Profitability vs Productivity, Soybean Nitrogen Credits, Winter Fertilizing, New Webinar Series, and More!
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Bright Days Ahead

Greetings from the team at Ward Laboratories. As we get started in 2021, I hope you are looking for new ways to bring success to your operation, community and personal life. We see new opportunities to serve you in 2021 by offering new testing options, fine tuning methods, and speeding sample turnaround time. Just as in your endeavors none of these goals will come easy. We will continue to be diligent on making ourselves better by reading and learning from past experiences, seeking feedback from customers, and following changes in the industry landscape. I know 2020 may not have been everyone’s best year but let us not keep from seeking greatness in ‘21!
--Nick Ward, President, Ward Laboratories, Inc.


Profitability vs Productivity

For those involved in production agriculture, it’s a common theme to want to raise more. We want to be more productive, raise higher yielding crops, and achieve and exceed our yield goals. But at what expense does that additional productivity come?

First, a trip down memory lane…
I earned my agronomy degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Go big red!) and was fortunate enough to take almost all of Dr. Ron Hanson’s agricultural economics courses. In every course Dr. Hanson taught, he reiterated over and over and over the principal of diminishing returns.  Now I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that my 19-year-old self wondered when I was ever going to use this, but alas, here we are talking about it all these years later.

What is the Principal of Diminishing Returns-Input Basis?
According to Dr. Hanson’s textbooks (yep, I still have them), “the principle of diminishing returns-input basis is concerned with varying the amounts of one input while all other inputs in the production process are being held constant.”

Wait, what?
This means that if we change the amount of input we add into a system (say phosphorus as an example) and keep all other inputs the same (all other fertilizers, seed, chemicals, etc.), at first the return of product (yield) will increase. But over time, as we continue adding more of the phosphorus, we will see a leveling out of additional yield and finally even a downturn in yield.

Why is that?
Well, for one, the system can only take so much.  Dr. Nick Ward discusses productivity versus fertility in this #TuesdayThoughts video. I won’t spoil it for you, but the summary is that you can change fertility by adding or subtracting nutrients, but you may not be able to change productivity because productivity is determined by the environment and climate the soil is in.

Going back to our economics lesson, we can continue adding phosphorus fertilizer to our heart’s desire (although I do NOT endorse that for a number of reasons--that’s a discussion for another day). At some point, the crop growing in that soil will stop responding to the additional phosphorus and eventually the environment will have a negative response to it. Furthermore, once the crop stops responding by producing more yield, we’re wasting money with all this extra phosphorus, not to mention creating all sorts of environmental concerns.

The recommendations on the bottom of your soil test and the sufficiency levels on your plant tissue test exemplify this exact point. If you see a 0 lb recommendation or a sufficient rating, you can be confident that adding more of that nutrient will not return you any additional productivity (yield) or profitability.

Now, I’m not suggesting you dust off the old college textbook when it comes time to make input decisions, but I do suggest sharpening the pencil and really putting some numbers to it.  Think realistically about the soils you’re farming, the crop you’re producing, and the prices of that crop.  Will the additional inputs required to produce more of that crop actually make you more profitable?  Or will it inflate your expenses while only slightly increasing yield?  Does the additional yield make up for that added expense? Does your soil have the productivity to support that kind of yield? Maybe the answer is yes, but it may also be no.

Before writing the check for yet another input—especially the ones with lofty promises of higher yield-- take some time to analyze the results on your soil and tissue tests. Do your homework and analyze the costs of these inputs and the benefits and likelihood of additional yield. If you’re looking for someone to talk through some of these questions with, the professional staff at Ward Labs are always just a phone call away!


Soybean Nitrogen Credits

When we make fertilizer recommendations for upcoming crops, it’s good to consider nitrogen credits from past crops. Leguminous species like soybean, alfalfa, and clover may provide a nitrogen credit for the next season’s crop. There are a few misconceptions about where the nitrogen credit comes from, however.

For this example, we’ll talk specifically about soybean. Soybean residue has a very low C:N ratio, typically 8:1.  A low ratio like this provides the necessary “recipe” for quick breakdown and release of N held in old crop residues. The nitrogen in the credit comes from both aboveground and below ground portions of the soybean plant. Nitrogen releases when mineralized from old leaves, stems, and pods. The nodules in the root system are also full of dead bacteria that were responsible for fixing nitrogen for the soybean crop. So the Nitrogen release is actually coming from both the above ground and below ground portion of the soybean plant.

Now, how much nitrogen can be credited to next season’s crop? Ward Laboratories’ rule of thumb is 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre.  You may want to reduce this credit if you have low yielding soybeans due to drought, herbicide damage, or other adverse growing conditions. We recommend reducing the nitrogen credit if soybeans do not yield over 20 bushels per acre.

