Thoughts on Drip Irrigation of Specialty Crops

Many of our vegetable growing customers have started to use drip irrigation on their various vegetable crops that they grow. Drip irrigation requires much less water to be applied on a field to grow a crop. Due to the lower total volume of water needed, a much smaller pump & lower water pressures are used. The cost to lay out the drip lines for each row in a field is more costly than watering overhead. Drip irrigation pays dividends back to the grower for their investment in many different ways!

1) By not wetting the crops foliage, like with overhead, there tends to be less disease.

2) That huge stream of water you see coming out of the end of a big gun often damages the plants. With drip you don’t have that effect either.

3) Yields are higher due to better water management & maintaining a healthier root system. After all it is the roots that are the brains of the plant. Their health & longevity has a huge impact on the final crop yield & quality.

4) Once the system is installed it requires a lot less time to run, saving labor hours. With overhead irrigation you often need to water at night when the wind speed is lower & you can achieve a more even water pattern. Watering overhead at night makes it more efficient due to less evaporation. With drip irrigation you don’t have this requirement & can water during the day light hours!

5) Another huge benefit is to spoon feed fertilizers to the developing crop in the amounts that are needed for the different stages of crop growth!

6) There are many new insecticides & fungicides that are systemic & very effective. Most often these products are very expensive. When injecting fertilizer & chemicals thru drip lines you do not have to broadcast these products over the whole field. The reduction of surface area for these applications often saves 40% of the cost of a broadcast application. This can add up to a big savings for a grower as well.

Many first time growers often use the drip tape to deliver water only, in their first year. We at Widmer & Associates have become the local experts in helping growers to get the maximum use out of a drip system.  We do not sell many of the major components, but we can offer a new grower some very good advice that will save him money in the design & layout of a system. Chemigation & fertigation of products is an area we have a lot of experience with. This is the area that I want to spend the bulk of this article on!

The injection of nutrients & pesticides is not a difficult thing to do. The cost of the equipment to inject these products is not that expensive or difficult to run either. There are many options & costs for equipment to inject with, this is another area that we can be a great help to a grower in deciding which one to buy. We have found that the most cost effective way to feed a crop is to apply certain fertilizers in a sequence that maximizes their effect & minimizes the total cost of the fertility program. A grower should always start by having a soil sample pulled from the field to be fertigated, the year before planting. This allows time to adjust the pH with lime if necessary & fall or spring apply some basic fertility products. We suggest applying the amount of phosphate needed as a broadcast or in row band before the crop is planted. There are not many products high in phosphate, which are cost effective to put thru a drip tape. We also suggest applying about 80% of the potassium as a broadcast or in row band before the crop is planted, for the same reason. The last major element left is nitrogen. The way in which nitrogen gets applied, the timing & form, is very critical. The total amount needed is decided ahead of planting & then we develop a program to best & most cost effectively apply it. Since most drip tape gets laid after the final cultivation, to prevent damaging it, that means the crop will be planted for 3-5 weeks before it can get its first fertigation. A plan to provide for the amount a crop needs during this time period is very important. Most crops require the majority of their total nitrogen needs during the time of vegetative growth, before the reproductive stage begins. The period during reproduction requires nitrogen also, but at a much lower rate. There are many different sources of nitrogen that can be applied thru drip tape. The majority of them contain all nitrate nitrogen. Growing a vegetable crop on all nitrate nitrogen often causes many negative effects. A plant growing on all nitrate nitrogen will have huge top growth & a smaller root system. This creates a great stress on the plant & the goal is to eliminate as much crop stress as possible. Nitrate nitrogen requires that sufficient amounts of other nutrients be applied in a touchy balance or negative things will happen. Plants grown under all nitrate nitrogen are more susceptible to disease, insect attack & weather related stress. Fruits high in nitrate nitrogen have a much shortened shelf life, reduced color, sugar content. Fruits that develop on a total nitrate nitrogen program are often not optimally formed or shaped. Care must be taken in balancing out the nitrogen forms, sources & timing of application. Micronutrients can be a very expensive part of any fertility program. Applying them thru the drip tape requires much less product & is a great savings compared to broadcasting them. When applied thru the tape, they are much more efficient & effective due to less tie up from contact with the soil. Calcium is a very important nutrient in vegetable production. There are several very good forms that can be applied thru the drip tape.

