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Welcome to the home of the Modern Farm Business® podcast, hosted weekly by Dean Heffta. Modern Farm Business translates proven methods and best practices from the business arena to today's modern farm leadership environment. We'll be learning from forward-thinking experts and discovering how to apply time-tested techniques to make real improvements on the farm.

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Nov 9, 2017

Darren Frye, CEO of Water Street Solutions, shares his insights on the science and economics of crop fertility decisions.

About our guest:
Darren R. Frye is founder, president and CEO of Water Street Solutions. He guides the strategic direction of the company while helping farmers create success by integrating marketing, crop insurance, ag finance and legacy planning services.
Darren was raised on an innovative farming enterprise that stretched from a poultry operation consisting of turkeys and layers to an orchard to a helicopter crop dusting business. He started his fi rst agricultural business in 1987, specializing in fertilizer distribution and crop consulting. He started his own consulting business in 1994.
Darren has traded commodities since 1982. Darren is also a licensed crop insurance agent and a licensed broker. He demonstrates his commitment to agriculture by providing continual education within the ag community. As a dynamic speaker and leader in the agriculture industry, Darren has participated in panel discussions at Commodity Classic conferences, presented at several Top Producer Seminars and discussed solutions to the financial challenges of operating a farm many times with Ag Banker associations.

Q: What are some major contributors to the kind of yields we’ve been experiencing?
A: • Nutrient management
• Air/water management
• Plant genetics: which hybrids and what modifi cations
• Nitrogen management: timing and placement

Q: In the western Corn Belt, air and water are managed by irrigation; in the east we use tiling. Are these primarily what you’re referring to when you talk about air and water management?
A: The biggest factor affecting yields is water supply—either too much or not enough. Air/water management is concerned with the process for internal draining to remove excess water from the soil profile, and increasing air/water effi ciency through irrigation tools such as pivots, where there isn’t enough water supplied naturally.

Q: You didn’t mention phosphorus or potassium in your list of contributors to high yield. Many farmers consider P and K a major investment. What are your thoughts around the necessity of applying P and K?
A:The plants definitely need potassium and phosphorus in a sufficient supply, but opinion on what constitutes suffi ciency varies depending on whom you talk to. Nitrogen is applied annually because it is a required nutrient which isn’t found in abundant supplies naturally in the soil. P and K, however, are both found naturally in the soil in good supply for plant uptake—so long as the air and water are managed and the bio-processes are happening at a fast rate.

Q: What factors affect suffi ciency, and just what does that term mean in regards to fertility discussions?
A: We’ve been over-applying fertilizer because we’ve been taught that what we remove we must put back into the soil—and a little bit more is even better. But isn’t there an optimum? Sufficiency is all we need. More isn’t better; you can top out on the scale comparing the cost of applying more fertilizer vs. the benefits to your yield. Instead of just going for broke, maximize the value of your fertilizer process to bring more profit to the bottom line.

Q: I want to be a good steward of the land. How do I deal with the desire to put back what I’ve taken out? And how does mineralization fit into that?
A: There are two types of soil test:
1. Send samples off and get results indicating how much potassium and phosphorus are available, the pH level of the soil, organic matter content, etc.
2. “Composition of soils”: Based on two million pounds of dirt in the top 6.66 inches, how much total individual components are present?
When we talk about replacing what the plants remove, bear in mind how much is replaced through natural mineralization while you’re thinking about how much you’re putting in that spreader truck to spray on the field. Many farmers consider what the plants are consuming and reckon that’s a bare minimum for what they need to put back into the soil, but the truth is that there are a lot of those nutrients naturally present in the soil. After all, we’ve only been applying fertilizer since the post-WWII era; in the history of agriculture, it’s still a relatively new concept.

Q: You talked about nutrients moving from rock form to soluble form. Tell me more about this. Does that process go both ways?
A: It does. Mineralization is the process of etching rocks into a soluble for so that the plant can uptake those nutrients as it grows. Fertilizer spread from a truck is already in its usable form. As that fertilizer sits in the soil profile, its components mix with other elements in the soil, such as magnesium and calcium, and they tie back up in a fixation process to keep things from leaching out of the soil. There they’ll remain in a stable form until such time as they are called to re-mineralize so that they can become available to a growing plant. Both processes are important, and both are going on constantly in our own fields as the plants grow.

Q: You mentioned soil testing. What should I know about the lab where these tests are analyzed?
A: There’s a lot of variance, Testing has changed over the decades since their inception, and you’ll find some labs are fairly accurate and others are incredibly accurate. Some, not so much. Know which results you’re dealing with so you can reliably use the information to make the best decisions for your farm.

Q: What indicator should I look at to determine how accurate my soil tests are?
A: Well, it’s too complicated to get into in depth here on the podcast...But there are certain ratios you can look at against one another and notice if they don’t particularly jibe with one another—if you’re keen on how soil chemistry works,

Q: Regardless of my region, what should I consider when determining how important things like P and K application are going to be, compared with other factors?
A: Many farmers have found that bountiful yields and depressed prices are making it hard to maintain a good profit margin lately. If a farmer comes to me and says they’re struggling and really need to address some budget cuts somewhere, we’re going to look at issues like equipment, labor, fertilizer and seed costs, and land and cash rent costs. But a great way to cut costs with no detriment to yield for at least a year—and as many as three years—is to cut your application of dry fertilizer. Many people believe their yield will be adversely affected the first year they skip fertilizer...but that’s simply not the case—particularly if you’ve built up your soils through several seasons of consistent fertilizer application. Now, skipping dry fertilizer is not recommended if you’re dealing with new land or you’re unsure of the land’s past fertilizer treatment, but if you have built-up soils, this is one place you can afford a budget cut for a few years until a difficult time has passed and you start printing black ink again.

Q: Any parting thoughts?
A: Many people define fertility by the results of their soil test, but fertility has less to do with P and K than you might think. Though it’s important for P and K to be present in sufficient amounts, as far as rank of importance it comes in well below the list I’ve given, as well as factors such as plant diseases. Fertility is about maximizing production. Contrary to what you might expect, it’s frequently where your lowest—not highest—testing levels are.

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See you next week!