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Easing the Current Income Squeeze From Low Farm Commodity Prices

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Fine-tune your fertilizer/manure program

If you think soil testing isn’t that important, think again. A systematic whole-farm soil testing program is the backbone of a good crop nutrient plan. Without soil test report information, you can only guess what’s going on regarding fertilizer needs. Michigan State University Extension recommends a maximum of 20 acres per soil test. This may seem like overkill, but soil variability can be surprising, even within a larger field that looks uniform.

Testing fields on a three-year schedule is suggested. The cost is low, around $0.34 per acre each year, based on three-year sampling schedule and 20 acre maximum per sample. The information you gain can help you make good fertilizer decisions. It may allow for reduction in nutrient rates if nutrient levels are adequate or high. It may call for increased nutrient application leading to higher yields and quality at an economic rate. Keep the end result in mind.

Utilizing a custom blended fertilizer based on soil test information instead of a pre-blended fertilizer, such as 19-19-19, at a traditional rate based on past practice can reduce your outlay for unnecessary nutrients. Several reputable and dependable agricultural soil testing labs are available, including the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory. Do the soil testing yourself or get your agricultural supplier or consultant to do it for you. Collecting a quality, representative sample is important. You can find instructions at the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory or contact your local MSU Extension office. The main thing is to get it done and use the information.

Lime, if needed, is the first place to spend at least some of your nutrient budget. Correcting low soil pH will make existing soil fertility more available to crops. Lime is not a no-brainer. It must be spread as accurately as possible and incorporated thoroughly to the intended depth. If not incorporated, lime application should be limited to not more than one ton per acre annually.

If you have a large enough volume of stored manure, get a manure sample tested for nutrient content. There can be significant difference from farm to farm. Utilize your manure resource strategically as an important part of your fertilizer program. Some farms underutilize manure because of the time, money and equipment needed to haul it, or maybe because a spreader isn’t available. Compare the value of the manure nutrients with the costs associated with hauling and spreading. On-farm composting can reduce manure volume and concentrate nutrients.

Review your seeding rates

Every 2,000 corn seeds planted per acre increases seed costs $6.88 per acre using a per bag seed cost of $275. At a corn price of $4.30 per bushel, an additional 1.6 bushels per acre yield would be necessary to cover the increased seed cost. Depending on your past seeding rate, you might be able to reduce it a little and save a few dollars. Other ways to reduce corn planting costs are switching genetics and opting for fewer traits. Having less protection will require more scouting for weeds, insects and diseases.

Seeding rates for small grains can also be fine-tuned. Traditionally, we have used the old bushels per acre approach: oats—3 bushels per acre; winter wheat and spring barley—2.5 bushels per acre. For oats, barley and wheat, a seeding rate of 1.3–1.5 million seeds per acre (28-34 seeds per square foot) is a better goal. Test weight and genetics result in differences among varieties in seed count per pound. Oat seed can range from 12,000 to 17,000 seeds per pound.

If seed counts are not readily available, do your own. Weigh an ounce of seed on an electronic scale, count the seeds and multiply by 16 to get the number of seeds per pound. At planting, figure 10-20 percent loss due to less than 100 percent germination and stand establishment losses. Make sure your seeding equipment is properly calibrated.

Spray your own crops

If you have your own sprayer and are confident you can do a good job in a timely manner, eliminating the application cost of custom spraying over a few hundred acres can save you money. You can also shop around for the best deal on pesticides.

Carefully consider the risks and benefits of spending money on miracle products

Look for unbiased research to support the claims made by companies marketing new products. They may work well for you, or maybe not.

Have a safe and successful growing season this year.

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