Checking fields important to end yields

Farm Forum

As corn tassels and soybeans blossom, farmers are breathing a collective sigh of relief. In a year when moisture was scarce to start the planting season, rain has revived hopes for a good cropping year. Most fields in northeastern Brown County are looking great, despite swaths of hail that have hit areas in McPherson County and Marshall County hard.

Danger continues to lurk from unwanted pests. Agronomists and crop specialists are walking fields to see if they identify any problems with insects.

Tim Borge of Performance Ag of Aberdeen said that with ever-increasing inputs, farmers have been trying to minimalize their costs and carefully analyze when crop spraying is needed. As Borge and others check fields, identifying areas with potential problems for customers makes good sense.

Those who held back on fertilizer could be looking at some deficiencies in corn, but not much more can be done for those plants growing in the fields. Many finished up with their last pass of Roundup on bean fields last week, Borge said.

Borge sees himself as a guide for farmers. As he drives a loop from farm to farm, he’s keeping a sharp eye out for potential concerns. Running a 4-wheeler through fields at this time can cause too much damage. Borge will walk into the fields, checking for hot spots for insects.

“When I see a problem, I talk to the farmers and show them what I’m seeing,” he explained. “I don’t go over every acre but I take them out for a look, and they can decide what to do from there.”

“Corn is pretty much set for this year’s crop,” Borge said. “We have good-traited seed here, so little insect trouble is expected.”

“As far as beans, I’m seeing a few baby grasshoppers,” he noted. “But if it continues to rain, we don’t expect much pressure. As wheat is harvested, the hoppers may move to the bean fields, but they generally stay on the edges. It’s pretty late in the season, so they shouldn’t cause much damage.” If there are an abundance of these insects, the grasshoppers can clip pods as well as eat the leaves, reducing yields and destroying plants.

From his experience since 2007 in checking fields for customers, Borge said that aphids make their appearance in this area in the second week of August. Spraying is generally done Aug. 14-21. After that, as beans reach the R6 stage, the plants canopy, and the aphids aren’t so much of a problem.

As he walked through fields, he noted pollination will determine corn yields. Control of resistant weeds is best in those fields where pre-emergent chemicals were used. A big change in the last seven years is the weeds that are harder to kill. Kochia, waterhemp and mares tail are especially bad in this area. Roundup is not doing much right now to keep those under control. Borge said that by putting down chemical before planting, control is improved.

Certain times of the year require more diligence. The economic threshold for spraying for bugs depends on commodity prices.

“When commodity prices are high, it’s more affordable to spray,” he explained. “When commodity prices are low, farmers look for a break-even point. If the aphids are at 250 aphids per plant, then it’s time to spray.” When looking at $12 beans, if he saw five aphids per plant, that may be cause for spraying.

Borge provided a ballpark estimate of costs.

“If chemical control is needed for aphids, it costs around $5 an acre for the insecticide,” Borge said. “For the aerial application, it is $7 to $9. If a fungicide is put down at the same time, the cost is $12 to $16. That brings the cost to $25 to $35 an acre. Farmers need to pencil out if they can afford not to spray.”

With soybeans, Performance Ag contracts for aerial spraying. Since it’s late in the season, a fungicide will be put down at the same time. He said the application should happen before pod set. The application is targeted for stages R1 to R3. That’s for this area; around Brookings aphids make their appearance much earlier in the season.

As he walked into the field, he noticed that the plants were starting to set flowers. In that field, he pointed out some damage. The ends of plants were broken off which could indicate that a little hail had come through. Cupping of the leaves revealed stress to him.

“Beans are pretty resilient,” he said. “If the tops are broken off in a storm, they’ll be history. But beans can take a pretty good beating at certain stages.” He noted that compaction in the field could account for the condition.

Weedy patches in the field can steal valuable moisture from plants, Borge said. Any moisture in the field should nourish crops, not weeds. And if weeds are left to go to seed, the damage is compounded the next year. A second pass of Roundup has been used to knock down problem areas. Borge said that products other than Roundup, called burners, are only able to control about 70 percent of weeds.

Down the road, Borge noted that dicamba-tolerant trait soybeans may provide a way to increase control of troublesome weeds. That will be a different story. Right now, the product is waiting on approval for export to China. He believes there will be a limited supply of the seed in 2016. It will probably be 2018 before the seed is ready to go into many fields. “Hopefully it will be sooner than later,” he said. “Yields are said to be the same or better.”

“I do like the changes I’ve seen in agriculture in the past seven years,” Borge said. “It’s fun to see the higher yields and new varieties that are developed. But I don’t like the prices. Getting $3 for a bushel of corn is not good. Farmers shouldn’t have to give it away.”

Borge expects that those who irrigate will see tremendous yields. But in Brown County, he doesn’t think cornfields will yield 300-bushel an acre soon. “We just don’t have the moisture. I think we’ll see 200-bushel an acre averages but not in the upper 200s. And 300-bushel an acre is a long way down the road.”

Changes in precision ag have been exciting especially with low commodity prices. “We have the technology and the products. It’s a good way to minimize the expenses on your poor ground and make the good ground produce to its potential.”

As he travels from field to field, he recognizes there are a lot of risks associated with the business. His goal is to help farmers achieve their goals.

“You can work all year to break even and still be in the danger zone,” Borge said. “This area has great farmers. It’s a fun time for farmers with excellent yields. I recognize that farmers are gambling every day. A lot of money is stuck in the fields. Farmers are waiting to get it to the grain bins and need top returns to make it all work.”

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Scouting with drones

For some, scouting means taking a birds-eye view of fields.

Micah Samson, at Muskrat Farm Supply in Eden, reports he’s sold 15 drones or unmanned aircraft systems or unmanned aerial vehicles to farmers and those with seed businesses this year.

“The drones can show the big picture and the troubled parts of the field,” Samson explained. “From the air, anyone who is doing prescription agriculture can get a really good look at their fields. Some take photos of the fields to compare how the crop progresses. Others have used it to document hail damage.”

Samson said that those who have the devices are really impressed with what they can see and think it’s a good scouting tool. The drone, from its elevation, can identify major insect problems, hail damage or stressed areas.

Samson estimated those who buy drones are from 25 to 40 years old. The 12-inch x 12-inch quad copters have four props and are DJI Phantom Vision II Plus. They can travel up to 1.2 miles. They are connected to cell phones and have GPS built into them. The high definition video and photos flow to the phone. The drones roughly fly 25-30 mph and run about $1,600. They run off rechargeable batteries with 15 to 20 minutes per flight. If it loses the signal, it will come back and land itself.

“The operator is in control of the device,” Samson said. “You are making every move the drone is making. They are classified for hobby use. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules limit flights of these types of drones to a maximum elevation of 400 feet.”

Samson believes there is a definite movement to more use of drones. “They take great farm photos and what you see is in real time, both for photos and video,” he said. “It’s a great way to know what’s in your fields.”