Crop consultant stresses balance in application of inputs for crop productionWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Deadwood, S.D. – “The biggest problem we have in agriculture is that we have 51 weeks to forget our mistakes,” remarked independent crop consultant Bryan Lutter at the Wyoming and South Dakota Joint Farmer and Rancher Conference in Deadwood, S.D. on Jan, 23.
Lutter has learned to trust his calendar more than his eyes when it comes to input application for his fields, because once signs are visible, it may already be too late to be effective.
“Personally, I have a stringent rule where I write down the number of days after planting and follow that very strongly. For example, on most of my crops, I apply product 21 days after planting. I don’t trust my eyes because it’s been 51 weeks since the last time I was looking at this particular situation,” he explained.
When Lutter works with clients to determine what inputs should be applied to a field, he stresses balance.
“I see people invest heavily in a certain part of their crop, and they neglect another part of their crop. If they satisfy the needs of a crop in one area but not in another area, it’s really hard on the pocketbook,” he stated.
Nitrogen levels are very important when evaluating the balance of nutrients in a field, and Lutter has spent a lot of time studying the nitrogen cycle. He is especially interested in mineralization, immobilization and denitrification.
“Immobilization and mineralization are opposites of each other. Those two things contribute to building organic matter, decomposing organic matter and tying up or releasing nitrogen,” he noted.
Lutter encouraged producers to spend some time learning about the terms, to better understand how they apply to crop management.
“Denitrification is a term that I want people to understand because it’s very common for people to believe they have leeching problems. We have very little leeching relative to the level of denitrification in America,” he said.
Denitrificaiton occurs when nitrogen is lost to gaseous forms such as nitric oxide or dinitrogen gas and occurs when the soil is saturated.
“It’s a real thing, and it’s one of the many aspects of the nitrogen cycle to learn,” he remarked.
One tool producers can use when they’re thinking about nitrogen application was created by North Dakota State University (NDSU) and can be found at ndsu.edu. Extension Soil Specialist Dave Franzen developed a number of calculators to evaluate the cost of nitrogen inputs to help producers with their management decisions.
“They have one for wheat and one for corn, as well. They haven’t finished the one for sunflowers, but it’s coming out soon,” Lutter noted.
Reminding producers that balancing inputs is important, he highlighted the difference between high- and low-input systems. Adding large amounts of fertilizer may not necessarily produce higher yields without also investing other protective measures such as pesticides or herbicides and visa versa.
“We don’t have to treat our crops like an ‘80s rock band treated its hair, spraying it all the time, but it’s okay if we do,” he stated. “I often have high-input and low-input fields on the same operation.”
One suggestion for producers is a weekly crop tissue sample from every acre, throughout the growing season.
“Not only do I believe that we should do a plant tissue test on every acre, every week, I also think we should use an incredible piece of lab equipment –our eyes,” Lutter remarked. “It’s a big deal to be able to visually see nutrient problems.”
For example, when he is assessing a field, Lutter looks not only for areas where crops are seemingly in poor condition, he also looks for weeds and places that look extra green.
“If we have little islands of green in a sea of yellow, it doesn’t matter if it’s the weeds or the crop, we probably have a fertility problem. I really try to look for that, even in little, tiny weeds, because it tells me if we lost some nitrogen,” he stated.
If nitrogen deficiencies appear to be a problem, deep soil tests can help producers determine what further steps need to be taken, as low nitrogen levels in the soil can become very costly.
“I don’t think farmers are capable of avoiding wrecks. We’re going to have wrecks. I’m going to scout wrecks this year, but I don’t like taking them to harvest,” Lutter continued.
Whether soil nutrient problems are due to management issues or natural causes, taking out the whole crop and replanting could be more beneficial in the long run.
“It’s not worth fighting it. Sometimes we just have to whack it and start over,” he remarked. “The replant fields are almost always the highest yielding fields, for whatever reason. When we have a problem in a field, we want to find it early, not beat ourselves up, kill it and start over or fallow the field. There’s nothing wrong with that in some areas.”
Taking a wrecked crop to harvest invites more problems, according to Lutter, who says that it’s better to admit to the wreck and learn from mistakes.
Although the neighbors may be applying different inputs at different times, he reiterated that management should be an appropriate balance for a given field.
“At the end of the year, we can look back and decide what strategies worked best,” he said.