your hands."
Systems management has to be thought through from start to finish, Ferrie says, because one change—in tillage or fertility, for example—affects other processes throughout the season. Good records are essential if you are to know what you did, or planted, where.
"Someone must oversee the system, so there are no holes in your records," Ferrie says. "Your fertilizer applicator and herbicide applicator have to know where your GMO and non-GMO hybrids are planted. The person running your planter needs to know where your refuges are and where you need to turn on the insecticide.
"Plans made in February, about which genetics will be planted in which field, sometimes change. If you plant the same genetics in a field two years in a row, you are selecting for that hybrid’s weakness. Someone has to keep track of it all."
Look ahead. Think any changes all the way through, and plan how you’ll get things done.
"If you decide to improve your nitrogen management, for example, you can’t just wake up one day and say you’re going to sidedress," Ferrie says. "Ask yourself how you’ll get it accomplished. Do you have enough manpower? Do you need to delegate some spraying, so you can sidedress? Match manpower with your acres and size of equipment. Make sure your equipment is set up correctly."
Incorporating new technology complicates management—another example of how one thing affects others. Take disease, for example.
"The easiest way to manage disease is to plant resistant hybrids," Ferrie says. "However, it’s not always the best way. In some of our trials, a susceptible hybrid that was not sprayed with a fungicide outyielded a resistant hybrid that was sprayed. So the best hybrid for those fields may have been the susceptible one. Choose your genetics first, and then manage their weaknesses. If you aren’t applying fungicides now, you need to think about doing so in the near future.
"If you decide not to use fungicides, you probably should not plant disease-susceptible hybrids. If you plan to apply fungicides, don’t plant your susceptible hybrids where you can’t get into the field to spray, such as on the edge of a residential area."
It takes time and discipline to master the systems approach, Ferrie concludes. "Don’t let it overwhelm you, or get so busy you forget what you are doing or overlook the details," he says. "I’ve seen farmers discover they couldn’t get their corn sprayed on time because they were too busy planting beans and trying to sidedress. You can master the Systems Approach if you think ahead, use advisers and delegate when necessary."