September 21, 2023

Unlearning, relearning agriculture production

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Extensive in-field research combined with high-tech equipment has changed farming over the past few decades to the point where farmers have had to “relearn” what they may have learned “back in the day.”

Brad Zimmerman, a Groveland area farmer, detailed his own efforts to “Learn, Unlearn and Relearn” in his presentation in the Illinois Soybean Association’s Better Beans Series.

“What that basically means is as we are presented with knowledge throughout our life, we need to challenge that and we need to take what may not be accurate at the time. Maybe it was accurate 10, 30 or 50 years ago, but may not pertain to us today,” said Zimmerman, founder and CEO or SeedOnomy.

“So, in doing that we got to unlearn some things, forget about some things, think about them differently and therefore we relearn.

“That’s obviously a constant process in life. Whether you’re in agronomy or farming or cooking or finances, whatever you’re doing is something we have to do in order to grow and get better and be successful.”

Here is the list of some of the things that Zimmerman has learned, unlearned and relearned to improve crop production, sustainability and profitability.

1. A soybean credit is worth 30 pounds of nitrogen.

“We thought that if you plant soybeans the year before you plant corn that you can use 30 pounds less nitrogen. That is true, but the fact that soybeans produce 30 pounds more or nitrogen and leaves it in the soil is not exactly true,” Zimmerman said.

“Soybeans have very low residue. They have a low carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. So, we learned it’s not a soybean credit, but it’s more of a lack of a carbon penalty. When you have lots of residue, whether it’s corn stalks or whether it’s cereal rye or wheat stubble, that needs to be broken down and the microbes need nitrogen.

“The microbes are going to eat before your corn or soybean plant does. The soils eats first and the plants eat second, so a lot of that nitrogen is not going to be available to the plant. It’s going to be tied up by the microbes trying to break down that carbon.”

2. Nitrogen makes the corn greener.

“While that may be true to a certain a certain level, we also know that too much of a good thing is not a good thing. We don’t want to put more on just because we don’t want to be short, and with the impending regulations coming, we’ve got to learn how to do things differently or at least be prepared to if we’re asked or required to cut back on our fertilizer that we use,” Zimmerman explained.

“Nitrogen is affected by seven different nutrients. Whether it’s potassium, calcium or copper, how you treat one nutrient affects how you treat the rest of your nutrients. So, we need to be careful that we don’t get out of line, get out of balance and use too much just to make sure that we have enough. Let’s me smarter about that.

“I know that pH has a great deal of influence on how available your nutrients are. If you try and stay between 6.2 and typically 6.8 in our area, you’re going to have biology working for you. You’re going to have those nutrients more available and less tied up.

“What happens in the pH is that it’s not that magnesium or calcium is not there, but if the ph is not quite right then it gets tied up with other nutrients. That’s why pH is critically important in making sure your nutrients are available to your growing crop.”

3. Plants growing in crops steal water and nutrients.

“That may be partially true — it’s not 100% true,” Zimmerman said.

He referred to Jason Mock, an Indiana farmer who strip-tills winter wheat over manure and then plants soybeans between the wheat. The two crops grow side-by-side. The wheat is harvested in July and soybeans are harvested in October.

“As you work through those questions and obstacles, you find out that it does work and when you can grow 70-bushel wheat and 70-bushel soybeans, that’s a pretty good return on investment on your acre,” Zimmerman explained.

“I think he uses one pass of dicamba as weed control and uses the manure as fertility and I think the wheat seed was spread at about a one-third rate with the strip-till manure pass. So, very low inputs, very high reward.”

4. Chemical and physical properties are the most important considerations in crop production.

The physical properties are impacted by tillage and cultural practices, and chemical properties are impacted by nutrients such as ag lime, herbicides and pesticides that are applied.

“We are now learning that we need to shift the way we think about things in that soil biology is going to trump everything,” Zimmerman said.

“What we work the most with is how can we use biology effectively to grow more better. We’ve been working with different types of microbes. We’ve been working with biostimulants and have seen some really cool things.”

5. Tillage is needed to have a good seedbed.

“That may be true sometimes, but not always,” Zimmerman noted. “While with corn it’s more important to have a good seedbed, full-width tillage may not be necessarily necessary.

“So, I would encourage you to look into doing more no-till, strip-till. The benefits are fantastic, there are many, and they can’t be duplicated by tillage.

“Tillage is a great short-term solution for a few things and sometimes tillage is a good thing, whether it’s to reset your soil or incorporate your fertilizer, things like that, but I would caution you to not do more tillage than is necessary.”

He said tillage is basically “like Red Bull on the soil microbes.”

