View from the combine


 harvest is right around the corner and with that comes hours of thinking time as the cab of the combine becomes a second home. By simply turning down the radio, the combine cab can become prime real estate for productive review and planning. But, it’s helpful to do a little bit of prep work to make those endless hours as productive as possible.

With this in mind, it’s valuable to keep important field information at hand while harvesting. Information management will give you what you need to make sound agronomic sense of everything that gave this crop its end result.

reviewing hybrids and fertility programs
The first thing to think about is hybrid and fertility analysis. Strong hybrids combined with different starter and broadcast fertilizers matched to the right soil types will drive those high yields. During harvest it is important to know and record the performance of every different hybrid or fertility program used that cropping year. Keeping a detailed record of what hybrids and different fertility programs were used in the combine is helpful when trying to review their success. Yield mapping and GPS technology can help you track all of this but even hand drawn maps and notes will give you enough information to see what worked or, more importantly, what didn’t.

Information like planting dates, soil conditions, seed depth, fertilizer rate, seed placement and population can swing yields significantly. Recording this information at planting and having it all on hand during harvest will give important feedback on why a particular field produced what it did. All of this data can be used to help develop field specific practices – or acre/grid focused management – which can help maximize inputs and increase profits.

knowing specifics
Try to avoid generalizing your yield averages; growing a thousand acres of corn and knowing that you averaged 175 bushels an acre is not enough information. Cost of production or, more specifically, cost per bushel, drives profit, not yield on its own. Knowing what hybrid was the top performer and being aware of individual field averages will provide better insight into which fields need attention.

Specifically, attention should be paid to the worst and best fields and understanding why they are different. Taking the time to summarize each field is invaluable — this will give you a prescription for field specific inputs and practices. These practices can be things like different tillage methods, tillage depth and residue management.  Identifying these prescriptions can benefit fields with things like erosion control, moisture conservation and compaction correction or prevention.

beyond inputs
In addition to reviewing hybrids and fertility from the seat in the combine, harvest is also a prime time to evaluate field passes. A pass in the field, whether it’s an extra tillage pass, fertilizer application or an additional herbicide pass have a three point cost: the cost of the input, equipment cost (fuel, time, hours) and the “effect” cost.

The “effect” cost is the impact of that pass across the field on soil structure. Many believe this cost is only applicable when the pass involves tillage. But, consider an extra pass with a 1,000 gallon sprayer in wet soil conditions. That pass will leave an imprint of compaction that will last for years.

This “effect” can also be profitable which is why it’s important to have field information on hand when combining. Having this information will provide insight into the effectiveness of tillage passes made over the field throughout the year.  A tillage pass using the right depth and traveling the right direction can help manage residue and be beneficial in certain fields. However, if two similar fields get the same yield, but one had an extra tillage pass, that pass was a waste and money was lost; expensive fuel was burned, time was wasted and unnecessary hours were added to the tractor and cultivator.

managing the data
Keeping all this information in the tractor cab can seem like an impossible feat involving binders of documents and hours of note taking. Fortunately, this isn’t true at all. Most of this basic field information can be kept on a mobile phone or, better yet, on a yield monitor. Most conventional fields only average five to six applications from tillage to combine. Enter a field ready to combine knowing everything that was ever done to that field that season. Reviewing notes before entering the field is a safe practice as it helps avoid the need to juggle your notes and the steering wheel. This review will also provide hours of fodder to think on as the yield monitor ticks along.

But, don’t stop there, summarize and record the information gained at harvest: yield, quality and harvestablity. Then in the off season analyze each field, know what worked or didn’t work and plan for the next year to correct any performance issues.

The information gained will direct attention to problem areas as well as reveal the best  tillage methods, herbicides, fertilizers and hybrids for specific fields.  Best of all, this data can be layered, year after year, on the same field — compiling information starts to exploit the most profit from each acre of each field from every crop. Now you’re maximizing every acre.

Keeping all of this information top of mind while out in the field may seem overwhelming. But the view from the cab of a combine is the perfect place to evaluate the season. Although this reflection doesn’t really have anything to do with combining at all, it may end up being the most valuable part of your harvest season. •

About the Author:
Tony is a crop specialist with FS PARTNERS working in Brant, Haldimand-Norfolk and Oxford counties. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Agronomy from the University of Illinois.

About Tony Balkwill 2 Articles
Crop Specialist