There are several of us at Widmer & Associates that have 10 years of experience in working with specialty crop growers in developing a sound & cost effective fertigation program. There are not many specialty crops grown in the US, which we don’t have extensive experience with. Our experience can save a grower a lot of frustration & experimenting. We would be most happy to sit down with you & develop a program that meets your cultural practices & particular crops needs. Give us a call!

Drip Irrigation of Specialty Crops Widmer (downloadable PDF version)

Dealing with tall corn and a lot of fodder in 2014

Harvest season is now underway in Northwest Ohio, and as expected with the extremely tall corn this year, there is a good deal of fodder remaining after the combine rolls through the fields.  With the trend to better stalk health and strength in plant genetics, we now have the added challenge in reduced tillage situations with stalks that do not break down after harvest as readily.  Stalk Digester is a product now offered by Widmer & Associates which is a formulation that enhances the natural breakdown of stalks by feeding the bacteria and microbes that are key in the decomposition of the plant matter and creating more beneficial organic matter in our soil.

We have multiple years of field trials with this product and been very pleased with the results.  Now is the time to try it on your acres.

Corn & Soybean Thoughts

For the majority, our region has been blessed with an excellent start and early season development with your crops.  I have a number of growers comment that this has been one of the best starts that they have seen in a long time.  When we talk with growers and agricultural people in other regions and hear of some of the weather conditions they are having and talk with people that have traveled in other areas of the country and they comment that this region looks the best that they have seen, we know we have been fortunate – so far.

In the past 10 days we have seen some very spotty weather events and rains.  In the Gibsonburg area for example we have had over 3″ in the past couple of days on soils that already had a good level of moisture.  These kind of rains cause different kinds of crop stresses to occur in crops, depending on the crop, the stages of growth, and the condition of the soil and crop before the heavier rains.

Corn:  With the variable soil and weather conditions that exist with the different areas, I am suggesting that each of you give us a call to discuss your thoughts about the need or value of treating your corn with fungicides or other products.  With the type of weather we are having so far this season and the kind of yield potential your corn crop currently has, we feel it may be a good investment to protect the crop health of the crop as much as possible this year.

Soybeans:  Within the past 10 days or so, there have been soybean fields in specific areas that have had large amount of rains.  Where this has occurred, these plants will see a significant set back from losing their hair roots and nodule nitrogen production.  Once the soil becomes drained from the excess water and air can get back into the soil, the soybean plant at its current younger state of development can start re-generating new roots.  Depending of the severity of the water damage of course determines how quickly the plant will recover to a normal rate of growth.  There are foliar applications that will help the plants recover their roots more quickly and help get the plant healthily quicker to handle what weather conditions lay ahead.

With some of these different conditions and issues in mind, it may work best to just contact us if you are interested and we can discuss your specific questions and individual situation.

Transitioning back to healthy soils

This winter’s weather so far has been rough on the wheat crop but has been good for our soils.  The combination of heavy rains to recharge our soil moisture and periods of very cold temperatures on bare ground is very helpful.  This time last year, we were very concerned about the condition of NW Ohio’s soils after harvesting the 2011 crop under less than ideal conditions.   The winter after harvest was just a continuation of the prolonged period of saturated soils that rob microbial life of oxygen to break down crop residue.  Not to mention the lack of freezing and thawing to rebuild soil structure.  Early in the spring we experienced a dry period that allowed for improved soil conditions and a pretty good looking seedbed to plant into.  However, not all the damage had been undone.  After a couple of hard rains in May, old problem areas and traffic from the previous fall began to show up.  When we hit the prolonged dry weather in summer it was obvious that there were significant problems with soil structure and health remaining in many fields.  Plants that had difficulty establishing a good root system early were showing stress long before other plants in adjacent fields, or even the same field.

