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Articles from 1998 In March

Modified Soybeans: What's the bottom line?

Researchers are pursuing diverse avenues to build better beans for targeted feed and food uses. But sorting out which traits will pay to develop, grow and sell remains the big challenge.

Long a research stepchild to corn, most seed companies haven't been interested in spending a lot of resources on improving soybeans until they could sell added value and recoup research spending. Well that's all changing now, with herbicide resistance and other new desired traits for improved feed and food use.

Currently, soybeans are the second largest cash crop in the United States, valued at $16 billion per year. But that value may increase dramatically over the next decade as plant breeders and biotechnologists add modified oil and protein levels that are economically desired by livestock feeders and food processors.

Altering fat. Last year saw the introduction of genetically altered soybeans with high levels of oleic acid. DuPont Company introduced the new soybeans before Optimum Quality Grains L.L.C., the new joint venture between DuPont and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, was finalized last fall. Phil Kerr, director of business development for Protein Technologies International (a subsidiary of DuPont), St Louis, MO, says that these soybeans "represent the first step in a number of products like this."

"To improve soy oil's stability, you must modify the polyunsaturated fatty acid composition," Kerr says, who was soybean product development manager for Optimum Quality Grains before he joined Protein Technologies International. "This means increasing the oleic acid content and reducing the linolenic acid content of soybeans." Optimum Quality Grains' soybeans have an oleic acid content of 80 to 85% compared to commodity-type soybeans, which have an oleic acid content of about 25%. High oleic soybean oil, like its conventional counterpart, can be used in various products, including adult nutritional beverages, infant formulas and spray coatings for bakery products and cereals.

"The value of high oleic and other oils depends on the application, competitive products and the price of alternative ingredients," Kerr says. But, he adds that high oleic soybean oils for food products can garner premiums of $0.10 to $0.20/lb. over commodity soy oil.

New feeds change food. Livestock producers could possibly use high oleic soybeans in animal feeds to modify food products. DuPont and Land O'Lakes recently studied whether adding roasted high oleic soybeans to a dairy ration would affect milk composition and the dairy products produced from it. The study compared a typical corn-based diet (including silage and haylage) with 3% crude fat level, another ration with conventional soybeans added and a third ration with roasted high oleic soybeans added. Kerr says conventional soybeans and roasted high oleic soybeans significantly increase the fat content of rations because they have twice as much oil as corn.

Results showed that the high oleic soybean diet performed equal to or slightly better than the typical corn-based diet (which performed slightly better than the ration with conventional soybeans).

However, researchers were most interested in how high oleic soybeans might ultimately change dairy product quality. The milk produced from cows eating conventional soy and high oleic soy dairy rations had reduced levels of palmitic acid (an unhealthy component), with a significantly lower level in the latter ration.

Butter produced (from cows fed the high oleic soy ration) was similar in taste and shelf life, lower in saturated fat and softer than butter produced from cows fed the typical corn-based diet. "This was important because its monounsaturated fat content was higher. There was some concern that shelf life would be affected, but it wasn't," Kerr says.

More lysine. Optimum Quality Grains also is working on modifying or increasing the lysine content of soybeans for feed. New varieties could triple the lysine content of typical soybeans. The key is to keep the free lysine level available after soybeans have been processed. The company's researchers produced a defatted, toasted soybean meal with optimum protein solubility. Under optimum processing conditions, they could produce a soy meal with 50% higher lysine.

As with high oleic soybeans, the value of high-lysine beans will depend on the application and the price of competitive feed ingredients. Depending on the price, livestock producers may choose waste fat or synthetic lysine. "Competitive sources of essential amino acids and energy will set the parameters for value of high-lysine soybeans or other modified amino acids," says Kerr. "But, last year alone, synthetic lysine prices were very volatile, ranging from $0.80 to $2.00/lb." Conventional soybean meal sells for about $0.12/lb., so there's still an opportunity to sell high-lysine soybeans at a higher price, he suggests. Kerr predicts there will be future opportunities to increase the soybean's value using biotechnology to enhance flavor and digestibility. One way is to change the soybean's soluble carbohydrate profile. Kerr says researchers have already identified genes which can be used to change the composition of soluble sugars in soybeans. With the right combination of genes, biotechnologists will be able to shift carbohydrates into the more digestible and flavorful sucrose, he says.

Compete with meat. Kerr suggests that soy products with improved taste and digestibility will be better able to compete with milk, pork, poultry and beef proteins. And the market potential is huge. The world population annually consumes 15 million metric tons of milk protein and about 71/2 million metric tons of pork, poultry and beef.

When it comes to soy protein, however, the population consumes less than one million metric tons annually. The reason why people have not consumed more soy protein has been because of its poorer taste and digestibility. That could change with improvements in sugar composition.

Such improvements could translate into improved revenues for soybean producers. Concentrates and isolates made from high-sucrose beans, for example, could sell for four to five and even up to 10 times more than soy flour made from conventional beans, Kerr says.

