Check your mailbox. Check your inbox. Scroll social media. Check your voice mail. There’s a good chance you’re seeing a sales pitch in one (or maybe all) of them for some type of additive for this crop year. Think micronutrients, biologicals, boosters and a flood of other products.
Five-dollar corn and $13 soybeans certainly make adding those products more plausible. But even at high grain prices, you have to be smart with your money. So, the million-dollar question remains: what’s worth it? What’s the return on investment? And what do you choose?
“Our industry as a whole has seen countless products that haven’t stood up to performance claims over the years,” acknowledges Jack Hardwick, an independent agronomist from Beardstown, Ill., who co-owns Advanced Seed Solutions.
Hardwick is an optimist, though — he’s open-minded and likes to try new things, test, and see what rises to the top as the proverbial cream. And it’s not enough to just see a response, he says. Hardwick wants three years of data to prove consistency and repeatability. The catch right now is that there are way more products than there are good third-party, unbiased data.
“You have to do on-farm trial data to see if the product is going to be worth it,” he says. Test it across more than one field, leave check strips, gather data well and see what you can learn.
Pioneer agronomist Matt Montgomery agrees that it’s hard to know what will work right now, given the huge number of new products and little time for independent third-party testing. But there are a few things to watch out for, he says.
Montgomery’s red flags:
• Promises to drastically slash fertilizer. Crop scientists have refined N, P and K numbers, but they haven’t come up with anything to replace them. Same for claims that the product will “release” the potash and phosphorus that’s bound up in the soil. “There’s some soil chemistry that makes that happen that’s inherent to the soil and won’t change. If someone says it will let you drastically slash your fertilizer budget — that’s a big red no. Walk away from snake oils like that,” Montgomery says.
• Peddling conspiracy theories. If the basis of the sale is that university and industry research on this topic is “bought and paid for,” or that the vast conspiracy is why you should buy their product, walk away.
• Research missing from the bundle. Montgomery gets concerned when the sales pitch is to use an entire package of products to get the payoff, but they can’t or won’t show you research on each product. “The grower needs to know what in there was the must-do investment,” he says. “We’ve never sold corn at a level where we can blindly apply a whole package.”
• No CCA involved. Certified Crop Advisers go through continuing education, and they abide by a code of ethics that boils down to, “won’t pawn off a product that a grower won’t benefit from.”
And on the positive side, Montgomery says to look for these five things:
• Product improves timely planting. If you’re planting into reduced till on ground that stays a little cooler, a pop-up starter fertilizer may increase uniform emergence. It may not pay off every time, but it could help start it out right.
• Solid replicated research. Look at the research they’re presenting, and ask questions: Was it replicated over at least three years? Were soil types varied? Were field environments varied? Were there multiple strips, as opposed to just side-by-side comparison?
• Results on lighter soil. A lot of products seem to produce yield on good ground, but will they help on lighter ground? “If it’s going to work, it has to work in that environment,” Montgomery says.
• Look for some familiarity. Montgomery points to this survey of this survey of 300-plus-bushel National Corn Growers Association yield contest winners (scroll to page 36 in the link). It’s not hard research, but it’s interesting to see what they tried, and what rose to the top — repeatedly. It gives you an idea of what wasn’t 100% necessary for every person, and it can give you a little bit of a signal as to what you should experiment with.
• Some familiarity. Every product has a starting point, but if you haven’t heard of it and no one else has either, it probably shuffles lower on the list of things to try.
Hardwick is a big fan of peer groups, both for conversation with like-minded farmers and to pool solid on-farm test results.
Farmers will be doing more experimenting this year, Montgomery believes the first tier of extra input dollars will go toward treating more acres with fungicide. After that, farmers will experiment with some of the new products.
Where to spend your money first?
Pioneer agronomist Matt Montgomery has a pretty straightforward mantra for raising crops: Start it right, keep it right, end it right. So before you spend money on an extra, he says you have to be honest with yourself and figure out what you’re not doing well right now. Then fix it.
Eric Wilson, agronomy manager at Wyffels Hybrids, agrees. He says farmers have dealt with several years of low grain prices and higher fertilizer prices; and with more money back in the market, farmers have the chance to capture more profit with more bushels. For a lot of folks, that will mean recouping some of the sacrifices they’ve made, like getting potassium and phosphorus levels back where they need to be.
“Low soil fertility levels are a common problem on a lot of acres,” Wilson adds. “We skated by on some of this and still pulled very good yields, thanks to good soil types.”
Like Montgomery, his solution is to start at the foundation. Build fertility levels back to optimum range and get pH right. Fix the basics first.
Independent agronomist Jack Hardwick uses almost exactly the same phrase.
“Look at the basics first. Even at $5, there’s only so much to spend on the crop,” he says. “If your pH is poor, spending $10 an acre on a biological is not going to do you any good. Put that 10 bucks toward limestone instead.
“You’ll get more ROI fixing major, basic agronomic problems than you will chasing down the next great thing,” Hardwick adds.
Here’s a list for what to check first:
• Seed placement
• Seeding rate
• Good emergence
• N, P and K
• Fungicide (corn and beans)
• Planter part upgrades
• Herbicide chemistry rotation to address waterhemp
Nature will do a find job of knocking down your yield potential, Montgomery laughs. “What can you do to maintain yield potential for as long as possible and as deep as possible, as much as it depends on you? Answer honestly, then invest there first.”
3 buckets of additives
Jack Hardwick says he groups all the additives into three buckets: biologicals, fertilizer enhancers and plant growth hormones. It’s not a neat divide, though; some cross back and forth and some fit in all three. Here’s a look:
Biologicals. Also called naturals, most use either a bacteria or a fungus to achieve their goal — as opposed to chemicals. Digesters, for example, use a microbe to decompose stalk residue. Other products use bacteria and fungi to stabilize nitrogen or boost photosynthesis. Some use biology as a predator to deal with cyst nematodes, phytophthora or even insects.
Fertilizer enhancers. These are things like foliar feeds, nitrogen stabilizers, phosphate unlockers, micronutrients and starter additives — just to name a few. And yes, there’s cross correlation to the other buckets, because some products enhance fertilizer with microbes and others, with hard chemistry. Micronutrient blends go in this category, like magnesium, boron and zinc, and in-furrow starter blends packed with micronutrients. Some products use chemicals to help break down phosphorus more efficiently on a ton of DAP. Nitrogen stabilizers like Pivot Bio’s Proven product is designed to replace about 20 pounds of nitrogen using a specific microbe to help fix and stabilize N. That’s a claim that’s resulted in a lot of farmer questions and tests for Hardwick.
Plant growth hormones. A few of the main plant growth hormones include ethylene, auxins, cytokinins and gibberellins. These hormones each perform a specific function within the plant, including root and shoot growth, delayed ripping and overall plant vigor.
Worth the experiment
What’s worth trying on a few acres in 2021? Here’s a short list from some of our agronomists:
• Pivot Bio Proven
• Nitrogen split application, to get it on at the right time for the plant
• Xyway, an in-furrow fungicide
• Sulfur, predicted to rise alongside N, P and K over the next decade; try on both corn and beans
• Fungicide, and not just on a few acres it’s often showing a 10-bushel-per-acre yield advantage. New classes of fungicides out this year include BASF’s Veltyma, and Syngenta’s Miravis Neo and Trivapro.