The Root of the Matter

Plant roots are amazing. They anchor the plant into the soil and provide the main mechanism for nutrient and water uptake. They can be fibrous in structure, as in corn and sorghum, and they can be a taproot, as in soybean and alfalfa. While we normally focus on the above-ground plant (you have to admit, it’s much easier to evaluate vs. digging and washing), the underground portion – the roots – is really what matters most in realizing your crop’s full yield potential. You can fuss over genetics, fertility levels and subsoil moisture but if the root mass isn’t healthy enough to take advantage of it, then it’s all beside the point. Here are some interesting facts about corn and soybean roots ( courtesy Dr. Sotirios Archontoulis, Iowa State University):

  • You can see up to 2.75″ of root growth per corn leaf with growth between the row being similar to in the row.
  • The average corn leaf number when the roots meet in the row middle (30″ row spacing) is around 6. This is why we discourage row cultivation after this point – you’re physically pruning the roots.
  • No surprise but soil moisture and water table presence are huge factors in root growth.
  • Root growth requires oxygen and will stop growing when soil moisture levels reach around 97% (near saturation).
  • For corn, 65% of the total root mass is found within the top 12″.
  • Bulk density over 1.80 g/cm3 usually inhibits root growth. In context, we can have layers in the field, natural or man made, that are high enough in bulk density to prevent root growth.
  • Excess nitrogen does NOT encourage root growth. Most crops will cease root growth in the presence of excess nutrients. Call them lazy if you want but applying more nitrogen usually only encourages more above-ground growth.
  • Finally, root growth ceases around flowering. That’s it. No more.

Without question, roots matter. Of interesting note, when plants are healthy, the ratio of roots to shoots really doesn’t correlate to yield. That is, more roots doesn’t mean more grain. HOWEVER, anything we do that compromises root mass health can and usually does impact yield.

So as you begin to prepare or even finish preparing fields, evaluate whether the pass you’re about to make is necessary and whether it will negatively impact the soil in such a way as to possibly inhibit root growth. (Compaction is rarely a good thing and you’ll live with it the rest of the season.)

I encourage you to learn more about roots – in the beginning as the plants are becoming established; mid-season and during grain fill. Dig, wash, evaluate. While I cautioned in an earlier blog about “rinse and repeat,” root evaluation is an appropriate excuse for this strategy!

I want you to do well. God bless our farmers!

Wood and Emails

Procrastination can really stymie productivity. I’ve learned this over nearly 30 years of emails. I estimate that I’ve sent, received, replied and deleted the message equivalent of President Trump’s budget request for his wall – a little over 7 billion. (I can neither confirm nor deny that number but it’s impressive on several levels.)

Letting an email message sit when you know it needs to be dealt with is not productive. It can really eat at you as you ignore it for days on end, even while receiving more emails stating the obvious fact that you haven’t dealt with it. Meanwhile, you receive more messages and it snowballs from there. It’s not unusual to see folks’ inboxes containing over 1,000 unread messages. Apparently not ever looking at them eases the pain and reduces the suffering.

So what does this have to do with wood? Everything. As woodworkers go through the steps of creating a masterpiece, one of the steps is obviously preparing and cutting the pieces to dimension. BUT, often is the case where we run out of time to do anything else and the pieces sit. For a long time. Like several weeks. You ask, “why does this matter?”

I generally buy long boards at the lumberyard and then mill them down to size (i.e. cutting the pieces to dimension). In doing so, the various stresses within the board are often relieved and the pieces can then “move.” While more an issue when working with long boards and thicker stock that’s cut into thinner pieces, this can be seen as twisting, bowing, cupping or combinations thereof. When this happens, things don’t go together very well. And then all that has to be dealt with requiring time, patience and anger management strategies.

The one piece of advice that I’ve picked up from studying master woodworkers is to NOT let the pieces sit too long before assembling. This means, of course, planning your time accordingly. (Don’t cut all your pieces and then take a three week vacation and certainly don’t let things like the Super Bowl get in the way of progress.)