The dry weather itself was helpful in repairing damaged soil by promoting fracturing, just like the deep freezing this winter.  However, it takes more than fracturing of the surface profile to repair soil structure and promote good tilth. The organic matter fraction, especially the active organic fraction is very important in building strong, stable soil aggregates that resist compaction from rainfall and traffic.  The crop residues that are left on the field have to be digested by the bacteria and fungi that live in the soil.  Residues that have been completely broken down and digested are in a form called humus, which has no resemblance to the original residue and is very stable.  It is the presence of these humic substances in mineral soils that promotes granular soil structure.  Humus also has the capacity to hold many times its weight in water, which increases soil water holding capacity.  Not to mention its ability to hold and supply nutrients in forms that are readily available to plants.

The soil microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes) that convert plant residues into humus need to be active and flourishing.  As mentioned in the previous blog post by Dusty Sonnenberg, special soil tests are available that can test for the presence of these microorganisms and how many of them are active.  Tests done by Widmer and Associates last year on production soils in this area revealed that total bacteria and fungi were high.  However, active bacteria and fungi were below expected levels.  In order to avoid having “dead” soils, we must provide an environment where populations of these active microorganisms can grow and they can do their job.  Tight, compacted, water logged soils like we ended up with in 2011 are not the proper environment.  Once we have a healthy, functioning microbial population, the process of cycling residues into humic substances creates its own ideal environment.  This environment and the carbon cycling process that creates it can be self-sustaining.  What you end up with is a friable soil with good granular structure that resists compaction and has improved water holding capacity.  It is also a good rooting medium for plants that allows roots to grow deeper and be more profuse.  There are things that can be done to jump start this process and promote soil health and a flourishing active organic soil fraction.  For more information, contact the Widmer and Associates agronomy team.

Can we grow 300 bushel corn and 125 bushel soybeans?

The Situation:  In the next 10-20 years we will need to feed a growing global population of over Nine Billion people.

The Question:  Do we know what is required to grow 300 bu Corn & 125 by Soybeans?  Are our soils capable?  Are we capable of managing the agronomic requirements?

The average annual corn yield increase in the United States is 1.5%.  If we take the current average of 180 bu/ac and add a 1.5% yield increase in 10 years, you would have a yield of 209.36 bu/ac.

If you want to be a competitive/progressive producer and target a 3% annual yield increase, in 10 years you would be at a yield of 244.09 bu/ac.

For soybeans, it takes 5 pounds of nitrogen (N) to produce 1 bushel of soybeans.  A soybean plant can produce 60% of its N needs by itself.  For a 70 bu/ac soybean crop it takes 350# of N per acre to produce the crop.  The soybean plant will produce 140# of N, and the soil organic matter can be responsible for another 90# of N/acre.  (A general rule of thumb is that soil organic matter (O.M.) can produce 30#N for every 1 % of soil O.M. depending on environmental conditions.)   We will still need 50# N from another source to achieve our 60 bu/ac yield.  If we wish to go up to 125 bu/ac  soybean yields, then given the above numbers, we will need an additional 120# N from another source.

When we look at the nutrient requirement to produce these yields, we are looking at much higher N-P-K requirements, and given the various environmental concerns, a question to consider is if we will be allowed to apply those amounts required for this level of production.

Water requirements for grain yields at our current level of production are at the top end of what our current average annual rainfall is.  If we look at the increased water requirements for the increased yields, (based on our current understanding of production requirements in gallons of water per bushel) we do not get enough annual rainfall, or have the water holding capacity in our soils to meet these requirements.

40%-60% of a plant’s nutrient and water needs fall within a 40-60 day window.

Environmental issues and legislative pressure with water quality in the Great Lakes and our waterways also will increase pressure and scrutiny on how we manage nutrient usage in crop production.

Another set of questions to consider in growing crops for higher economic yields include: “How have our soils changed over time?” and “ How have our production practices and fertilization practices changed our soils?”.   In viewing historic soils test data since the early 1980’s, our soil Organic Matter values are holding, however the CEC values are changing.

When we look at the Foodweb soil analysis of our Northwest Ohio Hoytville Clay soils, the summary shows a large “Total” number of bacteria and fungi, but the level of “Active” bacteria and fungi is low.

