Wallaces Farmer

How to prep for the next part of the 2024 growing season

Once planting and spraying conclude, there are many maladies that can attack Iowa crops.

Gil Gullickson, editor of Wallaces Farmer

May 22, 2024

4 Min Read
Andrew Focht kneeling in field in front of sprayer
SAVING ON FERTILIZER: Andrew Focht aims to trim his fertilizer bill by 30% by moving to strip till. Photos by Gil Gullickson

Editor’s note: This is the first of a multiple-article series that examines potential threats to 2024 crops and how to best manage them.

Andrew Focht is in his happy place as he plants corn on a beautiful bluebird-late April day. The Villisca, Iowa, farmer not only likes growing corn — he loves it.

“This is my favorite time of year,” he says. “Well, maybe my second-favorite time of year, because I love harvest. But both times, I like just being in the cab, planting and harvesting.”

Focht grows all corn. “I’m just better at it than growing beans,” he says. It also helps from a weed-control standpoint in that an earlier-canopying crop such as corn doesn’t have the late-emerging weed problems — such as waterhemp — with which soybeans struggle, he says.

Two years ago, Focht began strip-tilling continuous corn into standing cover crops. Last fall, he applied phosphorus and potassium in a 6-inch deep strip, and then came back in the spring and applied nitrogen, sulfur and zinc. By moving to strip till, he aims to trim his fertilizer bill by 30% and improve his efficiency use to 0.8 pounds of N per acre. (Normally, it takes 1.2 pounds per acre of nitrogen to produce a bushel of corn.)

He also has revamped his starter fertilizer program, shifting from a conventional starter fertilizer to one that laces starter fertilizer with liquid chicken manure. “I’m trying to get more biology around the seed earlier,” he says. He’s also experimenting with various biological products, with the same goal of increasing biology in his soils. One biological product he is applied broke down corn residue over winter, even on fields that yielded 300 hundred bushels per acre. Meanwhile, a cereal rye-wheat cover crop helps boost soil biology.

Andrew Focht standing near equipment

He also saves on machinery costs, such as not having to buy a soybean head for his combine. He is able to funnel money saved into future purchases, such as a sprayer. This would enable him not only to do his own spraying, but buying one that enables him to apply fertilizer though Y-Drops would also enable him to meet late-fertility needs.

So far, it is working. Strip-till has enabled him to slice fertility without sacrificing yields in producing 250 bushel-plus corn yields. Reducing tillage trips also has enabled him to curb water-wasting tillage trips. Prolific May rains alleviated drought concerns that have plagued his part of southwestern Iowa in recent years. Still, University of Nebraska research shows tilling soil can spur a 0.5- to 0.75-inch-yield loss of soil moisture per tillage pass.

Halftime adjustments

Each year, farmers like Focht establish agronomic plans designed to carry them through the growing season, akin to a game plan drawn up by a football coach. When tasks like planting and spraying wrap up, farmers mimic a football team that goes into a locker room at halftime and makes adjustments for the remainder of the growing season. Tools Focht has used to make adjustments include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). 

Drone spraying fungicide

“I was an early adopter, and I bought one that had an NVDI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) camera 10 years ago,” he says. NVDI cameras use specific light-wavelengths to allow users to better monitor field and crop health.

One problem: “Unless you were an electrical engineer, they were so complicated that it was an absolute nightmare to fly,” he says. “I actually sold it after a year.” 

Today, though, UAVs (also known as drones) are easier to use, he says. And they can make some applications formerly reserved for airplanes and ground rigs.

“I did some trials with a friend’s drone last year,” he says. “Before the heat in late August comes in, I had some corn that looked to be the best I ever raised, even thought it was dry. I sprayed some fungicide on it [with a drone], thinking it would mitigate stress. It did not matter, because it burned up anyway. But instead of using a sprayer then, it was a lot easier doing it with a drone.”

This raises a question: Buy a drone, purchase a ground sprayer that covers more acres but is much more expensive than a drone, or hire a plane to apply a fungicide? 

In Focht’s experience, drones work better than a plane for applying fungicides, as the closer vicinity better coats plants with fungicides.

“I still think ground rigs are better for applying fungicides in areas where you won’t run over a lot of crop, though, because you can carry more water for better coverage,” he adds.

About the Author(s)

Gil Gullickson

editor of Wallaces Farmer, Farm Progress

Gil Gullickson grew up on a farm that he now owns near Langford, S.D., and graduated with an agronomy degree from South Dakota State University. Earlier in his career, he spent 13 years as a Farm Progress editor, covering Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Gullickson is a widely respected and decorated ag journalist, earning the Agricultural Communicators Network writing award for Writer of the Year three times, and winning Story of the Year four times. He is a past winner of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Food and Agriculture Organization Award for Food Security. He has served as president of both ACN and the North American Agricultural Journalists.

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