So what I’m really telling you? Don’t let your emails sit and don’t let your wood sit. Else, your personality will take on a hint of being warped or twisted. Just like mine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have go figure out how to get a twisted board in a slot that I cut a month ago. ~PH

Rinse and Repeat

Earlier in my career I once shared with a colleague that I had 10 years of experience. He asked, ” is that 10 years of experience or 1 year of experience repeated 10 times?” His response caused me to pause and I certainly had to stop and think about just what I had learned over those years. Was I basically on a “rinse and repeat” cycle or, more importantly, did I waste time and basically rest on my laurels?

After that I decided that whenever I felt like I was “repeating” myself that I would step up and do something different so that the next year was mostly a new experience. Too, it was important that I find creative ways to share that experience with my farmers and sales team. Sure, it’s corn, sorghum and cotton, year after year. You know, rinse and repeat. While the weather may differ, they all basically grow the same year after year. So what’s interesting or new about that? If you’re an agronomist – everything!

I just returned from our company’s annual agronomy meeting (you might have noticed me on Twitter cowering under the sub-zero temperatures) and was surrounded by the largest agronomy team any seed company has in the world. From all over North America, over 300 agronomists shared research findings, teaching methods, and an infectious enthusiasm for the food and fiber our farmers produce. You may not realize it but while you might see only field agronomists like myself at your local meetings and such, behind the scenes are production agronomists who are responsible for thousands of seed production acres. They’re mostly taken for granted but they are a key reason why our seed has the highest quality tolerances in the industry.

Drone technology, satellite imagery, photometry, seed treatment technology, and how to possibly plant seed at 17 mph were all on the agenda (that’s not a typo, Ohio State researchers were pushing the limits of down force!). Of all the topics, my personal favorite was understanding the differences in corn and soybean root morphology. It was an amazing look at rooting depth, volume, growth behavior and the basic differences in nutrient and water uptake. We often hear that size matters but there’s something called a root:shoot ratio and it really does matter!

Every year at that meeting I’m humbled and reminded that there are a lot of passionate, smart people in our industry. I was surrounded mostly by agronomists but there are sales reps and company personnel that are equally passionate with nearly all possessing knowledge and experience that can help improve your position in life as a farmer. My advice is to reach out and take advantage of that. It’s included in the price of the seed. Don’t “rinse and repeat” and expect it all to be different.

I want you to do well. God bless our farmers!

Risk It All

Remember when I said I don’t farm for a living; rather, I work with farmers? Well, this is one of those blogs where it will be easy to say, “if you think you know so damn much, why don’t you farm for a living rather than sit around and tell us what to do?” That’s a fair retort. But I will ignore it for now.

Risk. Risk management. Crop rotation, tillage system, hybrid selection, planting date – these are the major components of your crop production plan that the agronomist knows and worries more about than other important facets of successful farming. Each has it’s own degree of risk and, depending where on the earth you are farming, that risk might be more or less.

Monoculture (producing the same crop specie on the same land for consecutive years) is known to reduce yield potential. For example, in the south, continues cotton can lead to establishment of root rot that can be difficult to manage in future crops. Continuous corn is almost always less productive than corn in rotation and can lead to establishment of corn rootworm populations – another problem that can be difficult to control. In trying to maximize profit it’s easy to see that future income potential could be jeopardized with the decision to plant continuous crops.

Within a crop, agronomists also recommend spreading out maturity and genetic diversity. NEVER plant all your acres to one hybrid or variety. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER. I get it that you might do that if you’re a smaller farmer with few acres; but for larger operators – NEVER. You know the land – some acres are more productive than others; some drought prone, some flood prone, etc. Plant the right hybrid on the right acre. Seed company personnel have knowledge and wisdom and usually know their products like they know their kids. Lean on them for help!

Dr. Matt Montgomery, Pioneer Hi-Bred agronomist up in Illinois, posted this image in a tweet that makes a key point. One of my recommendations every year in Texas is to spread out maturities. This can spread out harvest but more importantly it spreads out the timing of when the crop is flowering and filling seed. Regardless of crop, this is an important strategy to mitigate production risk that can be caused by excessive heat or drought – both very prevalent throughout central and south Texas. However, when the latter part of the growing season is favorable, fuller maturity hybrids almost always out-yield the earlier maturities, sometimes significantly. Balance expectations while also controlling risk!

