Growers need to look at change
6/22/2012 7:34 AM
By Connie Sieh Groop, Farm Forum Editor
“I encourage every grower to begin with a strong foundation to take yields to the next level,” he said. Needham has a crop consulting business based in Kentucky and speaks from experiences in South Dakota. He’s been around Sioux Falls, down to Lake Andes, up in the Aberdeen area, north into North Dakota, with the west end near Scranton in North Dakota where their fields have very limited rain.
Needham shared some of his thoughts about the importance of the AgXchange to me in a phone interview. In coming to the Conference in the Field, Needham says for Sully County, the average spring wheat yield is 35 bushels per acre. It’s 40 bushel per acre for winter wheat. There is quite a range of potential in South Dakota. Some farmers have seen a hundred plus. The area is heavily dependent on rainfall, and it’s really important to keep that in mind.
Those at the AgXchange will be looking at spring wheat, but the principles will apply to both classes of wheat. Yields in Europe have long been three to four times higher. Over the past 20 years intensive wheat production has been introduced in the eastern United States, and yields have risen rapidly in select areas.
Most important, said Needham, is that farmers generally need to do a better job with their crops. Needham said in dry times, farmers are pretty conservative. When rain falls, farmers don’t adjust to put on the extra nitrogen and fungicides that are needed. Many use the same inputs, same in the dry and wet years, and depend on good rainfall to produce high yields. Farmers need to look at goals and do things to extend that potential. He advised creating a potential for increases all the way to harvest time. “I tell farmers to look at the crop and make decisions along the way, not just plant, spray for weeds and then fungicides,” he said. “There is more to it than that.”
Needham grew up in the United Kingdom where 130-200 bushels per acre of wheat yields are common. He now works with producers, helping them increase their yields and profits by eliminating weak links within their production systems. “In the late 1980s, Kentucky-based Miles Farm Service, assembled a team of European agronomists, including myself, to introduce European wheat management practices to customers,” recalled Needham. “I worked for him for 17 years, and we contributed to doubling the state wheat yield. According to USDA data, the Kentucky wheat yield averaged 71 bushels per acre in 2006 and 2008, a far cry from the low 30s in the early 1980s.” Needham saw lots of problems such as inconsistencies in planting depth, weed competition and other lost opportunities. By making suggested changes, producers now see 100 bushels on a field in a good year. “The bottom line is the bottom line. It doesn’t take that much more to make that count.”
“Higher yields always begin with high-quality seed,” said Needham. “My higher-acreage clients raise at least four to six different varieties each year, which include a couple of new high-yielding releases, to spread the risk and also help us understand which are most suitable and consistent across soil types and planting dates.” He emphasized that seed needs to be well cleaned (ideally with a gravity table), and it should be treated uniformly with a fungicide seed treatment.
Improved soil testing. Farmers need to take soil samples regularly to better understand macro- and micronutrient levels, in addition to how the soil’s nutrient levels change over time. Some of the most successful wheat producers that he works with sample their soil annually and have done so for the past 30 years. “You can’t afford not to have current soil tests,” Needham said.
Residue management. Establishing even wheat stands starts at harvest. Poor or inconsistent emergence can frequently be traced back to poor residue distribution with the combine. In no-till, this becomes even more crucial. Heavy streaks of residue cool the soils, especially in early spring. Residue must be distributed uniformly with the combine at harvest time, so if you know you have problems distributing residue, he suggests talking to your equipment dealer about aftermarket kits or modifications that can help improve residue distribution and improve the following year’s crop stands and standards of uniform.
Higher yields equal higher returns, which equal incentives to fine tune the crop. It is one reason that Europeans were quicker to adopt multiple fungicide applications as well as multiple applications of nitrogen. "It boils down to a better stand, timely, uniform and appropriate applications of nutrients and crop protectants, and quality seed,” Needham said. “Getting out in the production field at the Agxchange, we‘ll look at what it takes to increase wheat fields looking at nitrogen, fungicides, seed quality and all of those avenues. The overall goal it to look to increase those yields and profits.”
When there is more moisture, there is more disease pressure creating a foliar micro-climate which makes for a dense canopy, reducing the air movement within the crop which always affects the yield potential. It cranks up big time. There is a need to control foliar diseases such as leaf rust, stripe rust which can damage a crop in dry season. Crops don’t need a moist canopy to see reductions in crop yields.
Needham does 60 to 70 appearances in Canada and the United States each year. Most are indoor events, 10 to 15 are actually in fields, such as the AgXchange. “It’s great to be able to take growers and show them practical aspects of wheat production and identify potential problems. It’s easier than trying to do the same thing with photos. We can talk about making assessment in spacing, look at grain numbers. It really is a much better learning experience. The best environment is when we can drag them out in the field.”
“Look at the world, it just clicked over to 7 billion, and it won’t be long until the population will be at 9 billion,” Needham said. “We need to feed all of those people so we need to look at the infrastructure and land base. We need more roads, more raw materials. There will be a huge strain on production. Some things create greater yields: genetics, plant breeding in general, seeding in general. I encourage planting in narrow rows, at a consistent depth, seeding properly. I’m a huge advocate of soil and tissue testing as we need to figure out base levels and follow with tissue samples. Farmers need to know what plants are capable of taking from the soil. Sometimes the plants are not able to access those nutrients from the soil.”
Precision farming is the icing on the cake. Producers need sound agronomic practices. In many fields, the fundamentals need to be addressed before getting precision ag. Yield monitors help to assess the field so farmers know where to put more nitrogen, more phosphorous. It allows management on a strip-by-strip basis. Yield monitors can help make better decisions. To make those decision, growers need to gather good information to get the higher yields.
Growers need to know and understand the stages of wheat growth stages, depending on the region of the farmer.
Needham referenced Frances Childs from Manchester, Iowa, who worked in improving corn production. “When I asked him if there was one thing he would suggest to increase production, what would it be, he answered, ‘change.’ When you do what you’ve always done, you get what you've always got.” Needham said that farmers need to be ready to change, analyze the seed they use, manage the crop they plant. Needham has traveled to see what other counties are doing, how other counties have adopted crop manage production and how that has a huge impact on yield.