Jeff Phillips doesn't wear a Sherlock Holmes hat or smoke a pipe, and the fertilizer dealer who sometimes calls him to help diagnose problems in the field, Charlie Padgett, Buck Creek Crop Production Services, certainly doesn't resemble the sleuth's sidekick, Watson. But nevertheless the pair have been hot on the trial of crop mysteries so far this season.
The first step is to know there is a mystery, says Phillips, Tippecanoe County Ag Extension educator. That requires walking fields and paying attention, and not just conducting windshield surveys. Once there appears to be a problem that's not easily explained, the next step is to call for help. Many farmers call their seed dealer and fertilizer dealer, figuring it's a seed or fertilizer-related problem. Or perhaps it's herbicide damage. But in Tippecanoe County, many farmers also call Phillips, a trained agronomist who studied under Dave Mengel, a well-known fertilizer extension specialist at Purdue in the '80s and '90s. Mengel later left to head the Agronomy Department at Kansas State University, and is now an agronomist on staff there. Phillips became county Extension ag educator in Tippecanoe County.
Once Phillips gets a call, he tries to find out as much information as he can. "We need to know when the field was planted, when tillage was done, what direction tillage was done, and a host of other things," he relates. "Of course, we also need to know the hybrid or variety planted, seeding rate, number of rows on the planter, whether insecticide was applied, if herbicide was applied and when, and much more."
You name it- a good agronomist trying to be a detective needs to know it, Phillips asserts. It's all valuable information in piecing together what might have happened to cause damage in a field. "We look for overall patterns first across the field," he says. "Sometimes tilling a field wet on an angle will show up as compaction damage. That's often visible, especially in corn."
The good detective also takes proper tools to the field, including a shovel for digging plants, a soil probe in case he decides to pull soil samples from good and poor-performing areas of the field, plastic bags in case he wants to pull tissue samples, a pocket knife for dissecting plants, and water to wash roots. That's especially important this time of year as rootworm larvae begin to hatch. Cleaning roots makes it easier to spot signs of rootworm feeding. Rootworm larvae are very small and extremely hard to see early in their development cycle.
Sometimes, the answers don't come easily, Phillips says. "Charlie and I spent two days walking one field recently," he relates. "There was a pattern there that seemed related to certain planter rows, but it didn't quite add up.
Then the crop sleuth got a lucky break. "Someone pointed out that the farmer started planting the field in a corner where it stays wet. It turns out that some of his fertilizer row units plugged. He was applying the full rate, but some rows weren't getting any, and some too much. Since it was going near the seed, those rows receiving too much were affected, especially on sandy soils.
"In that case that one extra piece of information was what we need to solve the case," he says.