What does a 107 bushels per acre soybean crop look like? Tim Gerrits, a farmer from North Middlesex, can tell you.
With a high-management production approach, Gerrits achieved huge results in some of his fields in 2020.
It’s the culmination of years of research and mentorship from other growers, he says, and part of an ongoing effort to chase bushels rather than expensive acreage.
Q: What’s your normal, non-intensive growing strategy?
Answer: I have three management programs. The first is low management where we remove all extras and give it a basic approach like the three-step program commonly done in Ontario.
Then there’s a medium level of management, which would be considered a high management program for most growers in the province. It consists of a five to seven step process.
The third is high management, which follows criteria from the world’s best farmers and the experts, and can have 11-plus steps.
Q: How does the high-management approach differ generally? What’s the thematic difference?
Answer: The intense management usually carries a much higher profit, but requires a much greater effort. We target specific growth stages and try to maintain certain nutrient loads at those important times. This allows us to be much more effective and achieve a much greater opportunity to pinpoint our ROI (return on investment) expectations.
Overall, it gives a much clearer picture of what works, and what doesn’t. It also stimulates you to learn more from these successes and failures, then mimic those successes across more acres in following years.
Q: Can you walk us through a season? What decisions are you making?
Answer: First, we identify the fields we think will be conducive to a high-yield managed system, and start the planning process.
We treat soybeans like corn in that we pay attention to the details like planting depth, soil temperature, weather forecast, population and spacing and many other factors. Secondly, when the crop emerges, we look at the stand to identify which fields still carry the potential.
Third, we periodically take leaf tissue samples to measure progress at each growth stage. More importantly, we’re applying nutrients accordingly to match them to the requirements of the area and our coveted yield goals.
Q: Anything beyond that?
Answer: Other steps include shortening of nodes to stimulate more branching, holding flowers and eventually more pods per node, and more beans per pod. This is all done by timely in-season applications of the key products aimed at specific growth stages.
In 2020 we found one specific application that gained us around 11 bushels per acre consistently. An important part is trying to verify whether something is working or not in season. Just doing it at harvest can make it hard to tell how much of an impact something did or didn’t have.
Q: So fields not meeting expectations just revert to standard management?
Answer: Yes. When fields are at our targets, we continue on through the season. But when they don’t meet the requirements, we drop them off. Knowing when to pull the trigger and when to pull the plug is essential.
This management style allows us to carry potential fields to the top, and stop wasting money on the ones that don’t have the potential there. It’s the best way to accurately manage fields to maximize ROI.
Q: You try high-management in corn too. How is that different?
Answer: For corn we start with seed energy, trying to increase that at emergence. Corn requires a tremendous amount of energy and that can be inhibited by seed damage, salty fertilizer burn, uneven planting depth, inconsistent moisture and heat uptake, etc.
We concentrate on using products and placement to maximize this effect, and have programs that increase emergence while maximizing uniformity. We are averaging 1.7 – 1.9 more kernels in length and two rows around the cob by a late season application, increase test weight, and even preventing corn from denting. This last one is very expensive but we are finding an extra six per cent yield gain by doing this when coming into that stage with a good crop.
Q: This kind of approach does sound expensive and time consuming. How significant are the additional costs and time commitments?
Answer: The high yield system requires a lot of money comparatively. However, only 20 to 30 per cent of the fields make it, so we’re not making that investment on every acre.
It’s worked out financially because we are paying attention to the details, and dropping off fields as we go. We like to see a two-to-one ROI on each step we follow. That never seems to add up exactly the same way that we put it together into a program.
As far as time management goes, summers are over if you aren’t efficient with your spray capacity. It’s a lot of work, but in the end the ROI is there.
Q: Any general limitations of the intensive system? What are some practical issues where it might or might not be suitable?
Answer: I think the main limitations are management style and attitude to trying new things. David Hula is one of my mentors and a record-holding corn grower, and he says the only way to a higher yield is to have an open mind and a willing heart. If you don’t try new things, how are you going to find what really works on your farm?
Q: You mentioned David Hula. Have you worked with anyone else? A research institution?
Answer: There are too many to mention them all. Some obvious ones are Phillip Davis – he’s a guru known among all high-yield growers to have been pivotal in their successes. There’s also Dan Leupkes, a champion corn and soybean grower in Illinois and Melissa Swanson, an agronomist in the same state. They help you find the low hanging fruit.
Q: What’s next, then? Is there something new you’re trying to incorporate?
Answer: We’re really just focused on learning, both from what worked and what didn’t. Taking a high management approach does not work the same everywhere. Whether I get a positive response, or if something didn’t work, it teaches me something about that particular spot.
Then we can adapt, try something new, or move on if we know something isn’t worth it. You have to expect some failures, keep an open mind, and try and learn from them. When you get it right, it really is profitable.