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Identify poor-yielding areas to increase profits

Salute Soil Health: Use yield monitor data to make tough economic decisions.

October 17, 2022

3 Min Read
mature cornfield
FARM IT? Can you afford to farm every acre? Even ones next to tree lines that yield poorly year after year? Put a sharp pencil to paper, and you might be surprised.Tom J. Bechman

What should you do with your yield data? Even if you don’t have yield maps, you still know which locations in your fields are unproductive.

These spots are often planted the same as the rest of the field, but they lose money most years. Why continue to plant and fertilize these areas? Even on rented land, why continue to lose money on rent and input costs?

Some argue that the low, wet spot is the most productive area in a dry year. Does one good year make up for all the other years when money was lost? Some of these unproductive spots are also the most environmentally sensitive. It may be the low spot with a tile riser that is a direct conduit for surface water runoff carrying nutrients and pesticides.

An eroded site is more likely to deposit topsoil and sediment off-site into streams and rivers. Planting unproductive spots to grasses and legumes for wildlife and pollinator habitat is an excellent option to get some benefit while decreasing input costs. In some cases, depending upon various factors, cost-share money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service might be available to help establish wildlife areas, pollinator plots or an area for monarch butterflies. You must still control invasive and herbicide-resistant weeds.

Increase average yield

What is the fastest way to increase yield per acre? It’s to stop farming areas with little or no yield in most years. It is time to fire them!

Here’s an example, followed by four possible management options. For this scenario, assume all 20 acres of a cornfield have been planted in the past. The field average is 175 bushels per acre. However, 1 acre drowns out every year. By no longer planting that acre, the field average on acres planted jumps to 184 bushels. Plus, you avoid costly inputs from attempting to get a crop from an unproductive area.

Here are four options for how to farm that field:

Farm entire 20 acres. Assume $3.50 per bushel for corn as a long-term average price, with the whole field in corn. Total gross revenue equals 3,500 bushels times $3.50, which is $12,250. Expenses including direct costs at $250 per acre and land rent at $200 per acre with no return to equipment or labor is $9,000.

Return left for labor and equipment is: $12,250 - $9,000 = $3,250 for entire field.

Farm 19 acres and leave out unproductive acre. Total gross revenue equals 3,500 bushels times $3.50, which is $12,250. Direct expenses with rent for that acre included equals $8,750.

Return left for labor and equipment is: $12,250 - $8,750 = $3,500, or $250 more than if you farmed all 20 acres.

Tile low spot. Tiling isn’t cheap. Unless you address lack of soil health from surface crusting and compaction, most “tillage-induced wetlands” still underperform. This likely isn’t a profitable option.

Farm 19 acres, leave out unproductive acre out and explore USDA programs. Enroll that acre in an eligible USDA program, and you could have zero dollars lost. Let your landlord know, and he or she might still be able to receive “rent” while you no longer lose on it.

These examples are simplified but make the point: Sometimes not farming an area can net more, even on rented land.

Bailey is the state conservation agronomist for the Natural Resources Soil Conservation Service in Indiana. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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