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2019 TAPS competition: A look at the winners

Marketing strategies set the most profitable teams apart in the third annual contest held in Nebraska.

Tyler Harris

January 3, 2020

6 Min Read
combine in corn field
FOCUS ON PROFIT: Extension specialists, educators and technicians harvest corn in the TAPS plot in this 2017 photo. Tyler Harris

For the past three years, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has hosted a new kind of farming competition at the West Central Research Extension and Education Center — one that focuses on profit and input-use efficiency over yield.

The Testing Ag Performance Solutions (TAPS) program's farm management competition allows participants — including growers, Extension educators and specialists, agronomists, and others — to make a range of management decisions on a small plot. This includes hybrid selection, planting population, nitrogen and irrigation, crop insurance, and grain marketing — with awards given for most profitable, highest input-use efficiency, and highest yield.

So far, a new competition has been added each year. For the 2017 competition, all participants grew corn on a small, pivot-irrigated plot, calculating yields and marketing based on a simulated 3,000 acres.

In 2018, participants could grow pivot-irrigated corn or pivot-irrigated sorghum, which required budgeting for 1,000 acres. And for 2019, a subsurface drip-irrigated (SDI) corn competition was added, which involved marketing based on a simulated 1,000 acres.

Chuck Burr, Nebraska Extension educator, notes that this year the most input-use efficient team from each competition also had the highest yield.

"To me, that says you don't have to give up yield to be efficient," says Burr, who has teamed with Nebraska Extension irrigation management specialist Daran Rudnick and Sutherland, Neb., grower Roric Paulman to organize the TAPS competition the past three years.

With the range in corn futures prices throughout the year, marketing played a big role in profitability.

"There was over $1 difference in the futures price throughout the year," Burr says. "So there was ample opportunity to lock in a profit in dollars and cents per bushel. All three profitability winners really showed the importance of grain marketing throughout the growing season."

High yields, high profit

Mike Baker, who farms near Trenton, Neb., took home first place for highest profitability and highest yield and tied with Alma, Neb., grower Ron Robison for highest input-use efficiency in the sorghum competition.

Baker's sorghum yielded 172.8 bushels per acre using a hybrid he'd never grown on his own farm, other than on a hybrid plot. "It won my irrigated plot last year, so I thought, why not give it a shot? It worked pretty well," he says.

He applied 150 pounds of nitrogen, and only 0.60 inches through the pivot just to apply fertilizer. No actual irrigation was ever needed.

"I used soil moisture sensors and the platform on the TAPS webpage to monitor water stress, and the plot never got close to the stress level needed for irrigation," Baker says. "I put on 60/100 just with two shots of nitrogen through fertigation. I mostly managed nitrogen based on past experience. I planned to cut it back about 20 to 30 pounds and put on 150 pounds total. And the yield response was still there. I got more bushels than N put down."

Baker's marketing strategy involved using a hedge-to-arrive contract and selling large quantities at a time. This is one reason he was most profitable, at $70.20 profit per acre.

"We had a lot of $4 contracts, which was 40 cents off where I'd like to have been on the high," he says. "I locked in a lot of it at that price. There was a lot of communication with the Frenchman Valley Co-op [which serves as the delivery point for the sorghum competition], and I sold a lot of bushels at once — usually over 100,000 bushels of grain to help get a little bit better basis bid."

Irrigating with drip

The Big Cob Bin Busters — a team made up of Big Cob Hybrids representatives and customers — took first place for all three categories in the SDI corn competition, with 278 bushels per acre.

As a corn hybrid company, Big Cob had access to people with expertise in different areas.

"North Platte is a unique environment," says Ben Benson, team member and Big Cob Hybrids president. "You've got a higher elevation and different soil types to consider. We looked at the performance of one of our hybrids, 15-H64, over a multiyear period. It's a little fuller-seasoned for that geography, but it dries very well. Everything came together really well this year. I think we captured more bushels by having a fuller-season hybrid out there."

Jason Ladman, director of sales at Big Cob, notes the team's marketing strategy involved selling in large increments.

"When the opportunity came when the pricing was most beneficial, we decided we're just going to market big amounts," Ladman says. "We wanted to get in the $4.50 range on the board price, and we pulled that off the end of May."

And the team put a lot of pressure on that strategy. They were the only team in the drip competition that didn't purchase insurance.

"We felt the greatest risk was from hail," Ladman adds. "It's a small plot, so the likelihood you're going to be devastated by hail is small. Using SDI, from a risk standpoint and our APH [actual production history], we felt it's probably not worth the money for the competition."

Grower group takes top profit

A group of 10 growers from Perkins County took home the award for most profitable in the pivot-irrigated corn competition, while the Fontanelle Hybrids team took home the awards for highest yield and highest input-use efficiency.

According to Ted Tietjen, team member and grower from Perkins County, the team used data from Nebraska Water Balance Alliance demonstrations to create a nitrogen strategy. This meant a preplant application of 70 pounds of nitrogen, and making up the balance in three 30-pound applications through fertigation.

They also followed soil moisture probe and weather station data to manage irrigation, although Tietjen notes, "We did receive rainfall events right after an irrigation application that would have saved an inch to an inch and a half."

In 2018, the group was $1.85 per acre short of tying for the most profitable award, and Tietjen says the challenge for 2019 was to improve on marketing.

"Since there were 10 of us and the Chicago Board of Trade was moving, it took a while to get a consensus on what to do," Tietjen says. "By the time we had a consensus, the markets had changed. So in March of 2019, we decided to benchmark our marketing so that if the board reached a certain price, we would sell 20% of our anticipated production."

This meant hitting several highs in the market, and selling large amounts of 150,000 bushels or more at a time. In the end, the team netted $293 per acre.

"The team approach based on different growers' experiences proved to be the most valuable, as it gave the project a reasonable balance on what could be expected," Tietjen says.

About the Author(s)

Tyler Harris

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Tyler Harris is the editor for Wallaces Farmer. He started at Farm Progress as a field editor, covering Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Before joining Farm Progress, Tyler got his feet wet covering agriculture and rural issues while attending the University of Iowa, taking any chance he could to get outside the city limits and get on to the farm. This included working for Kalona News, south of Iowa City in the town of Kalona, followed by an internship at Wallaces Farmer in Des Moines after graduation.

Coming from a farm family in southwest Iowa, Tyler is largely interested in how issues impact people at the producer level. True to the reason he started reporting, he loves getting out of town and meeting with producers on the farm, which also gives him a firsthand look at how agriculture and urban interact.

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