Incentive to grow. Iowa State University economist Phillip Baumel agrees that modifications to soybeans can produce a "positive net benefit" to both producers and end users. But, he adds, it's yield that still nets the highest returns to the grower.

Baumel, and Marty McVey, an economist with AGRI Industries, Des Moines, IA, compared the expected net present value benefits of modified soybeans "either through modification to better fit the needs of end users" or through increased yields (and, consequently, lower production costs). They analyzed 18 modifications in soybeans.

The economists, using complex assumptions, concluded that producers and end users would receive the highest net returns if yields were increased by one bu./acre/year over a five-year period (or if they reduced production costs by $0.15/bu.). Net benefits, discounted back over the life of the research investment, would total $16 billion, Baumel says.

If they increased yields by 1/2 bu./acre/year (or reduced production costs by $0.077/bu.) over a five-year period, U.S. producers also would benefit.

"The next highest-ranking modification was raising lysine one percentage point," says Baumel. "That generated almost $6 billion over the life of the investment, with slightly more going to producers than end users."

Increasing soy protein by 4% was the next highest-ranking modification. "Our technology advisors told us we'd likely incur about a two percentage point decrease in oil," Baumel says. The economists accounted for that and calculated that the protein modification would still return a total of $2.8 billion, with about $1.5 billion being returned to the producers. Reducing the saturated fatty acid content of soybeans for the human food market, he says, would return about $1.4 billion to producers and end users. In this case, the net benefits to producers would total about $602 million.

Increasing the oleic acid content of soybeans to improve soy oil's stability would return a total of about $1.6 billion to producers and end users. Net benefits to producers would total approximately $507 million.

Baumel believes almost half of the total net benefits from soybean modifications would come from increasing yield (or decreasing production costs). Therefore, he suggests, about half of all seed company research budgets should focus on yield-increasing projects. However, he suggests that researchers should also invest in modifications to take advantage of new opportunities.

Steel weeders

Agronomists say it's time to rethink the value of the often-neglected rotary hoe. Sure it'll break crusts to help save stands. But it can provide valuable help as a weed control tool. The key is in the timing.

It was a tool and task I lived for during those warm, dusty Iowa springs of my youth. The rotary hoe, the 4020 with the good AM radio, sunshine, a sturdy ballcap, dirt flying... and best of all, a pace close to "road gear."

When dad picked me to go rotary hoeing instead of using my renowned skills with a cultivator (removing weeds in the row), my day was made. Thankfully, both my older and younger brothers had that "steer-straight" cultivating gene, you know the one that lets you concentrate on what I deemed the most boring job in the world. Nope, not for me. Rotary hoeing was the greatest gig on the farm.

Changing philosophy. We, like many Midwest farmers, dusted off the rotary hoe only when wind erosion or crusted soils appeared. Today, more than two decades removed from my glory days, agronomists emphasize a change in this philosophy.

The new science of weed biology (See "Buy into weed biology," February issue, page 4) will help make the rotary hoe more viable as a weed control tool.

Hoe by emergence. "By using our WeedCast software (a weed emergence prediction tool, based on soil temperature and moisture data), early research shows we can optimize timing to control more foxtail with a rotary hoe or a cultivator," says Frank Forcella, weed researcher at the USDA/ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Lab in Morris, MN. "Foxtail, which is the first weed we've studied, is best controlled with a rotary hoe when 30% have emerged."

Doug Buhler, research agronomist at the National Soil Tilth Lab in Ames, IA, agrees that weed emergence prediction tools "will help add success to mechanical control, but more research is needed."

His Iowa studies with the rotary hoe were born out of a grower segment interested in eliminating herbicides. "We determined that two rotary hoe passes (at seven and 14 days after planting) can control 60 to 70% of certain early species like lambsquarter, smartweed and foxtails," Buhler says. "But once we get a better handle on predicting weed emergence, mechanical control should play a larger role to complement herbicides, especially when cost is $2 per acre."

Short of having weed biology data, the best rule of thumb to improve rotary hoe weed control is to dig in the soil to find small weeds. "If you see white roots scattered after making a pass, that's the time to hoe. If you're going into 1/2-in.-tall weeds or greater, the chance of control diminishes," Buhler says.

Tool technology. Design of the rotary hoe hasn't changed much since the early '90s. But if you're looking to upgrade from a 15- or 20+-year-old machine, here's a look at the four companies offering hoes, most priced in a $3,000 to $15,000 range.

Case offers two rotary hoes: model 181 for conventional tilled fields or 181 minimum-till for mulch-till situations. Each 21-in., 16-tooth wheel is suspended from a spring-loaded arm. Two staggered hoe ranks on the minimum-till model allow for better residue flow. Both rigs are available in rigid or folding styles, in widths from 15 to 41 ft. Contact Case Corp., Dept. FIN, 700 State St., Racine, WI 53404-3392, 414/636-6011 or circle 204.