On the flip side, high yielding soybeans (85+ bushel per acre) may provide a nitrogen credit above 40 pounds per acre.  In this instance, you may consider making a conservative increase to 55 or 60 pounds per acre nitrogen credit.  Additionally, if you have in season nitrogen application options available, it may be feasible to push the limit of the credit and maximize nitrogen use efficiency.

As you sit down to finalize fertilizer decisions for the 2021 growing season, be sure to consider the nitrogen credit from leguminous species with low C:N ratios like soybean, alfalfa, pinto bean, and chickpea.


Fertilizer and Manure Applications on Frozen Ground

During my winter travels with Ward Laboratories, I frequently observe dry fertilizer applicators spreading product on snow or frozen ground. This is generally an ill-advised practice. In Nebraska, the “Bomb Cyclone” event of March 2019 is a well-documented example of why application on frozen or snow-covered ground should be avoided. In this event, large amounts of rain fell over much of Nebraska. Soils remained frozen, preventing the rainwater from soaking into the soil. Water ran to the low spots, taking with it any fertilizer that had been applied. An unsavory decision had to be made: re-apply fertility or skip it for the upcoming season. In either scenario, it would be a hit to the bottom line.

It’s important to be mindful of fertilizer applications that could unintentionally contaminate water resources. In the event of heavy spring rains on frozen ground, fertilizer applied in the Midwest could be carried to streams, rivers, major waterways and then on to the Gulf of Mexico or our oceans. An abundance of fertilizer in these water bodies causes microscopic organisms to grow and use up oxygen, known as hypoxia. This can be fatal to fish and other sea life.

The same principles apply to manure applications. There are times when a feeding facility may run short of storage in the winter and need to apply to a field. In this case, apply only enough manure or slurry to gain storage room. Pick an area that is away from water sources and is relatively flat and not as prone to off-field movement if heavy rain or rapid snowmelt occurs. But if storage is not a concern, best practice is to wait to apply manure until the frost is out of fields and the soil can dry.

The bottom line, it is best advised to leave the fertilizer in the shed and manure in storage until spring!


Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Over the holiday, I headed back to my hometown of Freeport, Maine. I was able to spend time with family and friends, mostly masked up and outdoors. Growing up in this small coastal community, I have always appreciated nature in every aspect. I learned from a young age to be a good steward of our lands
The time I spent with my parents was mainly comprised of adventures into the 16 acres of deep woods behind their house.

There are so many smells, textures, colors, species (plants and animals alike) in this woods ecosystem. It’s an indescribable feeling of refreshment and renewal. I found myself in that child-like state full of curiosity, excited to show my parents what was hidden by the thick organic layer of fallen leaves. Under the leaves was an actively decomposing layer of detritus, predominantly formed by carbon-rich woody species. Fueling my curiosity, dad supplied me with a shovel, and I was able to show them what lies beneath the soil surface, hidden by thick piles of leaves.

I first removed the leaves from the top layer of soil, known as the “O Horizon.” This horizon is comprised of decomposing materials, in this case trees and leaves. In this horizon was a beautiful, earthy smelling, moist layer of actively decomposing organic material. The layer extended approximately 4” down the soil profile! This was under that approximate 1.5” layer of fallen leaves. Once I separated the organic, decomposing portion, we found the “A Horizon.” This was difficult to unearth, no pun intended, due to all the roots protruding from the hundreds of surrounding trees.

Although this soil is considered a silt loam, it was full of soil aggregates, good soil structure, and good soil moisture holding capacity. You could dig several feet down and still have moisture in the soil profile. This is nature. This is what we want to mimic in our agricultural systems. Nature is self-healing, self-organizing, and self-regulating. If we can incorporate practices to enhance soil stability though armoring soil, like the leaves do in the woods, and have residue that is being actively broken down, like the tree and leaf detritus, we’re well on our way to achieving this. This is not accomplished based on just these examples. Nature is teeming with all sorts of life, as small as the microbes in the soil and as large as deer who find refuge in the woods. We need to stimulate life, to simulate nature on our ground.


Bottom-Up Focus on Forage Webinar Series

We are excited to bring you our second webinar series, Bottom-Up Focus on Forage! This will be a 4 part series beginning February 15. Register by clicking the link below!

Alfalfa Breeding and Forage Quality Traits

Selecting the Right Seed or Forage Mix for Your Operation's Goals

Producer Insights on Forage Production

Representative Forage Sampling & Utilizing NIRS Analysis of Forages.


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