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The Secret to Success

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The secret to success in crop and forage production is simple there isn't one. To quote a cooperator and friend of mine, "There are no silver bullets." The key is to pay attention to the basics of crop and forage production. My view of the basics is fertility, timing, and other management practices.

Soil fertility is the starting point. The only way to know the soil fertility status is to have the soil tested. This is no different than checking the gas and oil in an engine. Soil testing should be done every two to three years in permanent pasture and annually in high value crops. There are several reasons this is so important: First, it tells if any nutrients are needed; second, it tells which nutrients are needed and in what amounts; third, it may indicate other limiting factors, like excess salt or improper pH. There are many ways this knowledge can be beneficial. One example is a producer who does not soil test, but uses 200 pounds of 15-15-15 annually. That could cost $16.80 per acre.

If no P and K are needed, this equates to $9.30 per acre more that could be spent on N. If that would buy 40 pounds more N, and 50 pounds N produces one ton of summer grass, then that equals an extra 1600 pounds of grass for the same money.

A different example is a producer who does not soil test and uses 200 pounds of N annually. Again, if 50 pounds additional N produces one additional ton of summer grass, then this should yield four tons of grass. However, if P is only 65 percent sufficient, which is common from the samples I see, then it will only yield four tons x 0.65, which is 2.6 tons. At $0.25 per pound N, the cost is $50. If the same $50 was spent on the needed P with the remainder purchasing N, the yield could be 3.4 tons.

In some instances, factors other than N-P-K are limiting. Probably the most important example of this is pH. Producers often overlook pH and liming for various reasons including cost and access. However, the pH at which most nutrients are most available is 6.8. If the pH is significantly higher or lower, nutrients can become less available to some plants, or in other cases toxic to some plants. Additionally, if a soil is excessively salty or sodic, plants will not do well regardless of nutrient status.

Timing is critical. Even if everything is done right, but at the wrong time, success is unlikely. For example, our average annual rainfall is bimodal, meaning we get a peak in April-June and a smaller one in September-October. Therefore, to get the full benefit of this moisture, forages and crops need to be planted and fertilized at the beginning of these two peaks.

Trying to establish Bermuda and other summer grasses in mid-June or later almost always guarantees establishment reduction or failure. Similarly, waiting until mid-October to plant winter pasture or alfalfa is very risky.

Be prepared ahead of time to meet target activity dates. Have a backup plan if the target date cannot be met. Don't risk what you can't afford to lose by doing things later than they should be done. It's better to lose a year of production and keep those input costs in the bank than to lose a year of production and also waste the inputs.

In addition to timing, there are many other crop and forage management practices, like tillage and pest control, that help guarantee success. To sum these up, I would suggest you use the best tool for the job. I realize that sometimes we have to make do with second best, but sometimes one alternative is better than another.

For example, a Brillion seeder is probably the best way to seed grass, but seldom available. However, given the choice between drilling and broadcasting, depending on the circumstance, one method will be better than the other.

Another example is weed control in pasture. If certain perennial weeds are present, a premix like Grazon or Weedmaster may be needed because 2,4-D will not give adequate control. On the other hand, if weeds are young annual broadleaves, then 2,4-D should give adequate control at a lower cost. The key is to know your specific need. Another hint that will help profitability is to know the active ingredients in pesticides. Many times the same ingredients can be purchased cheaper at higher concentrations or by using generic or a tank mix instead of a premix.

All cultural practices must be evaluated. Are you planting wheat for winter pasture when you should be planting rye? Are you overstocked? Are you using conventional tillage instead of no-till? Have you chosen the best variety? Are you getting the right fertilizer out at the time the crop needs it?

Again, pay attention to the basics. They are the building blocks that success is built on.