Deere also has two models: a rigid or folding 400 series rotary hoe. The design features a choice of mainframe size, 20-in. dia. wheels with 16 teeth, walking beam connection to allow individual wheel flexibility and high-strength shank attached to each wheel, which is individually flexible and staggered. Sizes are from four 40-in. rows or six 30-in. rows to 12 40-in. rows or 16 30-in. rows. Contact Deere & Company, Dept. FIN, John Deere Rd., Moline, IL 61265, 309/765-4714 or circle 205.

M&W offers a wider variety of rotary hoes, from basic conventional-till rigs to minimum-till and ridge-till units. Its minimum- and ridge-till rigs feature unique extended rear arms to create two separate rows of wheels. The company claims that its rotary hoes clear trash better because teeth on wheels in one row remove trash from between wheels in opposite rows as they rotate. Widths range from 15 to 41 ft. Contact M&W, Dept. FIN, 1020 S. Sangamon Ave., Gibson City, IL 60936, 217/784-4261 or circle 206.

Yetter Manufacturing also offers three styles of rotary hoe, from the basic rigid or folding toolbar to its MT (minimum-tillage) series to a ridge-till rig. They feature 21-in., 16-teeth wheels, each mounted to its own malleable cast arm, which is independently spring-cushioned. Widths range from four to 24 rows. Contact Yetter Mfg. Co., Dept. FIN, Box 358, Colchester, IL 62326, 800/477-5777 or circle 207.

Redefining planters

Air seeders and drills are fighting for space on your farm. Both will change the way you think about planters.

The next planter you buy may not be a planter at all. At least not entirely.

Equipment companies are taking the best ideas from planters, air seeders and drills to come up with a "hybrid." But it's hard to know what to call it.

When AGCO released a multi-use 6800 planter in 1996, engineers tossed around a variety of labels: 'Central-Fill Planter,' since it offered a large, 60-cu.-ft. central hopper; 'NoTill Planter,' to reflect its heavy-duty rigid frame claimed to deliver consistent seed depth in no-till operations; or 'Multi-Crops Planter,' since it comes ready to plant three crops in narrow row configurations-corn at 30 in., soybeans at either 10 or 15 in. and wheat and other small grain at 10 in.

And it will only get more confusing. "The 'hybrids' right now, equipment-wise, are adapting the seed-to-soil contact and depth control of a planter into the wider frame implement of an air seeder, into a cheaper seed delivery system of a drill," explains Paul Jasa, extension engineer at University of Nebraska.

According to the companies we talked to, there's a totally new creature on the way. Anticipating what these design changes will entail will be the key to buying smart in years to come.

Forces of change. The reason these equipment categories are taking on each other's features can be summed up in three words: speed, seed and precision.

The average farm size has grown due to consolidation. Yet the planting window is as narrow as before. Those realities call for planting technology that can get you across the field even faster. Either through a wider framed implement that can span more acres in one pass or larger payloads that require fewer stops for seed and fertilizer refills, air seeders meet both ends. Yet, in order for these small grain machines to work well in corn and soybeans, they need the accuracy of planters.

"Air seeders will have to get a lot more precise than what's currently on the market in order to plant corn in high-yield environments," says Chuck Lee, corn products manager at Golden Harvest. "But there is a desire to have that kind of speed."

Seed is an added pressure. Never before have farmers had more seed hybrids to choose from. But selection comes at a price. Seed prices are double if not triple of what they were only a few years back. As a result, you need to make each seed count at planting. And the best mechanism to do that is a planter, not a drill or air seeder.

Yet, you may want a narrower row spacing than that traditionally provided by a planter if you are planting a herbicide-resistant crop that reduces the need to cultivate. That spacing is standard on air seeders or drills.

Finally there's the force of precision. Advancements in satellite positioning and variable rate technology allow you to deliver the exact amount of seed required to optimize yield on a particular area of the field. That technology is currently available in both planters and air seeders. The next breakthrough will be to vary seed varieties and hybrids according to your field location. Currently, that feature can only be found on air seeders.

"With technology and the cost of seed today, we want to be sure we place hybrids correctly," Lee says. "That will require the ability to change hybrids or varieties based on satellite location information."

All of these forces are putting pressure on engineers to bring not just planters but air seeders and drills to the next level. And they are attempting this by merging the best features. The ultimate blend will be a single machine that combines the best of all three implements and is able to plant any crop without compromise.

Here's how the design features are coming together.

The speed of air. Air seeders are built big. As a result, they can cover a lot of ground fast. The bulk tank can carry as much as 430 bu. of seed to reduce the number of refill stops, and you can seed a path as wide as 61 ft. But its use historically has been limited in the Corn Belt due to an inability to adequately place soybeans and corn.

That's changing. Manufacturers are replacing the traditional cultivator shanks with coulters, disc openers and press wheels to improve seed placement and depth control. These planter/drill adoptions have given rise to a new category of air seeders called air drills, a combination drill and air seeder.

