sealPurdue News

March 1999

Corn expert: Farm smarter, not harder, in tight times

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Getting back to the basics of crop production can help turn pennies into profits. But the first step toward cutting the cost of putting out a crop is knowing the cost in the first place.

"You'd be surprised how many of your neighbors don't know how much their inputs cost," Purdue University corn specialist Bob Nielsen told farmers during a recent series of Cooperative Extension Service meetings focusing on fine-tuning family farm operations. "It's hard to trim costs if you don't know your inputs."

According to a survey from the University of Illinois, input costs per acre for prime farmland in Illinois ran about $62 for fertilizer, $34 for pesticides, $32 for seed, $10 for drying and $30 for machinery. "If I was going to look for a place to cut costs, I'd head straight for that $62," Nielsen says. The trick is to set reasonable yield goals based on the past performance of the field, because too much fertilizer wastes money, too little loses yield. Using a five-year average yield as a target is reasonable, Nielsen says. Substituting livestock manure for commercial fertilizer may be worth a second look for saving money, too.

However, choosing the wrong nitrogen application methods can have hidden costs. Farmers often choose an application method based on how well it fits the operation rather than how it fits the cropping system. "Granular nitrogen may be easier to apply, but less could be available to the crop after volatilization or if it's tied up by surface residue. Injection may preserve more of the fertilizer, but be more difficult for some farmers to apply," Nielsen says.

The best place for farmers to cut costs may be on phosphorus and potassium, but only if they've done the soil tests to make sure it's safe to skimp. "There's a critical level necessary for P and K that crops need to grow, but many farms may already be at that level," Nielsen says. "There will be little or no effect on yield if no additional P or K is applied for several years." Soil tests every four years should be sufficient to signal a need to resume applications.

Farmers with soils above the critical level for soil phosphorus can also substitute nitrogen for the phosphorus in any "starter" fertilizer applications for a quick boost. Aim for no less than 20 pounds of N per acre in a 2-by-2 placement (a band 2 inches to the side and 2 inches below the seed)," Nielsen says.

Lime applications also could pay immediate benefits, particularly for soils less than 6.0 pH. While applications of trace elements and other micronutrients are guaranteed to pay off for the dealer, returns to the farmer are less certain, Nielsen says. Soil tests and plant tissue analysis will tell for sure, but most Indiana soils have plenty. The same goes for so-called "root-enhancers," he says.

The definitive guide for fertilizer recommendations in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan is Cooperative Extension publication AY-9-32, "Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations for Corn, Soybeans, Wheat and Alfalfa." Written by specialists from the three states' land-grant universities, it is available for $1 from the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service offices in each Indiana county or from the Purdue Media Distribution Center at (888) EXT-INFO. It also is available on the Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations Web.

Seed selection and seeding rates also will play a large role in influencing profitability.

"Base your selection on proven yield performance. Data from multiple locations and years are the best way to evaluate varietal response to weather patterns," Nielsen says. Such testing exposes hybrids to a diversity of environmental conditions, and a good record may be the best "weather insurance" a farmer can buy, he says.

"Seed corn for $50 can be easy to find, but whether it's a good deal is harder to show. Unless proven yield data are available, the answer is anybody's guess," he says.

Planter maintenance and calibration are two chores farmers can perform in the winter for a payoff next fall. Nielsen's research has shown optimum seed spacing can boost yields by 10 percent.

Setting the right seeding rate also can improve the bottom line. Nielsen suggests looking at historical yields and basing seeding rates accordingly. For example, fields that produce 125 bushels of corn or better should be planted at 31,000 seeds per acre.

Nielsen says 1 1/2 inches is a good all-purpose seeding depth, and 30-inch rows rule, as narrower rows have yet to show any consistent yield gain.

Precision farming tools also may look attractive to farmers trying to focus on management, but Nielsen cautions that most returns on investment will be tied to correcting perennial problems such as soil pH and field drainage variability. Unless portions of a field deliver fewer than 100 bushels per acre, variable rate technology probably won't be worth the investment.

The same advice probably will hold true for other excursions into uncharted territory, Nielsen says: "This is not the time to make drastic changes in your farm operations."

For updates during the growing season, point a Web browser at Nielsen's Corn Growers' Guidebook, a Web resource he has run for corn farmers and researchers since 1994. The site features pest and crop newsletters from five states, the latest corn research from Purdue, and plenty of corny links.

Source: Bob Nielsen, (765) 494-4802; e-mail,

Writer: Chris Sigurdson, (765) 494-8415; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page