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Mitchell Hora pushes farming norms with every pass. The Washington County, Iowa, fields aren’t just his playground, but how the young farmer is carving out solutions which are key to his vision for conservation.
“The soil really hasn't moved. It's all still flat,” says Hora as he’s exploring soil conditions after planting. “But it perfectly rips all this cover crop and residue to the side, and it gives us a perfect little seed bed right there. That planter has really, really worked well for us.”
The young farmer isn’t afraid to try something new, even with variable rate technology (VRT).
“In some of our better, higher organic matter soils we'll bump the population up a little bit, and actually on some of our stuff this year, we put in some ultra-low trials, as well,” says Hora.
The Iowa farmer’s ultra-low trials are seeded at 20,000 plants per acre and on poorer clay soils that typically don’t push 100 bushel per acre in yield on a typical year.
“So, to put 20,000 plants per acre out there, to try to give those corn plants as much opportunity to retain water, and to be able to be competitive as it can, there’s no need to spend the extra money on the additional seed,” Hora explains.
Hora says as he searches for the perfect planting population with various hybrids, he’s also pushing planting populations to see if there’s a max.
“We're going to see what some of the trials look like at ultra-low populations, and then we had 60-inch corn to that's at 50,000 population in the row,” he says.”
Farm Journal agronomist Ken Ferrie agrees with Hora’s trial methodology. He says creating blocks of populations across a field can produce valuable information.
“I would recommend that you go 2,000 to 4,000 below where you'd normally go and 2,000 to 4,000 above, as you're setting this test plot up.” says Ferrie, owner of Crop-Tech Solution. “That gives you some good visuals and send some good data on your own farms.”
Testing extremes may also harvest surprises, as Ferrie has seen farmers shocked by what some of the trials in any given field will produce.
“I would say one of the bigger mistakes I see in variable rate planting population is farmers don't go low enough on their lighter soils,” says Ferrie. “It's not a matter of trying to push the heavy soils to a higher high. It's taking those lower soils and lift those yields up and reduce those costs.”
Short-Term vs Long-Term Thinking
As variable rate technology can help reduce costs, Ferrie says the exact opposite is what often creates hesitancy.
“The biggest obstacles to farmers implementing the technology, of course, number one is cost,” Ferrie adds. “And what's presumed cost. In so many cases, it's a gain, but the grower looks at upfront cost.”
Ferrie says that includes everything from investing in GPS technology to outfitting a planter to be able to adjust planting population on the fly.
“It's upfront cost, but I think farmers maybe look too short-term. They don't look at the full value of what the ROI is on this expenditure,” says Ferrie.
Farm Journal Test Plot data found variable rate technology can yield anywhere from $63 to $100 more per acre.
“The belief is, ‘well this only pays if you have big equipment and big planters,’ and stuff like that. Boy, that's not the case. The more variability you have in your farm, the higher the ROI, so we can make six and eight and 12 row planters pay back pretty strong,” says Ferrie. “We did some case studies, for instance, in Pennsylvania in different places and for a 500-acre farmer, if he's got enough variability rate, he can pay for that technology in a very short amount of time.”
Data Driven Decisions
Hora says evaluating the ROI, and exploring if it’s a fit on your farm, is a decision that needs to be driven by the data.
“I think the biggest issue that I’m seeing that farmers are having in adopting some of this technology is to know how to actually implement it into action,” says Hora. “So, farmers get soil data, they get yield data they get, they see trial information, but it's taking that data and knowing how to implement that's where there's somewhat of a disconnect.”
The key to bridging the disconnect, is technology, says Hora.
“I think as farmers, we need to better utilize some of the technology that's out there, utilizing the data not for the sake of more data, but utilizing data for the sake of a better management decisions,” adds Hora. “And with our variable rate on fertilizer, we found that we can decrease our fertilizer by a significant amount, we've actually decreased our fertilizer by 45% in the last couple of years.”
Technology Gaining Traction
As today’s higher commodity prices means more farmers may be able to afford to make investments, Ferrie expects the use of variable rate technology to grow.
“The number of customers that we see moving into the variable rate both nitrogen and population is picking up steam on a yearly basis, and I think definitely within 10 years, I would say a lot of the Corn Belt is probably going to be picking up on this,” says Ferrie. “And it will definitely grain traction over the next five years.”
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