We are in a very wet cycle right now throughout the eastern half of Texas and it’s likely going to push our planting dates later than desired. (For corn, crop insurance deadlines are usually much later than the ideal window for maximizing yield potential.) Also, with the wet winter, very few acres have been worked and when it does dry out there won’t be much time to do anything other than plant. Remember, the highest yield potential for the year almost always coincides with the first planting¬†–¬†SO DON’T MESS THAT UP. Take the time to get the seedbed right and hopefully you won’t spend the rest of the summer looking at an ugly crop and hating yourself.

Risk management is often associated with financial risk. That’s important but managing stress in our lives is also important. Think about how the factors I talked about affect your life – can we mitigate “personal risk” associated with stress by managing things differently, for the better. I believe so.

I want y’all to do well. God bless my farmers!

Plots Suck. Part II.

Part I of this series showed that having confidence in the results of a plot matters. It’s asking an awful lot of a 5 or 10-acre strip plot to represent hybrid selection across hundreds or thousands of acres. When seed companies use this method they rely on dozens to hundreds of them to understand how different environments impact hybrid performance. This is commonly referred to as GxE, or genetics by environment. But not every grower manages their crops the same so having different locations introduces another factor – management (M). Now we have a GxExM interaction and you can quickly see how the whole picture of product performance can get muddled (e.g. one grower may apply fungicide or late season nitrogen while another doesn’t). That’s why quality data for an individual plot are critical. The data are important to you for your farm but also think of it as a data link in a decision chain.

Are there other ways of evaluating hybrids? Sure. I personally prefer large strips of 5 or more acres for each individual hybrid being tested. But, the yield has to be checked with a weigh wagon or a calibrated yield monitoring system. Using yield maps is fine as long as the data are of good quality. So what are sources of error that can impact plot results? Here are a few:

Harvest ruts can impact next year’s yield but what happens when a plot entry is planted in this affected area while the others are not?

  • Hybrids planted in the pinch rows (see Plots Suck, Part I).
  • Plot planted last, long after most acres were planted.
  • Placing the plot in a part of the field that results in an entry being planted in an undesirable spot that clearly impacts yield (e.g. an entry happens to be planted in a low spot).
  • Supplied seed has different seed sizes and no adjustments are made resulting in different stands across the plot.
  • Sprayer runs over or “leans over” some of the rows of a single entry but not the same number across all entries in the plot.

It’s not possible to eliminate every source of error. Remember, the goal is to have each entry in the plot treated equally and to walk away at the end of harvest with a high degree of confidence that the results are correct. When we achieve this we can say, “that plot didn’t suck.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless our farmers!

Plots Suck. Part I.

Think about this: You farm 4,000 acres and you need a way to figure out which hybrids perform best. So what do you do? You pick 1 field and plant 1 plot. Yep, a 5-acre plot represents 4,000 acres. That’s all the time you have for this. Seriously, that’s what most of you do. The rest of you ask your neighbor what worked on their farm. And it doesn’t matter that they farm differently than you; rather, they’ve survived this long so they must be making the right decisions on hybrid selection. And, then, next year when the hybrid you chose wasn’t as good as the previous year or as good as the neighbor was bragging about, you get upset. And call your seed rep who then calls his agronomist who then rolls his eyes wondering why we repeat this cycle. Plots suck.

As an agronomist in the business for over 20 years, I estimate I’ve been involved with about 8,000 plots. Of these, 7,500 were a complete waste of time. Exaggeration? Not much. Seriously? Yes, seriously.

While it takes up more space, split the planter between two hybrids. And while it may take more time to plant, the outcome is better and you get a whole lot more free seed.

The goal of plot work is to evaluate product performance with a high degree of confidence. Confidence can have a statistical connotation but at the end of the year you want to walk away knowing that the test was fair and every entry had an equal chance of performing to its highest potential. So let’s explore this.