For example, Flexi-Coil, Inc., came out in 1993 with the 5000 model air drill featuring improved depth control along with its standard packing system to provide better seed-to-soil contact. "The air drill gave farmers confidence that the air seeding system could provide accurate depth control," says Bruce Brekke with Flexi-Coil. "That's something farmers are looking for in the soybean market." Circle 217.

When Deere came out with its 1850 No-Till Air Drill in 1995, it was described as "combining the accuracy of Deere's 750 no-till drill opener with the speed and efficiency of an air drill." Just this month Deere announced an upgrade to the 1850. The 1860 features a new opener with 13 depth settings 1/4-in. increments compared to seven 7/16 increments on the previous opener for more precise depth gauging.

Great Plains has put double-disc openers from its drills onto its new air drills, the CTA 4000 and the NTA 3510. "We are marrying the best of both worlds," says Tom Evans, marketing manager of Great Plains. "You get all the benefits of lots of bulk seed to greatly enhance productivity, but you don't lose anything because of the accurate seed placement and depth control features of a drill."

Benefits of bulk A central bulk hopper is a feature of both air seeders and drills that is showing up on planters. In some cases it is being integrated with the implement, like the hopper on a drill. In others it is being towed as a commodity cart, as with an air seeder.

The hopper box featured on AGCO's 6800 planter is more like the hopper on a drill. So is the design Case has featured for years on its 955 series Early Riser planter. John Deere's version of the central hopper, called the 60 Seed-On-Demand, is more like an air seeder cart. The 60-bu. hopper is pulled behind the planter, and blowers continuously deliver seed to individual hopper boxes on the planter to cut the number of refill stops by 50 to 75%. Circle 218.

For a hopper twist on drills, Deere's new 1560 No-Till Drill features a new-shaped seed box. The seed box is still mounted on the mainframe of the drill but it has rounded edges that give it a look of a commodity cart while providing a 25% higher capacity than the box on the 750 model it replaces.

All these central hoppers offer one key benefit: one fill-point for faster filling and emptying. Compare that with conventional planters that may have as many as 24 individual hopper boxes.

Bulk hoppers have anywhere from one to three compartments to hold seed. Products are metered at the bottom of each compartment. That's opposed to corn planters, where the metering unit is on each row unit. Because there are fewer meters on air drills and seeders, you can switch tanks and stop the flow of one product at any given time or vary rates if the vehicle is equipped with variable rate drives. This opens up the door for switching seed varieties on the go according to varying field conditions.

"With our 1900 commodity cart for our air seeding line, you can meter regular beans in the first tank, for example, and Roundup Ready beans in the second," explains Tom Arthur, division marketing manager of Deere's Seeding Group. "You could put the meter on the first tank to plant regular beans, then pull out of the field and go to another 40 acres, switch the metering, and plant Roundup Ready without stepping down from the tractor."

The same feature is coming to corn planters. But it will require design modifications due to planters' individual row metering units.

All the planter manufacturers we talked to - AGCO, Case, Deere, Great Plains and Kinze - are working on variable hybrid technology for planters. Case may be the closest to achieving it. "There are technical issues involved," says Dale Simpson, planter marketing manager with Case's Ag Systems Group. "We have the capability of switching. It's now a matter of how quickly we can switch between different varieties. Just the physical clean-out of a hybrid can take several feet. Is that going to be close enough?"

Narrow rows of seeders and drills. Narrow row spacings are a feature of grain drills and air seeders. But these spacings are being designed into corn planters, some would say at the expense of drills. In the past few years all planter manufacturers have introduced planters with narrow row spacings of 30 in. or less in addition to the standard 36, 38 and 40 in.

In the mid 1980s, Kinze Manufacturing was one of the leaders to offer ultra narrow rows to plant 15-in. soybeans, using its patented Interplant system on push-row units. Case is now considering going to spacings of 71/2 in. on its planters, according to Simpson. Row spacing that narrow rivals the narrowest spacings on drills.

Accuracy of a planter. Here's where the borrowing of technology meets a stumbling block. Engineers are trying to give air seeders and drills the planting accuracy of planters so that they can be used for corn. But corn needs to be spaced evenly within rows, at a constant depth and with the right amount of seed to soil contact.

The planter is the only implement on the market that can meet those requirements.

"Industry now is focused on getting the air stream of air seeders to singulate seed similar to the meter in a planter," according to University of Nebraska's Jasa. "If they can improve that, they can start developing one large seeder that can seed wheat on narrow spacing, beans and milo on medium spacing, and corn on wide spacing, for instance."

Several companies claim to have reached a solution.

Just this month Morris Industries announced the introduction of its patented Row Crop Planter, which integrates an additional air tank mounted to the rear of the standard two-tank air cart. Attached to the cart through a 3-pt. hitch is a two-row toolbar that allows for multiple-row spacings and combinations of fertilizing methods.

