Farm Progress

Competition encourages growers to push for profitability

Growers in west-central Nebraska have a new competition to test their ability of raising a profitable crop.

July 28, 2017

Note: You can listen to my conversation with Chuck Burr by clicking on the link at the top of this article.

Profitability might conjure up different ideas between you and your neighbor. Are you a cost-cutter, a yield-chaser, or most likely, a combination of both?

A number of factors drive profitability, and this year, corn growers in west-central Nebraska have a new competition that emphasizes profitability. The first Farm Management Competition is hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Testing Ag Performance Solutions (UNL-TAPS) program — a group of Extension educators and specialists at the West Central Research and Extension Center in collaboration with the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance (NEWBA).

The competition — sponsored by Nebraska Extension, Tri-Basin, Twin Platte, Upper Republican, Middle Republican and Lower Republican Natural Resources districts, as well as Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, Simplot Grower Solutions and NEWBA — involves 15 plots on a 40-acre center-pivot irrigated site at the West Central Research and Extension Center. Twelve plots are managed by area growers or students from NCTA or UNL, and three of them are managed by Nebraska Extension. Growers can make decisions on hybrid selection, seeding rate, nutrient and irrigation management, and grain marketing. At the end of the year, UNL will evaluate and provide awards for most profitable, input use efficiency, and highest yield.

"What brought it about was the current economic condition we're facing in agriculture," says Chuck Burr, Nebraska Extension water and cropping systems educator at WCREC. "What can we do as producers to reduce input costs which don't adversely affect yield and ultimately profitability? A huge piece of this is going to be grain marketing. Each producer is going to simulate marketing their corn on a 3,000-acre farm in Lincoln County, Nebraska."

Factors at play
Of course, there are a number of factors at play when pushing for profitability — especially on a 40-acre site equipped with variable-rate irrigation, where growers have four opportunities to apply a fertigation treatment. Throw marketing into the mix and the question becomes even more difficult to answer. Then there's also the comfort level of individual growers and their unique situation.

Fortunately, in this competition, growers are competing in a fairly level playing field — a similar growing environment, with each quarter-acre plot replicated three times across the field.

But even within one region of the state, Burr adds that there has been a wide range in management practices among growers involved in the competition.

For example, growers have planted anywhere from 28,000 to 34,500 seeds per acre, and nine different hybrids on the competition field.

"Just adjusting your population or seeding rate would have a pretty big impact on input costs. Corn hybrids are fairly expensive, it's a good investment to put seed in the ground," Burr says. "If I cut back a couple thousand on population, what's it going to do to my yield? Is that a good strategy or not? Also on hybrids as well, we've got a range in a $40 to $50 difference in a bag of seed corn. Do I spend more money on a higher-priced seed? Is that going to return enough yield for me to pay for that investment?"

"Some of the growers are doing exactly what they do at home. How does their management stack up against their neighbors? A few of them are trying new things," he says. "We've got some sensors and capacitance probes out in the field, so they're watching those and making decisions to see if this is something we want to try on our farm on a much larger scale."

Burr adds growers will have the option to participate again next year, giving them a chance to make adjustments. In the coming years, there may even be options to try different practices like cover crops, tillage or soil amendments, as well as different crops like soybeans or grain sorghum.

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