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Improve Your Bottom Line with Integrated Crop Management

Posted Mar. 1, 2006

Agricultural production is limited by factors producers can manage, as well as those over which they have no control. Traditional agriculture generally addresses the manageable factors individually, but Integrated Crop Management (ICM) is an approach to farming or ranching that aims to balance production factors with economic and environmental considerations. Production factors include crop and variety selection, crop rotation, tillage system, harvest methods and selection of cultural, chemical and biological inputs. ICM is like the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) philosophy that applies these considerations to the pest complex (weeds, insects, diseases and beneficial organisms). Historically, only high-input crops employed IPM or ICM philosophies. As profit margins tighten and environmental pressures increase, producers of traditionally lower-input crops need to use these concepts.

Most producers today already use some concepts of ICM. One of the most important of these is the economic threshold. One definition of economic threshold is the degree of insect infestation, disease severity, weed density or nutrient deficiency where action is needed to prevent economic loss. This threshold changes in relationship to the cost of the action. For example, if armyworms will cause an estimated $20/acre loss and an insecticide application costs $10/acre, then the threshold is met. If the application costs $25/acre, it does not meet the threshold due to its negative return. The cost and efficacy of the management activity (cultural, chemical or biological) must be evaluated to determine which, if any, are likely to result in positive returns.

One reason many producers cite for not adopting ICM is the time required to implement it. Time spent developing short- and long-term plans to determine the crops, varieties, production systems and marketing options that will work best can be considerable. During the production cycle, time must be spent monitoring field and crop conditions to make informed decisions to implement these plans. As an example, agricultural specialists usually recommend fertilizer according to soil analysis, although, depending on the crop, leaf or petiole analysis may be a better indicator. In either case, without analysis, the producer is only guessing at where they are in relation to the economic threshold. Another example is time spent on thorough field scouting to assess weeds, diseases and insect problems. In some cases, computer models may help refine scouting activities, but can rarely replace them. When scouting for pests, look for beneficial insects or signs of pathogens that can control or suppress pests below the economic threshold. Finally, time after the season evaluating the plan's success is critical. Was it flexible enough to respond to unforeseen challenges, and what changes are needed for the future?

What are the benefits of the time spent implementing an ICM philosophy? The most obvious benefit is an increased return on investment, since only inputs expected to have a positive return are used. Another benefit is reduced impact on the environment, since the producer considers all available options (cultural, chemical and biological) and only uses those expected to provide positive returns. Perhaps the biggest benefit of adopting an ICM philosophy is that the producer must completely analyze his or her operation. The ICM producer develops a comprehensive plan, closely monitors conditions and develops contingencies for problems that may occur. They can quickly react to most problems and limit their negative impact. They also are able to take advantage of favorable conditions to maximize returns.

Agriculture will always have risks, but implementing an ICM philosophy may reduce those risks to a manageable level. Contact a Noble Research Institute soil and crops specialist at (580) 224-6500 for assistance with implementing an ICM program in your operation.