The additional tank contains multiple metering discs, depending on working width, that use air pressure to hold individual seeds in seed pockets. As the disc rotates, individual seeds are picked up and deposited into a pressurized air line where the seed is carried to the planter unit in the air stream for even distribution in the row. The design is in the final stages of testing and is scheduled for sale in the spring of 1999.

Dr. Dwayne Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, South Dakota State University in Pierre, SD, has equipped an air seeder with planter units to plant corn and any other crop with the precision of a planter. "We're stealing all the good ideas from the corn planter and marrying them to the good ideas from the air seeder of the Wheat Belt to make a machine designed specifically for diverse no-till cropping systems."

He was unable to describe how he married the two, due to exclusivity agreements. However he says he is using all Case IH components, including a Concord air cart, purchased by Case earlier this year. All components have been modified for final design. Commercialization of the machine will be up to the equipment companies.

Great Plains says in the near future it also will have a prototype air drill that will plant corn. "The air drill will someday have a fertilizer bar for fall-applied fertilizer, a planter bar for corn and a drill implement for wheat, barley, small grains and soybeans," says Great Plains' Evans.

Flexi-Coil is marketing its air seeder to plant soybeans as well as band fertilizer with a standard corn planter. Additional products are being developed as add-ons for its existing equipment or as options on new equipment to meet the requirements of the row-crop market, according to Flexi-Coil's Bruce Brekke.

One machine for all crops? By overcoming the hurdle of seed singulation, these prototype machines are, by definition, the ultimate rig. Each machine is claimed to combine the best features of planters, air seeders and drills on one implement to plant all crops without compromising yield.

The ramifications are great. "Some equipment companies don't like the idea because it could affect sales of individual equipment lines," says University of Nebraska's Jasa. But he says the concept is appealing for farmers from the standpoint of machinery management. "As I tell farmers all the time at my planter clinics, when you consider the cost of each individual implement, it makes a lot of sense to have one seeder for use on multiple crops.

"Specialization is fine if you have enough acres to justify three different seeders-one for wheat, one for corn, and another for beans, for instance. But there are smaller farmers who need to save money and may want only one seeder. There are also the large farmers who may want the versatility of a single machine so that they don't have to constantly switch equipment."

SDSU's Beck says these new high-capacity, all-crops machines will become even more critical when farmers begin to look at diversifying their rotations. He and many other agronomists are advising farmers in the Corn Belt to start introducing wheat, oats and other crops back into their corn/soybean rotation because of problems with phytophthora, cyst nematode, gray leaf spot, and other plant diseases. "Once we do that, I'm not sure they will want to own two or three machines."

While this new concept is intriguing, other experts offer important aspects to consider for future buying. For example, Dr. Jonathon Chaplin, machinery systems engineer at the University of Minnesota, says that relying on one machine could result in costly downtime if it breaks down. Additionally, if the machine is bigger and has more attachments, it will be more expensive to maintain. "So, be sure to size the machine for your acreage," he says. "That also means making sure it's big enough. Planters are typically the bottleneck for any production system and need to be correctly specified."

Dennis Whitehead, marketing manager with Kinze, adds that transport constraints also need to be factored in before buying bigger systems. "Road travel is a big problem for farmers," he says. "Bulk-fill planter designs have a ways to go before they are as portable as today's current planters."

Corn+Soybean Digest

Starter For Tilled Corn Delivers Mixed Message

Research has shown that starter fertilizer gives no-till corn an early growth kick and usually boosts yield.

Can starter also stoke corn planted in tilled soils?

According to 1996-97 University of Illinois tests, starter boosts the early growth of reduced-till corn, but does not consistently bring higher yields.

The two-year trials were held at six locations scattered around the state, for a total of 12 comparisons. The six sites varied in existing fertility, soil type and crop rotation.

Cooperating farmers typically did primary tillage, such as chisel plowing, in fall, and secondary tillage, such as field cultivating, in spring. About 15% of soybean residue or 35% of corn residue remained after planting.

Spring weather was wet in 1996, followed by cool, high-yield summer conditions. In 1997, a cool, dry spring was followed by a hot, dry pollination period.

The starter was applied as zero, 12.5 or 25 lbs/acre N, zero or 30 lbs/acre P2O5, and zero or 20 lbs/acre K2O. Most was put on in a band 2" below and 2" to the side of the seed. But in some cases, N was dribbled on the surface.

"Early season growth was increased by N in 11 of the 12 comparisons, while P increased growth in five cases," reports Illinois soil scientist Bob Hoeft.

"Treatments supplying 25 lbs of N per acre increased plant growth more consistently than did 12.5 lbs N per acre. And placing the N fertilizer in a 2 x 2 band increased plant weight more than did dribbling N on the soil surface."

Grain yields were increased in three of 10 comparisons by banded treatments that contained N or N and P. (Yields were not taken at two 1997 locations due to poor pollination.)