Dr. Fred E. Below,  University of Illinois, in his discussion of the “Seven Wonders of Corn”; and assuming the basics of drainage, pest and weed control, and soil pH and P&K levels are in check; listed the following items as the top influential factors.  (1.  Weather, 2. Nitrogen, 3. Hybrid Selection, 4. Previous Crop, 5. Plant Population, 6. Tillage Practices, & 7. Growth Regulators).  In his research, he has evaluated what it takes to make a corn crop, and also shares what each individual factor contributes or can detract from a corn program.  In his summary of the evaluation he states “The yield value of an individual factor or practice is relatively small compared to the combined value of combined factors.”

In getting back to our beginning situation,(In the next 10-20 years we will need to feed a growing global population of over Nine Billion people.) “Current production practices will not be enough to produce 50% higher yields in our soil.  Production practices that focus only on technology of seed, mechanization, fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, etc. will not economically achieve these high yield levels in our soil.  We must look to achieve greater soil health and soil efficiencies & plant efficiencies.” – Les Widmer

Options:  What is an option to help us get closer to achieving this soil health & efficiencies?  According to Dr. Pettit, Texas A&M University:  “ Humic substances can play a vital role in soil fertility and plant nutrition.  Plants grown in soils with adequate humic acids are far less subject to stress, are healthier, and produce higher yields.”

According to Dr. Pettit, “We became distracted from the importance of organic cycling when it was discovered that soluble acidic based N-P-K fertilizers would stimulate plant growth and yields. Continued use of acidic fertilizers without adequate humic substances in the soil can and will cause serious soil health problems.”

“ We need to reconsider our approach to fertilization practices by giving higher priority to soil humus and soil life.  The urgency to emphasize the importance of humic substances and their value as fertilizer ingredients has never been more important than it is today.  Humus is the major soil organic component, making up 65% to 75% of the total, and its role is far in excess of the percentage it makes in the total soil mass.” – Dr. Pettit

For more information about the use of humics through X-cell technology, contract the agronomic team at Widmer & Associates, Ltd.

Free Farm Management Apps are worth a look.

With the increased popularity and use of smart phones in everyday life an in agriculture, there are a number of free farm management apps now on the market that are worth checking out.

1)  Trimble is proud to offer their  “Connected Farm” app.  You can use this app to map field boundaries, flag points of interest, and enter scouting information. Scouting attributes include an extensive list of weeds, insects and diseases, and allows you to log the severity of a problem, crop conditions, and more.

2)  Dekalb Asgrow offers an app called “The agSeedSelect”.  This app is designed to recommend the right seed for your specific fields.  It uses your zip code and lays out a personalized seed guide listing the specific varieties, by crop, that had the best results in your geographic area.  They also offer a web based verison of this app as well.

3)  Pioneer also has their “Mobile Pioneer” app that is a portal to their web site and web based resources.  Along with the Pioneer product offerings, this app offers wether, markets, and other ag. news.

4)  The Ag PhD Harvest Loss Calculator helps you determine how much of your crop you are leaving in the field after harvest. Simply select your crop and input the number of seeds/kernels you count on the ground in a square foot. The app returns a harvest loss calculation in both bushels per acre and pounds per acre.

5)  The Ag PhD Planting Population Calculator aids you in determining planting population and stand counts for the crops on your farm.  I like this app particularly to do the quick math to determine my final plant stand/plant population as I consider the need for a replant.

6)  The Ag PhD Drainage Tile Calculator helps you determine your tile supply and capabilities for your field drainage project. You can calculate acres drained for single wall and dual wall tile in any size and grade, the pipe size needed to effectively drain acres, and the length of pipe you will need to purchase to complete your project.

7) Mosaic offers useful nutrient management tool in their new “Nutrient Removal” app.  This app lists the amount of nutrients removed by various crops based on yield.  The downside I have found to this app is that the yields are pre-set in the app, and not all crops have options to change the yield to fit closer to your specific farm history.

Most of these apps are available for both Apple and Android products.  Several others apps area also currently available via the Apple iTunes App Store or Google Play.  Like anything, with free apps, you sometimes get what you pay for…check the source before you install any app, and read the reviews if they are provided to see others experience first.