You have 12 hybrids and a 24-row planter and very little time to plant the plot that the sales rep has been pestering you about for the last month. (The reps don’t haven’t much of a life – all they do is drive around dropping off plot bags in the hopes that somebody will feel sorry for them and plant the damn things.) You’re under pressure and won’t devote more than an hour or so to get this done. What do a lot of growers do in this setting? They fill the planter with 6 hybrids, 4 rows each, refill at the end, plant back and they’re done. In this scenario, 4 of the 6 hybrids in the pass are treated equally, the other 2 are screwed. The 2 that were treated unfairly (those under the tractor tires and in the pinch rows) will likely yield less leading you to draw the conclusion that they’re not as good. Consequently you don’t order a single bag of either and tell the neighbors that those hybrids suck. You know what? The plot sucked.

I am fond of saying “to measure inaccurately is to not measure at all.” I firmly believe this. Think about this scenario – many growers will take the time to plant a quality plot but won’t take the time to use a weigh wagon. They harvest the plot using a combine with a yield monitor that hasn’t been calibrated and surely won’t be calibrated with each change in hybrid. This is another scenario where we walk away with limited confidence in the outcome of the plot. We justify this by telling ourselves that, if there is a source of error in the uncalibrated system, it affects each entry equally and in the same way. I am here to tell you that this is not a good assumption. Which reminds me, I’ve never heard a grower say, “if I get some time I’ll send you harvest maps of the plot where we used an uncalibrated combine.” Discomforting, to say the least.

Plots can offer a lot about product behavior and performance. To the best of your ability plant them when most other acres are being planted (certainly not last with a planting date that is not typical for the area). Plant them with the same care and attention as you give all the other acres and respect the time and effort that the breeders have invested in creating a bin-busting hybrid that can yield 500+ bu/a. Visit with the agronomists and sales reps beforehand to design a quality plot experience from start to finish.

I’ll leave you with this – if you put out a quality plot and my hybrids don’t perform well, I will respect that. If put out a plot that everybody and their dog knows wan’t done well, we’ll all talk about you every day at the local coffee shop and how your plot sucked. Don’t be that person.

I want y’all to do well. God bless my farmers!

Farmer vs. Agronomist

I am not a farmer. I work with farmers. I am a trained agronomist. (I’m what you call a professional so don’t try this at home.) I have all the answers – most of which are derived driving by fields at 70 mph. I am an “armchair farmer” of sorts, reading articles, published scientific papers, trade magazines and I formulate opinions about the successes and failures of crop production. Of course, I walk fields. Lots of them. My advice is the best advice. I firmly believe that. Do as I say. End of discussion.

I often go out and share my knowledge and wisdom on increasing crop productivity with every grower within listening distance and return back home to the armchair and ponder whether I actually had any impact.  In the couple of months after harvest I will have made presentations to over 500 growers. I’ll know shortly of my influence as planting will commence in the next couple of weeks in south Texas.

How will the farm economy affect their decisions? Will they avoid the temptation to plant before the last spring freeze? Will they keep their crop rotation intact to avoid the yield decline associated with monoculture? Will they take the time to eliminate compaction and ruts left after last year’s harvest? Will they plant my hybrids and plant the recommended seed populations or take somebody else’s advice on what to plant?

More importantly, do they realize that when every grower chases the highest price that over-production and depressed prices are the result? Of course they do. They’re independent growers selling into a global market that they virtually have no control over. And that stinks. As the agronomist, I can only give them advice and knowledge about how to increase productivity. But as a farmer, they often can only do what’s needed to survive another year. And in today’s world decisions are often influenced by their bankers or other financial supporters. And I’m pretty sure very few of them have a degree in agronomy. And that stinks, too.

All the training I’ve had. All the years in the business. All the watching and learning from growers all over the Midwest, the Great Plains and throughout Texas. All the reading, studying and driving by countless fields at 70 mph usually lead me to this conclusion – “I told them not to do that.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless my farmers!