“When tillage is used in April, May, June with a soil finisher or field cultivator, there’s a huge spike in microbial activity,” he said.

“In turn, that’s going to make your nutrients more available as biology makes nutrients more available. That’s where you would see where you had a yield bump from tillage.

“It’s thought that tillage produces higher yields than no-till and sometimes it can, but there’s also high yields produced in no-till as we saw in 2022.

“However, while the tillage causes a spike in the microbial activity, there’s a more controlled and even distribution of soil respiration in a no-till system which tell us that the microbial activity is more regulated, more even, more stable throughout the whole year.

“No-till and cover crops are a tool in the toolbox to help conserve moisture, protect the soil. It’s great for weed control for a couple of different reasons.

“Cereal rye has a bit of an allopathic effect on small seeded broadleaves, and it also ties up a lot of the nitrogen that waterhemp would have thrived on. If you get it thick enough it can have the shading response, as well.”

Zimmerman said no-till and cover crops increase water infiltration.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons I got into cover crops, to build up the soil structure and to help make the soil more of a sponge as opposed to a shelf where you water would percolate through. I wanted the soil to absorb it and live in the soil colloid,” he noted.

“Soil under a no-till and cover crop system houses beneficial insects and biology. If you want earthworms, plant some cereal rye and radishes. They say radishes are like Red Bull to earthworms. I’ve seen that and it’s great to be able to stick a shovel in the ground and pull up a bunch of earthworms.”

6. We must broadcast full rates of commercial fertilizer to maintain our soils.

“That may be partly true, but it’s not 100% true,” Zimmerman said. “The more I learned about the soils and what I’ve seen is that you have plenty of fertilizer out there, and I’m not saying to cut out dry fertilizer all together, but there are better times, better places for you to fertilize.

“Dry broadcast was a great tool for us 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. Now we have so many more options, whether it’s Y-dropping, 2-by-2 on the planter, in-furrow in the planter, whether it’s using biostimulants to make your biology work harder for you to supply the nutrition that the plants need.

“It’s become a whole lot easier to use the four Rs of nutrient stewardship — right source, right rate, right time, right place. We have a ton of tools out there that will allow us to do that. So, while dry broadcast will serve its purpose in places, there are other options out there to look at.”

7. Healthy soils make healthy plants.

“While that may be partially true, we also learned that healthy plants make healthy soils.

If you’re starting out in something like a rock, plants will grow even though there’s no nutrients available to them. The thing that makes that possible is the biology and the acids that are put off by the roots of that plant,” Zimmerman said.

“Nature’s a powerful thing and life will find a way. We all know that by the characteristics of weeds. Make sure your plants are healthy and they will in turn help create healthy soils. Organic matter improves over time using cover crops.

“The cover crop thing is the real deal and making your soils more resilient, more healthy and more soft and more fed is really a good thing. You may not see the benefits or you may not see it on a spreadsheet in year one, but you may see it in year five and you’ll definitely see it in year 10.

“They say you’re either growing or dying, so you’re either growing your soils or you’re destroying your soils. When you know that there’s a way to grow it back, that makes it a whole lot easier to try and adopt that.”

8. Farmers received all of their information from universities.

“I have a great love for the universities. They do a lot of great work and in the past they were able to do things that us normal people or even businesses and industry weren’t able to do. There was a lot of knowledge there,” Zimmerman said.

“I think sometimes they’re a little bit slower to react nowadays, and so we’re learning from the tools that we have accessible to ourselves, whether it’s a yield monitor, auto-guidance, auto-shutoffs or variable rating, we can do a lot of our own testing ourselves or do some things with our neighbors.

“We need to dedicate 5% to 10% of our farm to research and development. I encourage you to dedicate at least something to on-farm research and development. I know that’s sometimes a tough thing to do because it takes time, it takes planning and it might take some clean-out, but what you can learn on your own farm.

“We do protocols for guys and do quite a bit of research, so if that’s something you’re interested in, we can do that. Or, find somebody that can help you do that or can hold your feet to the fire would maybe be the best thing.

“Try out Proven, try Pivot Bio, try Source, try out whatever you’re doing, we’ve got products you can try. And with the yield monitors today and the scales on the auger carts, there’s really no reason you shouldn’t be able to test whatever you want to.

“When you do test whatever you want to be prepared that not everything will work like it’s supposed to and sometimes you’ll have some mess-ups.

“So, my advice to you is to be prepared for everything to not work perfectly. We tend to run on very tight margins and very tight schedules. Build in some time just in case something wouldn’t work. Stuff happens, but that’s all part of the process. Learn about it, expect it and manage for that.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor