Farm by the Rule of 5s

Posted by Sonja Begemann on Tue, 03/19/2019 - 10:46

On the right-hand window of his tractor, Matt Foes scribbles notes to pass the hours he spends in the seat. His goal? Brainstorm ways to improve next season.

In 2018, Foes moved back to the family farm after years of working in research for seed and equipment companies. In the years before his return, he decided he would do whatever it took to make sure his operation was as efficient and profitable as possible.

“I always assume I don’t know the best way to do something, so I learn from other people,” Foes says. “My dream is to figure out how to do things better than I have in the past.”

Ever the tinkerer, the Bureau County, Ill., farmer isn’t going to settle for status quo and run with it. Instead, the former scientist experiments on his own operation and asks questions to find new and better ways to run his farm.

“I farm by the rule of 5s,” Foes says. “I want to be 5% better at growing, 5% less expensive and 5% better at marketing each year.”

Crop production is more than picking the best hybrids and varieties for each farm; it’s making sure they’re fed all season, Foes says. Rethinking his strategy for fertilizer application and management has made a huge difference in his yields.
In 2018, Foes harvested 300 bu. per acre corn on 1.5% organic matter soils and boosted his kernel girth, on average, from 16 rows around to 18 rows.

“We might be applying the same rates we’ve always done, but we need to be cognizant that we’re raising much higher corn and soybean yields than we did five to 10 years ago,” Foes says. “As production goes up we are increasing grain removal from the field, and we need to account for that.”

In addition, he says a lot of farmers are placing the three essential nutrients for corn, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), in the wrong spots.

“Consider the form of fertilizer you’re putting on, its mobility and where you place it,” Foes says. “P and K don’t move, but N does.”

For years his family put dry P and K on the surface and buried N 7" to 8" in the soil before planting corn. By the time the seed hits the soil, none of those nutrients are in the optimal position for plant uptake.

“We’re backward with fertilizer placement—we put the immobile stuff on top and the mobile stuff too deep,” he explains.

Now Foes puts nutrients where they need to be to end up in the root zone at planting. After that, he spoon-feeds corn nutrients at critical stages during the growing season.

Spoon-feeding N is more efficient. Instead of applying more than 1 lb. of N per anticipated bushel, he only applies 0.8 lb. to 0.85 lb. Approximately 25% of his overall N needs are applied as the seed hits the soil with the planter; the remaining three-quarters is fed throughout the season.

When it comes to P and K, Foes applies according to the crop removal rate for the upcoming season. This ensures he’s keeping the crop fed based on current goals and not on his historical yields.

Cutting costs isn’t easy, but Foes found decreasing his machinery lineup goes a long way. The first change he made was switching to strip-till across his 2,300 acres.

“I thought about all the passes we were making—chisel plowing or ripping, running a finisher and paying someone to apply fertilizer—prior to adopting strip-till. When you add up those passes and the equipment it takes, it’s quite an investment,” Foes says. “In addition, I was going to need to replace the chisel plow, cultivator and tractor, so instead I just bought a used strip-till bar.

“It [strip-till] combines a lot of tillage and application into one pass. I can do it all with fewer man-hours and the same tractor,” he adds.

After drastically reducing his tillage and planting costs, Foes took a fine-toothed comb to the rest of his operation to evaluate efficiency.

“We had a self-propelled sprayer for about eight years and having control over what and when you spray is critical to agronomic success,” he says. “But I decided it doesn’t take a $200,000 self-propelled sprayer to be successful.”

Even if the sprayer is paid off he found it loses $20,000 to $25,000 in annual depreciation, and costs about $5,000 each year in maintenance. In addition, it’s only used a few weeks out of the year and sits useless the remainder of the time.

“I had a tractor that was under-utilized in the spring and summer, so I sold the self-propelled sprayer and moved to that tractor with a pull-behind sprayer,” Foes says. “I took the capital investment and spread it over more of the season, and I didn’t lose spraying capacity—it just costs a lot less money.”

Marketing is one of the biggest challenges and most intimidating tasks farmers face. Foes has a degree in organic chemistry and a master’s in agronomy—so he’s no expert in the marketing field, but he’s found what works for his farm.

“Part of it is knowing exactly how much it costs to produce a bushel of grain on your farm,” he says. “I know how many dollars I need to have by the end of the year, how much for rent, seed and inputs specifically. I can set my targets better than just saying I’ll sell for the biggest number possible.”

By the end of planting season, Foes has sold 30% to 40% of his crop. He hearkens back to 2012—his worst production year on record—and knows he’s safe hedging to that level early in the season.

“As the summer goes on and I have a better idea of yields I scale up my selling,” he adds. “I also use storage to capture carry in the market.”

With on-farm storage, he can hold onto about 80% of his corn crop and basically 100% of his soybeans until the market provides an opportunity for profit.

“We’re going to deal with prices that have a 3 in front of them for a while,” he says. His strategic plans are putting him in a better profitability and sustainability position for years of high-$3 corn prices. “What I learned in $6 corn can help keep us profitable in sub-$4 corn.” 

Assess How You Can Benefit From Technology

One of the biggest influences in Illinois farmer Matt Foes’ agronomic decisions is technology. He uses it to manage his crop in-season and to help track fertilizer and chemical applications.

“Technology has always been something I’ve tried to adopt when it has good ROI,” Foes says. “Knowing when and where rain falls and having the ‘right’ control systems on the planter are things I’ve adopted. But, if the technology doesn’t pay off at the end of the season I give it up.”

Face it, each farmer is at a different level of technology adoption. While you might have the latest planting equipment and notifications on your phone every time it rains on a field, another farmer might just be adding yield-sensing technology to his or her combine.

Take the time to evaluate where you are in terms of technology adoption and what components could potentially improve your bottom line.

“Do a self-evaluation,” says Chad Colby, owner of Colby Ag Tech. “There are a lot of ways you can use technology to make your farm more efficient.”

He offers the following tips to evaluate how technology can improve your operation:

  • Build a plan one, two and three years out.
  • Invest in items with ROI—if you can’t see the immediate return don’t buy it.
  • Identify where you can invest that gives real-time solutions.
  • Calculate your results to see if a technology or practice is actually paying off.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail.