Here a few ways to improve efficiency — and returns — for your farm

Gary Pike is president of PMG. PMG provides management, marketing, business planning advice and coaching to members who represent 2.5 million acres in Western Canada. To find out more about PMG and how to become a member, visit www.agcoach.caor call us toll free at 1-877-410-7595.

Global financial markets are still quaking. Wheat is hovering around $8 a bushel. This season, you want to make sure every dollar you spend is working to protect your margin.

Take a look at where your fertility dollars are going. If you’re still dumping fertilizer at the same rate all over your field, you can be sure you’re not only wasting input dollars, you’re also reducing potential yield. That’s old-style farming, where one size fits all.

Variable-rate technology (VRT) expert Wade Barnes with Farmers Edge in Pilot Mound, Man., says, “Fifty per cent of your fields give you 80 per cent of your yield. Strategically placing fertilizer and reducing input costs in low productivity areas is really just common sense.”

Barnes offers this example of how fertility affects the bottom line. “If the plan is to grow 40 bushels of canola at $9 per bushel, and we applied 120 pounds of nitrogen, 35 pounds of phosphorus and 15 pounds of sulphur at today’s prices, the fertilizer cost would be $154.61 per acre. Your fertilizer bill would eat 43 per cent of your gross return,” he points out. “The reality is only a third of fields gets the right fertility rates.”

Research backs him up. Brigham Young University and Wilbur-Ellis conducted a three-year study in variable rate nitrogen application. The messages are clear: “Uniform application of fertilizer makes little sense where substantial variability exits. We believe basing a fertilization recommendation off a single soil sample results in one third of the field adequately fertilized, one third over fertilized and one third under fertilized.”

The cost of over fertilization is a mind-bender. Barnes puts it this way: “Let’s say you have 1,000 acres and put down 120N-35P-15S at $154.61per acre. A third of the acreage is 330 acres, so if the producer overfertilizes by 25 per cent, the cost of over fertilization rolls in at $12,755 or $12.75 per acre on 1,000 acres.” If you’re saying, “Whoa, that’s nuts,” you’re right. Overfertilization costs you big time, but the point is VRT can help you avoid costly mistakes.

Barnes says VRT technology fits mid-size and larger farmers best, and perhaps surprisingly, there isn’t much of a generation gap when it comes to adoption. “Older farmers have noticed inefficiencies for years and wished they could do something about them,” says Barnes. “Way too often farmers spend hours on their computer trying to figure out a fertility plan, then get sucked into the field in the spring, and nothing has changed. That’s where we come in. We eat, sleep and drink this stuff. We know the technology and put it to work in the right places.”

He adds that Farmers Edge often helps farmers use the technology they’ve already paid for. “A farmer came up to me and said, “How much is this new technology going to cost me, $20,000? All he needed was a $22 cable. He already had the technology on his seeder.”

VRT ISN’T JUST ABOUT FERTILITY

You can also use VRT to put seed and fungicide where they will do the most good. “For example, you may go for higher seeding rates, but they demand more moisture,” says Barnes. “You need to know where those areas are to be able to seed cost effectively. Most farmers seed a standard rate corner to corner in the field. VRT is also helping farmers put fungicides where they’re needed — not in the low productivity areas of the field.”

Pulse crop desiccation is a new application for VRT. “We hadn’t explored VRT assisted desiccation, but a farmer in southwest Saskatchewan came to us with the idea. Now we’re doing about 40,000 acres with great success,” says Barnes.

GET GRAIN OFF THE GROUND

While you’re focused on improving efficiencies, take a hard look at your storage. The long and short of it: Grain bags can save you money. Too many farmers are still unloading lower-value crops on the ground, which eats up time and causes problems with wildlife contamination. With grain bags for temporary storage, you just tie them up and the grain is stored until you’re ready to move it into the market — and you don’t have to move the grain off the ground ahead of winter.

PMG member Jack Rairdan at Stettler, Alta., describes grain bags as an “amazing system.” He says the unloading process is incredibly fast — he filled five B trains in three hours. “The unloader moves about one foot for 40 bushels of grain,” says Rairdan. “So for maximum efficiency, you want to load a bag from a combine or grain cart because the bags can take the grain faster.” And the icing on the cake: Rairdan says there wasn’t a kernel of grain on the ground.

Rairdan invested in both the grain bag loader and unloader. “The system is widely used at our place, and we don’t see any downside at all.”

Your farm, your systems, your efficiencies. “If you’re serious about farming, you don’t really have a choice but to become more efficient,” says Barnes. “We see guys hesitate. They’re not quite ready, but I think in three or four years VRT will be common practice. The return on investment is too good to pass up.”

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