STORY BY JIM RUEN for NewGround
Jon East has made a few changes in his farming program since taking over the farm in 2003. Most of these change have occurred in the past six to seven years, thanks to a trust relationship with his Nutrien Ag Solutions agronomist, Scott Barnes, Harmony, Minnesota.
"My dad farmed his whole life and had made some changes along the way but not to the extent of how things are done now. " says East. "When he passed away, I started off doing things the same way he did initially but after a few years I began looking around, trying to find ways to do better, with different hybrids and varieties and a fertilizer plan that would produce better yields."
Those efforts went into high gear when Barnes, operating in Harmony, stopped by East's farm about nine miles west. The timing was right, with East less than satisfied with his then current yields. "He didn't have to twist my arm very hard to give him a try," recalls East.
Landowner Jon East works closely with Nutrien Ag Solutions agronomist Scott Barnes to improve yields and efficiently use nutrients. Barnes has been a catalyst for bringing East and other area growers into on-farm plot research funded by Minnesota's AFREC, led by Matt Wiebers.
Living in Rochester and commuting to the farm for fieldwork, East needed an advisor he could depend on. "He's out at the farm scouting the crops and checking multiple things from weeds to plant health to disease ," says East. "He gives me a better report than I could do if I was there."
Understanding that East was open to new ideas, Barnes suggested using encapsulated nitrogen (N) and the following year trying split applications of N. East gives the new practices credit for a significant boost in yield.
"I had been putting all my fertilizer on preplant," says East. "Since making the changes, I've been getting exceptional yields from my corn the past few years, and the return on investment has really paid off."
Other practices to improve economic and environmental outcomes were also explored, as well as on-farm corn hybrid variety comparisons. "We do a corn plot one year and soybean plot the next," says East. "We'll do up to 16 different hybrids in the plot. It includes both Scott's recommendations and some I get from another seed dealer to use as checks."
Two years ago, Barnes introduced a program funded by farmers through the Agricultural Fertilizer Research and Education Council (AFREC). Established in 2008, AFREC is funded by a 40 cent per ton fee paid by Minnesota farmers on all fertilizer sold in the state. The lion's share of the $1.2 million disbursed each year goes to the University of Minnesota. However, three years ago a small portion was dedicated to on-farm plot research under the direction of Matt Wiebers, an independent crop consultant.
Jon East harvests part of the AFREC trial in 2018. The combine is equipped with a yield monitor to record yield in specific areas where the trial is located.
"The grant sought to demonstrate that replicated research trials could be done on farms across the state and that the data collected would show that farmers were capable of producing good quality research results and a public database of nitrogen utilization for corn," says Wiebers.
He notes that while retailers like Barnes may have dozens of trials with growers, the raw data collected from them is usually not publicly available or shared for analysis. AFREC data will be shared with the cooperating farmer and later (with the location information removed) an overall report on the entire project will be publicly available. Barnes was sold on the concept when Wiebers introduced it.
"In the first year we did 48 full-field plots across the state, and Nutrien Ag Solutions in Harmony helped find locations for 11 of them," says Wiebers. “This demonstrates that local retailers can scale up an approach such as this with minimal impact to their operations and efficiency.”
One of those plots was on the field belonging to East. "When I presented the program, Jon was all over it," says Barnes. "Like the others, he provided data from his planter and yield monitor, and I provided the rest. We could have signed up even more. All of our growers are interested in anything they can do to save money and help the environment."
"Scott and Matt set up the plots on different blocks in the field with the University of Minnesota's recommended nitrogen rate compared to rates 30 units above and 30 units below the recommended rate," says East.
This piece of equipment top-dressed nitrogen on the AFREC plots. Its technology adjusts application rate on the go, to make these trials possible.
At the end of the year, Wiebers met with the growers to review the data collected. While they didn't know what farms the data came from, they could review practices. As a result, they all stayed with the practices from the study and some cut back their N application a bit as a result of what they saw. They saw they could cut back 10 to 15 units and still get pretty good yields with a sidedress back-up plan."
The project is now in its third year and has expanded to include potassium and sulfur in addition to nitrogen. Barnes has three growers signed up for nitrogen trials this year, East and one other from the first year and a third grower taking part for the first time. Barnes expects to see more valuable information as this year they are evaluating a wider spread of rates.
"In Jon's case, we applied 147 total units of nitrogen as his standard practice and deviated by 50 units above and below the recommended rate," says Barnes. "All plots received 73 units of N up front, including 9 units of N in his 6/24/6 starter in-furrow, plus 64 units as a mixture of DAP, urea and AMS, broadcast and then incorporated. The 50-under plot was topdressed with 24 units of stabilized N, while the standard rate plot was topdressed with 74 units of N and the 50-over plot received 124 units of stabilized N."
These aren't the first N utilization trials that Barnes and his growers have been involved in. While smaller in scope, they include plots in the Root River Field to Stream Partnership set up by Kevin Kuehner and Nutrient Management Initiative plots designed by Dawn Bernau. Both Kuehner and Bernau are with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Like Wiebers' full-field plot, their plots provide Barnes and his growers with valuable information.
"We've used data from all of these plots with other growers," says Barnes. "They like these trials because the data is local."
East echoes Barnes on the value of local data, but even more, on data from his fields. "I went to school at the University of Minnesota, Waseca," he says. "They have research plots there, but they aren't as valuable as local data. We have different soils here, and mine are different from those in fields even two or three miles away."