Fall Soil Sample Time

Veris E.C. Machine

There are numerous systems in place for collecting soil samples.  Grid sampling, composite samples, and soils maps are all tools used in  selecting management zones to collect soil samples from.  Another alternative that we at Widmer & Associates would recommend is Veris Data Collection.  The Veris machine is a simple device that sends an electric current between a series of flat disc blades which in turn measures electro conductivity of the soil.  This soil electro conductivity has a direct correlation to the soil cation exchange capacity (CEC).

By using data from the Veris machine, we can determine more precise management zones which we then collect soil sample from and can make recommendations.

In the summer after wheat harvest, and in the fall following corn and bean harvest are good times to have your fields Veris sampled, prior to any tillage or ditching.  The generally accepted  recommendation is to have soil re-sampled every 3 years.

Unless you are certain of the complete uniformity of your fields, composite sampling is usually to too much of a shotgun approach, even when it comes to applying lime to adjust soil pH.  On the other hand, grid sampling can become very costly, especially when it comes to larger acreages.  A third option as we discussed is determining crop management zones based on a Veris soils map.  The Veris map in layman’s terms is a refined soils map that more specifically defines soil types within a field.  These Veris zones with similar characteristics can be grouped into “management zones” and soil samples can be pulled.

Contact any of the Widmer and Associates team for more information, prices and scheduling of your Veris soils mapping and sampling this fall!



Strip-tillage thoughts

June is not typically when strip-tillage is on the mind of most farmers, however with the earlier than normal wheat harvest (I saw the first field of Wheat harvested this year on June 15th), and the wet and tight ground conditions we experienced last fall and this winter, now is a good time to begin thinking about the “total systems approach” of a strip-tillage system with fertilizer application.

On Wednesday, August 22nd, Widmer and Associates, and Orthman Mfg. will be hosting a strip-tillage bus tour in Northwest Ohio.  While the specific details are still in the works, this would be a great event to make plans to attend to see a variety of strip-tillage programs at work in a variety of conditions.  This is a change from the traditional field day that we often hold in August.  This bus tour of Northwest Ohio strip-till fields has been planned in an effort to see what works and why given the unusual “stripping-season” we experienced last fall.

We will see traditional strip-tillage with shanks and knives both with and without fertilizer applied in the fall and also some stripping done in the spring.  There are fields strip-tilled with a wavy coulter system in the spring both with and without fertilizer.  There are some fields that were stripped in the fall with knives and then re-conditioned with the rolling wavy coulters in the spring.  There are also some fields where beans were planted in 30″ rows on strips.

We often like to promote strip-tillage as a “total system” and not just a tool.  This bus tour will give good evidence as to why this mindset is critical given the environment we have found our selves in this year.

Philosophy of Les

I have had the opportunity and the privilege of observing and working for farmer clients with their crop production goals and objectives for quite a few years – 45 if anyone is counting. Over the years farmers have been some of my best teachers about the many elements and talents required to be a success in working with soils, crops and risk management decisions.

I also have had the opportunity of working with some excellent mentors in the agricultural crop production field. Of the many people that have helped me, I can mention Don Ackerman and Dick Large who were founders of A&L Testing Laboratories, Jerry Stoller who is founder of Stoller Enterprises – and I believe understands more about how plants function than anyone else in the country, and Johnny McRight of DeltAg Formulations who has developed chemistry that greatly enhances nutrient efficiency in plants.

With this in mind, the following is what I feel are some of the important elements in remaining successful in the competitive world of crop production that farmers are facing today.

The advancement of new technologies in all areas of production agriculture is coming at a faster and faster pace, such items like precision GPS technologies, seed genetics, plant growth regulators, and new chemical compounds are more and more becoming available. But, what is important is that we not forget to first properly manage the fundamentals –

# 1 Develop and maintain a sound soil testing program based on properly defined soil management zones.

# 2 Manage a balanced soil health fertility program for all crop nutrients

# 3 Develop and maintain an accurate record of crop yields based on the crop and soil variability’s with yield monitors.

If these fundamentals of crop production are developed, maintained and properly utilized, more accurate and efficient decisions can be made with the increasing amount of new technologies that are becoming available to increase crop yields.