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Four steps to capture extra bushels in 2018

Posted on
March 28, 2018

Four Steps to Capture Extra Bushels in 2018

By: Scott Fleming, Nutrient Management Specialist and Soil Sampling Coordinator

Growers must consider the fertilizer source, application rate, and the timing of application when managing for extra bushels at harvest.  But, with a few helpful tools, growers can take some of the guesswork out of crop production. Analysis is a great way to know what baseline nutrients are available for production, rather than hoping the fields are holding enough fertility to make a crop. The most effective analyses include soil testing, plant tissue analysis, and nitrate testing.

Each of these tests offers a measurement of how much nutrient a plant has available to convert into yield. To utilize these tools, I typically recommend four steps for growers and their consultants to work through in order to gain that extra yield. 

Establish a baseline

The first step for growing a high yielding crop is to determine the nutrient content of the soil. Soil is the medium for all plant growth, so soil tests are a great way for growers to determine what to adjust in order to set a strong foundation for high yield.

Basic soil tests vary by region, but most include the soils acidity (pH), organic matter (OM), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Look for a lab that can provide Calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg), and Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) (Ca and Mg elements calculate CEC) components in the soil analysis.

The CEC is a measurement of the soil’s ability to hold nutrients. CEC levels will dictate how much fertilizer to apply in one application and can help provide insight into the soil's resistance to pH changes. 

Determine nutrient movement

I liken the scope of soil and plant fertility to driving a vehicle. Soil tests are a great indicator of what is in a field’s ‘nutrient gas tank’. We can establish that there is a full tank of phosphorus and potassium. The problem is that the fuel gauge only provides a limited amount of information.

The second step for finding extra bushels is looking at the ‘nutrient speedometer’, or a plant tissue analysis, to gather more movement information. Plant tissue analysis reports have many different formats but they all explain the same thing. Ultimately, they provide a picture of how much of each nutrient was in a plant on a given day.

Plant tissue analysis reports are generally laid out in a bar or radial graph and compared to known sufficiency ranges. The sources of these sufficiency ranges vary, but they are generally based on proprietary or university recommendations. A pair of powerful options exist when using plant tissue analysis to find the top end bushels. The most common way is identifying a hidden hunger, or in other words, a nutrient deficiency that hasn’t become a visual symptom. Growers and their consultants should work to identify these hungers before the damage of visual nutrient deficiencies are displayed.

Growers can also use tissue analysis to troubleshoot problem areas. Growers should pull tissue samples from the good areas of the crop to then compare and contrast the results with that of a sample from the bad area of the crop, which in turn will help growers determine the cause for poor plant performance.

Analyze nitrates

The third step and analysis tool to help growers achieve the most from each unit of nitrogen applied is nitrate analysis.  Samples can be pulled for nitrate analysis prior to planting or prior to side dressing. The Pre-Plant Nitrate Test (PPNT) requires pulling soil samples at 0-12” depth and 12-24” depth.

These samples are analyzed separately for their nitrate content, determining the total amount of nitrogen carried over from the year prior. Growers can adjust their rates based on this carry over determination. A grower’s nitrogen application rates can also be fine-tuned after planting by using the Pre-Sidedress Nitrate (PSNT) test. The samples for this test are pulled to a twelve-inch depth after planting and prior to side dressing.

The results will quantify how much nitrate is in the soil.  A table that relates nitrate levels to application rates is then used to determine application rates.

Call on outside resources

Quality analyses are one way to assess and establish crop needs for optimum performance.  However, an analysis loses some value without the complementary boots on the ground to collect and interpret the results. Growers are the first line of caretakers when shooting for the next bushel as they are the key to performing quality work and inside knowledge.  And in today’s complex world of crop production, a grower is never alone. Analysis interpretations and guidance for growers can come in countless forms.  University and extension, ag retailers, seed consultants, peer groups, and web applications are just a handful of the resources available in today’s information age. A grower should count on a few of these resources to get an outside perspective and expert insights on their crop management scheme.

Making use of simple and effective tools can be key for growers to maximize yield and profitability in 2018.  In a mere six months, the 2018 harvest will kick-off in the Midwest. The yield data at that time will be a partial reflection of how well management tools were put to work – regardless of the growing conditions. Growers should be willing to explore new or new-to-them tools and get their boots muddy to take a hard look at their fields. In 2018 especially, they should look to their trusted advisors and lean on them as they grow together.


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Rock River Laboratory

Founded in 1976, Rock River Laboratory is a family-owned laboratory network that provides production assistance to the agricultural industry through the use of advanced diagnostic systems, progressive techniques, and research-supported analyses.  Employing a team of top specialists in their respective fields, Rock River Laboratory provides accurate, cost-effective, and timely analytical results to customers worldwide, while featuring unsurpassed customer service.

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