Cooperative Grain & Supply agronomist Brian Nickel said this is the time of year — after all the fall crops have been harvested and the winter wheat has been planted — that farmers analyze their yields from previous years. They meet with Nickel to try to make more money.
The place where farmers are dropping the most dollars, at the moment, is in fertilizer and seed. Nickel said it is the time of year to apply fertilizer so it absorbs into the soil over the winter. About 80 percent of Marion County farmers have ordered seed a couple months early as one way to save money.
Nickel said the average farm in Marion County is between 1,200 and 1,500 acres. Seed costs between $40 to $50 an acre. Fertilzer runs between $500 to $700 a ton and it takes between 50 to 60 tons for a field that size. On just those two expenses, farmers are spending over $10,000.
“They’re wrapping up a lot of money out there,” Nickel said.
It’s part of Nickel’s job to get the most out of those dollars. The best way that he knows is by grid sampling. Formerly, the practice was to take soil samples from different areas of a field and then average them together in order to pick out a fertilizer with the right mix of nutrients for the total acreage.
Over the past three years, Nickel has begun taking samples every two acres from interested farmers. He then tests each sample individually for 13 different nutrients including phosphorous and lime. He then makes recommendations about what fertilizer, and the amount of fertilizer, to apply in each section based on that data. Sections like low-lying river land need very little fertilizer and then producers can direct the fertilizer to the areas that need it most. The selective application makes sense to farmers from an economic standpoint and Nickel also said it decreases the chance of run off because areas closest to water sources have higher concentrations of nutrients.
“It’s a win-win,” Nickel said.
Using a GPS guided machine, the chance of overlap is decreased even further. By maximizing the use of fertilizer, it increases the chance that the seed responds in kind.
Farming is often a slow developing business. Nickel said the benefits of grid sampling usually won’t be evident for about 10 to 15 years. The goal is to see only slight variations in soil nutrition among the different samples when the field is sampled again after a decade.
Nickel said farmers understand this. When buying a piece of machinery, it may take years until a $100,000 machine begins to make money. Grid sampling works the same way. To save money down the road, farmers have to put in the effort in testing now.
Gradual improvement has not scared off interest in grid sampling. Farmers using the technique claim that they see a difference in their fields. The interest in the technique has picqued this year, driven by the high cost of fertilizer.