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In the farmer's shoes

Tyler Harris Close-up of cornstalks
PROFIT-FOCUSED: While the TAPS farm management competition gives out awards for high yield, the main goal is profitability and input use efficiency.
With 2020 farm management competition wrapped up, there's value in stepping into the farmer's shoes in terms of risk associated with management decisions.

Back in 2018, well before I came back to Wallaces Farmer, my colleague in Nebraska, Curt Arens, and I first participated in a competition that started the year before at the University of Nebraska's West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte.

The competition, part of the Testing Ag Performance Solutions program at UNL, lets participants make a range of decisions to manage an irrigated corn or dryland grain sorghum field throughout a growing season. These decisions include seed selection and planting population, nitrogen, irrigation, grain marketing, and crop insurance. At the end of the year, awards are given for highest profitability, highest input use efficiency and highest yielding — with a bigger emphasis put on profitability and efficiency than yield.

I've never won an award for highest profitability, efficiency or yield, but I was honored in January when the TAPS program coordinators announced I had won the 2020 TAPS Advocate Award for covering the event since its inception in 2017.

But that's not the reason I'm writing about the program. What's so fascinating about the TAPS program is the flexibility it offers participants, allowing them to experiment with practices and decisions they might not otherwise implement on their own farm. On a couple occasions, I've even spoke with farmers who said that after using certain practices in the competition, they planned to try it on their own farm.

Staging area

In a way, the program serves as a kind of staging area for different practices and on-farm research, generating data collected consistently on the same field, and answering questions regarding efficiency and profitability by using different hybrids, planting populations, nitrogen rates and timing, and irrigation practices.

For example, using data from the 2018 competition, Nebraska Extension economist Matt Stockton determined there was a difference in profitability of $173.58 per acre just by choosing one hybrid over another. Of course, that's with a wide range of yields and seed costs — and please keep in mind this is in an irrigated environment.

From my perspective, the program also offers a chance for people not directly involved in production agriculture (like myself) to step into the farmer's shoes — at least to a certain extent. I realize when it's for the purposes of a competition that I'm truly dealing with the level of risk that growers deal with on a regular basis.

Still, it did help me develop a deeper understanding of the challenges growers go through in terms of how they make management decisions, including the balance between trusting technology, versus what the neighbors are doing when it comes to irrigation decisions, and balancing what's ideal and optimal, versus what's practical when making nitrogen decisions. And it wasn't just those of us at Nebraska Farmer, but university researchers, ag businesses and government employees who also participated in the competition.

There's value in experimenting with something new and stepping outside your comfort zone, especially when it comes to agriculture. For myself, and a number of other people not directly involved in production agriculture, having an opportunity to assume at least a portion of the risk taken on by farmers on a regular basis is a huge value. For growers themselves, it's valuable to have an opportunity to experiment with new practices they wouldn't normally use on their own farms — practices that might improve their overall efficiency and profitability.


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