The increases came at three locations in 1996. There were a few apparent increases at other locations, but the lack of consistency led researchers to believe the responses may not have been reproducible.

"The lack of yield response to starter fertilizer in 1997, even though early growth was increased by an average of 50%, may have been due largely to unfavorable weather conditions at pollination time," Hoeft explains. "That un favorable environment likely neutralized any positive effects the starter fertilizer may have contributed to early plant growth."

In a second experiment, Hoeft and his colleagues determined whether 10 lbs/acre of sulfur, 0.25 lb/acre of zinc or 0.50 pint/acre of ACA, an additive containing N and zinc, improved the performance of a 25-30-0 starter.

When starter N and P increased grain yields, adding sulfur, zinc or ACA did not further increase yields, nor did they consistently increase plant weight.

Corn+Soybean Digest

Water With Wisdom

Until just recently, a whole field got the same amount of irrigation water. Enter new technology.

Now, water and chemical applications can be controlled in areas as small as 22' square. In fact, new center-pivot irrigation technology can pinpoint varying water and chemical needs on the go.

"For years the industry worked to get uniform water application with center-pivot systems. We managed the field for average conditions. But the rules are changing," says Gerald McNabb, Precision Irrigation Controls project manager for the J.R. Simplot Co., Pocatello, ID.

"Most standard irrigation practices waste water, fertilizer and chemicals when they're delivered to areas of a field that won't benefit from them," says McNabb. "The new paradigm is, let's make the water application non-uniform to meet the field's needs." University of Idaho engineers made a commitment to that concept several years ago and developed a precision irrigation control system.

"They realized if you can better control the water, you can better control the costs, crop yield, crop quality and non-point source pollution," says McNabb. "Simplot refined and improved the university's system and is now manufacturing it as a retrofit system for low-pressure, electric center-pivot irrigation systems."

The basics of the system are simple. But it opens almost endless opportunities for fine-tuning your irrigation management. Installation is just a matter of unscrewing the nozzles on a center pivot, adding a control valve and wiring it into the control system.

"We can control water and chemical application in zones as small as 1/100 of an acre," according to McNabb. "That's an area 22' square, or roughly the dimensions of a small house.

"On a 120-acre pivot, we can break the field down into 12,000 individual zones and make applications based on data from a computerized field map stored on a microcomputer in the control box at the pivot."

That control, of course, comes with a cost. An installed system from Simplot runs about $15,000 for a pivot.

"This really is revolutionary," points out McNabb. "The system, in effect, makes more water by using it more efficiently. Farmers are under more and more pressure to be more efficient. This system expands the capabilities of irrigation equipment and allows you to cut back on water and chemicals."

Farmers who don't use computerized field maps can gain many of the same advantages by using a computerized control panel on their center-pivot systems. The units allow you to program the system to apply water at different rates for different crops and soil types.

"It's like when you put a computer chip in anything - what it can do for you is only limited by your imagination," says Ron Friehe, who pivot-irrigates 1,500 crop acres near McCook, NE.

"The Reinke panel we use gives us all kinds of options. We use it to put on water, fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides. We just program the unit to turn the chemical pumps on and off at certain points in the field."

Friehe's automated control panel also helps him reduce electricity costs.

"Our electrical company gives us a lower rate if we agree to let them shut us down during the peak times of electricity demand," he says. "We've programmed our pivots so they turn back on when the power comes back on. There's a delay programmed in so the chemical pumps don't turn back on until the system has run at full capacity for a few minutes.

"We've found that yields have not been affected at all," Friehe says. "The time of day when it's really hot is the least efficient time to irrigate, anyway."

With 30 center pivots of potatoes, barley and alfalfa to program and monitor, Rodney Smith uses a computerized system from Dexter Fortson Associates to keep track of what's happening in the fields.

"I can sit at the computer and program a pivot to apply a herbicide with 1/2" of water for one revolution, then turn off the chemical and go right back and apply another 3/4"," says Smith, of Blanca, CO. "We have the ability to program multiple irrigation schedules and monitor them from the office, a modem or a two-way radio.

"If something goes wrong, the pivot calls us on the two-way radio and also sends an alarm to the central office and prints out all the information. With 30 pivots running, we get those calls several times a day."

In 1998, farmers will be able to separate chemicals from irrigation water with an applicator offered for the first time by Valmont Irrigation.

"Instead of using irrigation water to carry chemicals, the applicator uses an independent water source and spray boom. This isolates chemicals from the well or water supply," says Joe Goecke, Valmont's president and CEO.

"The system provides precise rate control using pulsing spray nozzles. This delivery mechanism can apply five to 10 times more carrier solution than a typical ground sprayer or aerial applicator. This enhances spray coverage on targeted weeds, insects or crop diseases."

