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Looking forward: Fertilizer strategy, climate extremes, water management

I like to take time every December to reflect on the past year, as well as weigh changes for the coming year and beyond. I know there are big profit challenges ahead — while facing greater weather extremes.

2016. Iowa farmer Ben Riensche hopes to save 10% of his nitrogen costs with a diversified strategy that moves away from blanket-rate fall application

to a variable-rate, just-in-time spring and sidedress application strategy. As for phosphorus and potassium, he won’t cut those, but will shift from blanket to prescription rates to achieve a 3% to 5% yield bump. How? He’s getting help from data and models to gain this efficiency.

While short-term business decisions are critical, so are key investments. One of the best investments right now is to start improving the health of your soils, because that will have a positive impact on both agronomics and the environment.

A good addition to your 2016 business plan is an important section called “Soil Investment*” (the asterisk reminds you to discuss this with landlords, because you are improving their investment — like a good broker). Cover crops and other soil-building practices (no-till, strip till, etc.) should be featured in this section.

Working with many landowners adds to the challenge. But you can play a key caretaker role and work with them. Any reasonable owner should appreciate someone who strives to improve their land investment every year. Hopefully, they appreciate your efforts so much that they participate with money or improved rent deals. Everyone just needs to know it takes time to succeed at cover crops and building organic matter.

Climate. We have all seen more frequent and extreme weather events in the last decade. Finding political fault over science beliefs doesn’t fix the problem. What can help is a long-term commitment to improved soil health. We can adopt best agronomic practices that will sustain yield and profit growth along with improving soil health. Less tillage, more cover crops, better nutrient management — all will lead to greater soil health and greater land value due to reduced erosion (greater water-holding capacity) and reduced fertilizer inputs needed (as organic matter increases).

Water. By properly feeding our soil “livestock” year-round with cover crops to improve soil biology, we will rely less on fertilizer applications. Combine that soil health aspect with additional water quality practices that capture stray nitrates — we can truly see a future of sustainability where we balance crop production and environmental needs. We need that, not only to increase the success of your family farm for future generations, but also to help feed more than 9 billion people by 2050.

I sincerely thank you for reading, for viewing more valuable content on, for subscribing to our newsletters, and for being willing to Think Different.

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