MORTON, Minn. —It was my pleasure to join the “Priming for 2022” presentation by Hefty Seed Company on Dec. 22 at Jackpot Junction Casino. I was able to sit down with Darren Hefty, a most gifted spokesman for this Minnehaha County, S.D. seed company.  Over the years I’ve learned Darren will handle any question I toss at him, so here we go.

The Land:  What are the top three questions farmers are tossing at you these days?

Hefty: Today that immediately centers on the supply chain with Liberty and Roundup herbicides.  Also, how to deal with these outrageously high fertilizer prices right now … and still make money raising a crop next year.

You ask if we’re guilty of over-fertilizing our fields in the ongoing quest for bigger yields. I would say what we are most guilty of is not recognizing the variabilities within our fields. Sure, farmers don’t want to over-fertilize because that’s simply wasting money.  But identifying these variabilities within a field is the challenge.

The Land:  I’m hearing about cutting nitrogen rates up to 50 percent if applied to your corn crop as needed.

Hefty: Nitrogen is a real challenge because we want to get it out there at the exact right time. But with summers like we had in 2020 and 2021, it’s difficult to make in-season applications and have enough moisture to move those products into the plant. We suggest testing your soils each fall or early spring and adjusting your fertility program up front at planting — or even before — on heavy soils.  Yes, we see value in in season’ applications … we just need to understand rainfall and application methods.

The Land:  So is ‘spoon feeding’ your fertilizer, especially nitrogen, a preferred technology? And with anhydrous prices ramping up three to four times higher than last season, why not?

Hefty: One of the important developments is the ability to test your soils and prescribe most accurately the fertilizer appetite of your corn, even accounting for differences within a given field. Today’s high-tech corn planters can even adjust application rates on the go if you provide proper input data.

The Land:  Are farmers guilty of excessive tillage — especially in seedbed preparations for their corn?

Hefty: Tillage is often a big discussion. What works great for one guy isn’t necessarily the same recipe for another. I just think that for anything we do in our fields there has to be a purpose; there has to be a goal. Conventional tillage, strip tillage, even zero tillage can work. Obviously your own skills, your equipment, your relationship with your weatherman, all impact the choices you make. It boils down to making the decisions that have the biggest benefits on your fields.

The Land:  Especially because of fertilizer costs, some are predicting corn acres to be the big loser for the 2022 season.  What’s your take?

Hefty:  It’s a huge debate as to where acres will fall in 2022.  With fertilizer prices so high it makes it more difficult for younger farmers — especially on rented ground. However, as I travel Iowa and Minnesota, more farmers are telling me they’ll stay with the same acreage mixture between the two crops because prices and situations may change as they get into 2022 cropping season. So unless they’ve already locked in fall prices for their crops, most farmers are telling me they’ll stick with their rotations.

The Land: You guys are so good at ‘pre-planning’ your chemical inventory needs, but do you think there will be supply shortage issues as this new season starts up?

Hefty:  With ag chemicals, outside of Liberty and Roundup, it looks like supplies will be adequate to do all the pest management that we need to do. However, there may be individual products that sell out this year. And this could mean some farmers may need to go to their second or third option The other challenge farmers are seeing is that prices on some products are up considerably while competitive products didn’t go up nearly as much.  I encourage every farmer to spend a little extra time with their agronomist this winter figuring out which program will be most cost-effective for them and which products are going to be in tight supply.

At the mention of agronomists, Hefty and I were joined by Hefty agronomist Matt Thompson, so I directed a couple of questions his way.

The Land:  We’re soon just 90 days from the 2022 planting season. What’s your advice on what farmers should be doing?

Thompson:  The big buzz word going into this next season is “nitrogen fixing bacteria.” There’s lots of skepticism in the market place right now … farmers calling this a ”snake oil” or “foo-foo dust.” Is this stuff really going to work?

Lots of investment going into the nitrogen fixing market these days because they’re trying to clean up the carbon emission’s footprint created in the making of nitrogen.

We’re concerned that growers are going down the road expecting a living microbe that physically can replace nitrogen on a consistent basis. But so far, based on research that we’ve done, we just don’t see living microbes replacing units of nitrogen.  So our suggestion is look at this as a supplemental type of a pass, and not a replacement answer for your nitrogen concerns.

This could be the next wave. We’re not denying that possibility. But we need a better understanding as to how we manage this type of technology in this market.  There’s a tremendous amount of carryover nitrogen in our soils from the 2021 season because of how hot and dry our 2021 growing season was.  So if growers really want to measure how much nitrogen their crops used this past season, it’s a lot cheaper to invest in a nitrate test that determines the amount of available nitrogen still remaining in the soils as opposed to trying to replace that nitrogen with a particular microbe.

The Land:  Is there any particular cover crop that works best at correcting some of these deficiencies?

Thompson:  Great question … the reality is that we live in a monoculture type world. We raise corn from late April into early October, then we have barren ground until the next season. A lot of the biology that a plant needs requires a food source of that plant. And the more active growing plants we can provide in that environment, the better off those plants will be.  If you look at the bio-activity in pasture ground or a CRP piece, it’s going to be significantly higher than where we have a row crop environment; and that is because of the greater variety of crops. Any type of cereal rye and oat crop, even if you add some legume species to create that additional diversity, you are replenishing the soil health of your fields. 

Soil Health is the big word in today’s agriculture. We’re understanding it more on a daily basis. But my mind is that to really get serious about rebuilding soil health, cover crops need to be part of your strategy.

The Land:  Are cover crops with a tap root even more significant?

Thompson:   If you have serious compaction issues, or soils with high magnesium, or really tight soils with drainage issues, I suggest a turnip-type crop with tap root capabilities.  This tends to loosen these soils.  My only concern with these cover crops is that we sometimes see a higher play of seedling diseases because of the fungal species that it takes to break down those crops. So including a cover crop into the mix requires some other adjustments into your overall cropping rotation.  

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