Corn+Soybean Digest

If Planting Early: Ask For Extended Cold Test On No-Till Corn

If you no-till corn and aren't asking the seed company for extended cold germination test results, you're flat out missing the boat.

That's the view of Wayne Pedersen, University of Illinois plant pathologist.

Bad things happen to germination percentages if you no-till a corn hybrid early that hasn't measured up in such a test, the scientist warns.

The normal cold germination test is seven days at 50 degrees. An extended test usually is 14 days at 50 degrees followed by 68 degrees or 70 degrees for seven days, Pedersen explains.

"If I'm buying seed corn, and I'm going to plant by about the 10th of April, I want the best- quality seed I can get," declares the plant pathologist. "And that extended cold germination test is going to give it to me."

If you need convincing, consider this research Pedersen and graduate student Keith Ames have been conducting. They started testing two hybrids, one from Pioneer and one from FS, which were being marketed as "very good" for no-till and early planting in cold soils.

"They were," Pedersen says. "Both were excellent."

Then they picked two other hybrids, both commercial numbers. But the company didn't specify whether they were highly rated for no-till and early planting.

"They flunked the extended cold germination test," he says. "They ended up with between 50 and 70% germination on the extended cold germination tests.

"You don't have to have 95% germination on that test to be adequate. To me, it should be above 85%, and if it's not, I'd be scared about planting that seed in early April, especially in no-till."

Pedersen believes that virtually every major seed company is performing an extended cold test to find out the quality of their seed. Few, if any, publish that information, he says, because the industry doesn't have a standard test to ensure uniformity.

However, Pedersen says, in all of those tests, seed companies are determining quality on two scores: the genetic differences in germination ability and the quality of their seed-handling process. Both can impact germination percentages.

"I don't think I'm going to get any seed companies mad at me, but if they are not doing an extended cold germination test, maybe they will start offering it if the grower asks for it," Pedersen says.

"My understanding is that if a farmer asked for the extended cold germination test, they would try very hard to accommodate that request."

Obviously, this requires more lab and cold storage space for seed companies. But even if they had to make a small charge for it, Pedersen thinks it would be well worth it. A poor stand can make a significant difference on yield with corn - and a lower yield steals money from your bottom line.

Corn+Soybean Digest

Perennial Weeds Can Quash No-Till

If you've been no-tilling several years and don't have a special strategy to battle perennial weeds, you're in for some misery.

That's almost a sure bet. But if you do it right, you can whip any perennial invasion nature throws at you.

That's the assurance of George Kapusta, a Southern Illinois University weed scientist. In more than 25 years of no-tilling, he's never found a perennial critter he couldn't control.

The challenges are probably stiffer in no-till soybeans in the South than in the North. But, in both cases, weed scientists and growers recently got a new and potent weapon - the Roundup Ready system.

"It's a fact of life that, if farmers are in no-till for an extended time, they are going to get more and more perennial weeds unless they get on them like mad wolverines when the first ones show up," says Kapusta. "So they have to plan a strategy to avoid what can become real problems."

"In the western part of our state, we have been in continuous no-till corn and soybeans long enough that the perennial weed problem is increasing quickly," warns Alan York, North Carolina State University extension weed scientist.

"I don't think we are losing tremendous amounts of yield, but some of those fields look ugly. And the number like that is increasing.

"It's time for a wakeup call on this problem," York adds. "We now have some options that are pretty darn good, but too many growers just aren't doing it." Kapusta agrees.

"Occasionally, farmers will get into such a predicament that they absolutely don't know what to do," the veteran scientist observes. "Their fields might be 50% infested with perennial weeds."

It's no big sweat to control perennial grasses, the scientists say. There are several herbicides that nail them readily, if you match the chemical to the problem species.

But broadleaf perennials are altogether another matter.

They vary somewhat by region. But the major culprits include common milkweed, hemp dogbane, Canada thistle, trumpet creeper, honeyvine or climbing milkweed, pokeweed and rubus species (like blackberries and dewberries). Add to that list tree saplings in wooded areas, "which can be rough on machinery," reminds York.

Poor control of perennials without tillage is a matter of herbicide application timing.

"With perennial weeds, there is no question that there is a mismatch when trying to control them with one application compared to annual weeds," Kapusta warns.

"With annual weeds, we need to apply the herbicides quite early. At that time, we will burn off what perennial weeds are emerged - grasses or broadleaves. The problem is, they will come back. And it doesn't matter what herbicide you use. Even with the most effective herbicides on perennials, a second application is a must, and it might take higher rates, too."

Here's where the battle plan begins with sharp growers who have no real perennial weed problems after years of no-till, Kapusta says.

Perennials may be transported from infected fields by custom applicators or by the grower himself. Rhizomes or seed may be dragged in on tires, etc., from fields five or 20 miles away. If you watch closely, you'll see maybe just three or four perennial weeds at the field entrance the first year.

A sharp manager will watch for them and attack them like a mad grizzly with a pistol-grip sprayer or a hand sprayer.

