CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Agronomics, conservation and technology were just a few of the topics covered by farmer panelists at the Illinois Soybean Association’s Soybean Summit.
Panelists were Liz Hulsizer, who raises corn and soybeans with her husband, Matt, in Knox County and is an ADM grain merchandiser; Brett Haas of Downs farms with his father and his grandfather and operates a seed sales business and small manufacturing business; and agronomist and researcher John Pike, a Marion area farmer who coordinates on-farm field scale nitrogen trials in southern Illinois and cover crop research.
Stephanie Porter, ISA outreach agronomist, served as panel moderator.
What technology have you tried on your operation and how have you applied it to make decisions on your farm?
Haas: I’m kind of a little bit of a techie, so I’ve always been willing to try new things. Sometimes learning the hard way the difference between the leading edge of technology and the bleeding edge of technology. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to kind of lean away from the bleeding edge to maybe the leading edge.
About 10 years ago, I got interested in drone technology and have utilized it in the highest most painful levels, from the amount of time taken, money spent, and so on down to something very basic that doesn’t cost a lot of money and takes really good pictures. Throughout that process, I’ve been able to really kind of find-tune how we use that technology on our own operation.
For roughly $1,000 you can get something that’s really usable. It is amazing how your perspective changes when you look at a field and you get that bird’s-eye view of, ‘Hey, there is something going on that maybe I need to walk out to that area and take a look at it. Something doesn’t look right. I’ve never seen that before.’
“The biggest thing is you plan for the worst and hope for the best.”— John Pike, agronomist and researcher
Maybe it’s at fungicide time, is the corn field 100% tasseled, and is it ready for a fungicide. So, instead of spending two hours walking around to five different spots in a 160-acre field, in five minutes you can grab a quick picture.
Crop insurance is another huge one using drones. I feel like for whatever reason with these extreme weather patterns that we’ve tend to be getting more and more of, being able to, especially close to harvest time when you might not have time to get the insurance adjuster out there and you want to get fields harvest. I can pop that drone up and take pictures to get a really good idea of how many acres were affected and what’s the severity of the damage.
Pike: I think if there’s one thing that somebody needs on every farm that doesn’t cost a whole lot is a simple drone that takes pictures. I use a drone a lot to take pictures of nitrogen plots and different things. Most of the time when I visit a farm I look at the plots and then there’s, ‘Oh, while you’re here, let’s go over and look at this field. I’ve got a question about this or that.’
There has been several occasions when I’ve flown a drone later in the season and we’ve found bad problems with green snap that was a half mile away in a river bottom that probably wouldn’t have ever been seen until time combine ran across it. With pictures of that all of the crop insurance issues were taken care of and documented right on the spot. I think that’s a tremendous tool.
What are some conservation practices you’ve implemented on your farm?
Pike: The biggest one is cover crops. I had the opportunity and the pleasure to grow up with Mike Plummer who was a long-time extension agronomist. He did a lot of the early work on no-till adoption and figuring out some of those things across the Midwest and then rolled cover crops into that later on. He was the Extension agent in my county when he moved to southern Illinois.
Cover crops is something that I’ve seen make a big impact on our farm. Williamson County isn’t exactly the heartbeat of agriculture soil quality wise, but we have a goose and duck hunting club on our farm and for years we’d bury these septic tanks or mini goose pits down in the ground so hunters could hide.
You had to dig a soil pit to put in the tanks and Mike would take his pocketknife and show me where the fragipan and the different soil layers were, compaction layers and corn roots. That was interesting and to have seen the conditions of our soils on our farms 30, 40 years ago. We don’t put any mini-goose pits in anymore, but I did a lot of soil pits for field days and training programs that I do on the farm and see how the soils have changed.
Whenever we talk about cover crops, we get tied up in the long-term benefits of things. Yes, you can see a lot of differences over the years, but I could see a difference in our soils right off the bat. Thirty years ago, our hardpan was down about 20 to 24 inches. That’s where the corn roots and soybean roots stopped. Now I can go out in those same fields and after nine years of intensive cover crop management on these farms, I have corn roots that we can track down five and six feet deep.
Over that time period, genetics and a lot of the technology has got better, but our yields have seen a big benefit by the adoption of cover crops. It’s not just about adopting them, but managing them.
It’s not a matter of just planting cover crops because you can find some seed to put on a field to turn green and control erosion, but if you want to transition that in to highly productive cropland, you need to have a plan with that.
What is your experience with specialty soybeans on you farm?
Haas: We’ve been producing non-GMO soybeans at some capacity on our farming operation for close to 15 years now, and we’ve made a decision for 2023 that we’re going to go to 100% of our soybean acres in non-GMO. We’ve been fortunate enough to be in an area where a couple different end-users are kind of competing for acres and the premiums make sense.
On top of that, we’ve been able to find varieties that really work for us. When we were comparing, for example, both Enlist and Xtend soybeans from a number of different companies for the last few years, our non-GMO varieties have tended to still float to the top. So, I really don’t feel like we’re giving anything up from a yield perspective.
Obviously, weed control is a big issue. So, we’ve been very aggressive with our weed control program. We own our own sprayer and we have the ability to get across everything in a timely fashion sometimes.
Last year, for example, we had non-GMOs on about half of our acres. On all of those non-GMO acres we ended up replanting every single acre of them. So, all that residual herbicide that we had layered over the top was incorporated after we tore those soybeans out. So, we ended up making an additional pass of residual herbicide.
I think it’s definitely key to being flexible. If you don’t have your own sprayer or you don’t have a good relationship with your retailer, it’s definitely something to keep in mind. So, I think that’s a big component to our success with it.
What type of plan do you implement when it comes to tackling each growing season on your farm?
Pike: The biggest thing is you plan for the worst and hope for the best. In our situation and in a lot of southern Illinois, we don’t generally have an opportunity to do a lot of fall fieldwork, whether it’s fertilizer application or usually our harvest is getting wet because we can have a hurricane come up the Mississippi River and drop three to five inches on us.
With the rush to do the majority of the work in the spring, have a plan to deal with a wet spring and how do we get everything done is the biggest thing. It’s no different. Everybody’s got to have a plan, but I think the likelihood of our season being more condensed has a higher likelihood than what it is in central Illinois.
I think when you package that in the bigger area where there’s more wheat and double-crop soybeans in southern Illinois, there’s a lot of people who kind of get ‘growly’ when they talk about wheat. Yet, the wheat double-crop rotation from a profitability standpoint the last couple of years a lot of the guys who have traditionally grown wheat are growing a few more acres because it’s working well.
There are some that aren’t and are looking to incorporate wheat into the rotation, and when you deal with that, the idea that our planting season as a whole is usually a little bit later and the wheat harvest has been progressively getting earlier. That’s good, because you can really capitalize on the rotation to get your wheat out of the field and get your double-crop soybeans in. But that means we’ve got to finish up planting corn and planting full-season soybeans, combine the wheat and planting double-crop soybeans and then finishing planting our full-season soybeans.
There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle there, so having a plan to work around all of that and then when you add the variability of terminating cover crops and things and having more acres of those out there because we don’t want to just do that because it’s a day on a calendar depending if it’s a wet spring or a cool spring. The differences in that is going to determine when the best time to terminate a cover crop is.