Southern Spotlight: Cutting Corners – The Why Not

James Banahan

James Banahan

My father farms 600 acres of row crop in South Central Nebraska.  It’s a great operation, one that I plan to helm someday alongside my brother.  Small but productive, the farm’s bottom line is always important and something that my family keeps foremost in mind as we make decisions about our direction and future.

I carry this farm with me into every field that I visit.  When I speak with growers, I do not—have never and will never—make recommendations that I wouldn’t make to my own dad and for what I will someday call my own farm.

So when I advise a grower against cutting corners, I am not speaking as salesman.

I know very personally that $4 corn can make a person rethink his field inputs.  You look at that money coming in and you look at that money going out and can’t help but think, “Do I really need that stabilizer?”  I know very personally though too that fighting such an impulse—one that makes you look at important products as “luxuries”—is actually best for your bottom line.  Sure, for now, that money going out sits like a punch to the stomach.  But come harvest, that money going out will come back to you in bushel after bushel, on acre after acre.

When we’re looking to save money on inputs, N stabilizing products are often the first “luxury” to go.  The problem with this is that they are more necessary than they appear.  A stabilizer is a cheap insurance policy on your total N investment.  In our part of the world, environmental conditions can cause an easy and fast loss of up to 30% of the N we put on the ground.  A stabilizer prevents such a loss and ensures that the money you sunk into the ground as N stays available for your crops to use.

Cheaper corn might likewise have you reconsidering your N rates.  Likely, you’re already basing your rate on a 100 bushel mentality, and a not-so-rosy outlook on corn might very well prompt you to consider lowering your rate even more.  But take a quick look at your averages.  The 100 bushel threshold is an expectation that we inherited from tough years in the 80s.  New genetics and technologies have made way for 120 bushel yields even in adverse conditions.  160 bushel yields aren’t uncommon for us now.  Given these advances, fertilizing for 100 bushel corn is already undercutting your potential yield.  Cutting your rate even further only deepens that slash into your yield and the profit it would bring.

If you’re protective of a generous N investment, skimping on seeding rates is an alternate, but common, practice to lower costs.  Again though, the savings now will cost you yield and profit come harvest.  RD plot data from last year showed that acres planted at a rate of 24 thousand profited $40 more than acres planted at a rate of 20 thousand and cost only $12 more to seed.  Here as well, the deeper the cut in your seeding rate, the deeper the slash to your potential profit.  Short sighted seeding rate decisions can, in the worst of conditions, sometimes cost $60 to $100 dollars in lost profit per acre.

The final typical target of cost cutting is chemistry programs.  Their expense—usually $35-$45 per acre—makes them an attractive target for savings, but their absence causes yield and profit loss.  Without a solid chemistry program in place, your N investment is put at risk as weed pressures and resistance increase.  Given good conditions, a pigweed plant will grow three inches per day and gobble up ten pounds of N over a season.  Left unchecked, this plant will continue to grow and double its N consumption.  That’s a waste of twenty pounds of your valuable N on unwanted and damaging weeds.

In all, fighting the urge to cut corners and fertilizing appropriately can very conceivably yield 160 bushel corn for you.  If you’re fertilizing for only 100 though, you instantly lose 60 bushel potential.  N loss due to cut stabilizers can cost you another 20 bushel, skimpy seeding another 10, and increased weed pressure due to a lack of a chemistry program another 20.  While this is, admittedly, a bit of a nightmare scenario, you can see how easily cutting corners can drive your yield to a meager 50 bushels per acre.

Cheaper corn brings tighter margins, making mistakes at $4 corn more costly than mistakes at $6 corn.  The profitability of your operation has always lain in your sound decision making though, so keep harvest in mind to avoid mistaken, short sighted, and, most importantly, short lived savings early in the season.