You can use 2,4-D, Banvel, Roundup or whatever. Even if you kill a little corn or soybeans in the process, it'll be well-worth it in the long run.

If you don't act, there'll likely be three or four nearby spots the second year. By year three, there will be several spots scattered around the field. And by the fourth, fifth or sixth year, it starts getting even a poor observer's attention.

If you've rented new land where perennials are scattered throughout the field but aren't thick yet, hit them with a wick applicator and Roundup, or the best other herbicide choice for that species, Kapusta advises.

"It's an inexpensive way to go, and it can give a lot of control of a lot of perennial species."

If you buy a new piece of land that's already badly infested, or you've let perennial weeds get the best of you on your own land, you may have to take drastic measures.

If you're on erosive ground and far enough south to doublecrop, you may want to take the first crop off, then forgo the doublecrop soybeans. Spend the rest of the summer hammering those perennials with multiple applications and high rates of Roundup or another chemical effective on your problem species, Kapusta suggests.

If you're in the middle or northern Corn Belt where doublecropping isn't an option, it has been a tougher challenge. But with the Roundup Ready soybean system and now Roundup Ready corn, you have potent new weapons. Even so, it may take multiple applications and cranked-up rates, Kapusta cautions.

Don't procrastinate on perennial weeds. Have at it, these scientists challenge.

Corn+Soybean Digest

Yield Monitors Deliver

Wayne McCray says his yield monitor has made him a better manager. It's helped him improve weed control and variety and hybrid selection. And in one field, yield comparisons convinced him to tile a wet spot.

The result: higher corn and soybean yields.

McCray is one of the early adopters of this six-year-old technology. He and a number of other growers and consultants now have several years of data, and most report a positive payback.

McCray, from Compton, IL, has been monitoring yields since 1993. Since then, he has seen slow yield gains in both crops. Last fall he got another benefit: a 1998 contract to produce specialty corn and soybeans at very respectable premiums.

"Back in 1993, I had average yields and average weed control for this area - neither real good nor real bad," says McCray.

He typically plants four to five corn hybrids and three soybean varieties. But after getting his yield monitor, he began splitting his 12-row planter - six rows with one hybrid or variety and six rows with another. That gave him side-by-side comparison strips across the field. Since he has a six-row combine, it was easy to check yields on each hybrid or variety.

"Each year since getting the monitor I have replaced my lowest-yielding corn hybrid and soybean variety with the top yielding corn hybrid and soybean variety in University of Illinois trials," says McCray. "That seemed a good way to bring up my average."

Once McCray started monitoring yields, he saw the full impact of weeds.

"Weeds are yield killers," he declares. "At one time I would have settled for a little grass and some broadleaves, but today my goal is 100% weed control."

The yield monitor also has spotlighted the damage that wet spots can do to yields.

"We have a wet area that I had farmed around for years - and my father before me - because it didn't seem all that large. But the monitor showed me that the yield impact of a wet spot can extend well beyond its borders. It convinced me to finally put in a tile."

McCray says his yields are now relatively higher - compared to the area average - than a few years ago.

And it seems that the improvement is noticeable to others. Last fall, a seed company representative who had been observing McCray's fields was impressed with his crops and weed control. As a result, he offered McCray contracts to grow specialty corn and beans for premium prices.

"I never thought I would see the day when somebody was that impressed with my crops," says McCray.

Several years of yield-monitor data are essential, says independent crop consultant Paul Gordon, Bentonville, IN. He has several clients who have had yield monitors for the past three harvests.

"The biggest lesson that we've learned is that each year is unique in regard to temperature and moisture and their effects on yield. So we need multiyear data to get the big picture," Gordon points out.

"We need to build a history for each field, and we can't expect a payback every year. That's sometimes difficult for a farmer to accept."

Nevertheless, Gordon notes, some things become obvious faster than others.

"We've seen how much herbicide damage can cut yields. The yield monitor has documented yield losses of 10-15 bu/acre due to herbicide damage, either from carryover or from the susceptibility of a particular hybrid to a particular herbicide."

Rob Meyer, division manager with Crop Quest, Inc., St. John, KS, also has used a yield monitor to confirm herbicide damage.

"We knew from scouting that damage had occurred," points out Meyer. "The yield monitor quantified the damage, and that information was used as a basis for settlement."

Build at least a five-year data base on a field before making major changes. That's what Kirk Wesley of Key Agricultural Services, Macomb, IL, recommends to yield-monitoring farmers.

"However, one of the first things we can do with yield monitor data is to get a better reading of soil types," says Wesley.

"Most soil-type maps are generalized. As we begin overlaying yield maps on soil maps - along with using our soil sampling results - we can better-define where a soil type actually begins and ends."

That helps Wesley better-determine the relationship of soil type to yield.

"We can fine-tune our soil maps, and as we do this fine-tuning we can begin to reduce inputs in the proven low-yielding areas," he adds.