Understand Yield Potential Before Locking in Your ’22 Fertilizer

This is the second of a two-part series looking at how farmers can better utilize soil tests to offset predicted increased production costs for 2022. 

For Matt Clover, Pioneer Agronomy Research Manager, a thorough understanding of where you’re starting with your field fertility levels is the key to navigating years when fertilizer prices are growing rapidly. Knowing your yield potential alongside your current field nutrient levels will let you make the correct decisions, balancing cost versus potential gain, in 2022 and beyond.

For “6 Ideas to Lower Your 2022 Fertilizer Bill,” see part one of this series

recent survey conducted by Progressive Farmer revealed that retail fertilizer prices have continued to rise this fall, with only one out of eight major fertilizers not experiencing a cost rise. Urea was up the most, 26% compared to September, with an average price of $735 a ton. 

All told, anhydrous ammonia is setting records. In October, anhydrous crossed the $900/ton average threshold for the first time since November 2008 and sold 122% higher than last fall.

Moving Up the Yield Pyramid 

Soil sampling is the first step on the road to controlling fertilizer costs without sacrificing yield, Clover says, and will provide your baseline understanding of fertility needs. Next, farmers should calculate their yield potential, based on hybrid selection.

“Once we know what that yield potential is, we can calculate what the crop removal coming off of that field is going to be. We know that is the piece that’s not going to go back to the soil and be available to that crop in that subsequent year,” Clover says. “That is the bare minimum that we want to do right there, at least try to replace what nutrients are coming off the field.”

If they have a good history of soil tests, farmers don’t necessarily need to take a new test this fall (or spring) outside of their standard two or four-year testing cycle, Clover says. But if soil tests are a new practice, even pulling just a few samples will provide a baseline of information that is extremely valuable to fertilizer decision making.

Another option to consider for soil sampling is taking samples by the “management zone concept,” instead of grid sampling, the traditional methodology for soil sampling. Digital technology like Granular Agronomy has enabled the ability to layer yield productivity, agronomic and field-level financials combined with variable rate seeding and fertilizer scripts allow farmers to narrow their management decisions to even a “field within a field.”

“If I have part of a field that’s yielding less than the rest of the field, I can split those up and start to really look more in-depth,” Clover said. “That gives you a better perspective on dialing in those certain parts of the field versus just taking a bunch of samples on a repeated grid.”

Once farmers have a solid idea of their farm’s current soil fertility and next year’s predicted yield potential, they need to consider their specific environment. That’s when Pioneer puts into action their proprietary decision-making tool, The Pioneer® Yield Pyramid™.

The Yield Pyramid is a data-driven tool for increasing farmers’ corn yield built on site-specific weather, soil and management data gathered from 56,000 locations and grouped into genetic environment management (GEM) zones. The Yield Pyramid analyzes regional yield potential trends against a farmer’s current soil fertility regime and suggests specific steps they need to take to increase yields to the next level.

So, for instance, if a farmer has been sitting at the lowest level of yield potential for a specific region, the Yield Pyramid recommends a series of steps to take to increase their yield to the next level based on the soil tests of farmers in their area that are achieving higher yields.

“If I’m sitting at level one, I know that my yields are low for the area. So, what can I do?” Clover asks. “Well, I’d take my soil sample and I’d look at what’s my pH? Where are my P-N-K levels? I’d look at my nitrogen application and make sure my applications are matched to what that yield level is,” Clover said. 

Once current fertility levels are established, it becomes easier to avoid making an expensive product purchase mistake and allows farmers to focus on the basics.

“Sometimes farmers hear about specific products, maybe a liquid or some miracle thing, that claim to have a seven to nine bushels increase. Well, maybe, once you’ve done the building blocks to get you up the (yield) pyramid. But first, make sure that you have left nothing on the table before you start trying some of those other types of products,” Clover says.

Increasing Nitrogen Efficiency and Ground-Truthing Management Changes

Clover also encourages farmers to look for ways to increase their nitrogen use efficiency. That could mean cutting back or eliminating a fall anhydrous application in favor of a pre-plant or sidedress application. Nitrogen stabilizers and spacing out applications in the early vegetative stages are also worth considering.

Granular Agronomy + Nitrogen Monitoring and Management, an industry-leading nitrogen modeling tool powered by Corteva’s agronomy science and analytics, gives farmers precise control over their nitrogen use resulting in higher yield with lower input costs. 

With all of these things in mind, don’t forget to observe and learn from this year’s management decisions. Clover knows that many farmers may end up cutting back on their nitrogen applications compared to previous years, and for that reason, it’s critical to conduct in-season crop assessments as a ground-truthing tool to fine-tune production choices.

 “Lean on your Pioneer and Granular team to help you make the most of your nitrogen investment for 2022,” Clover said. “Start by understanding what you have to work with and then work with your local Pioneer team to use the Yield Pyramid to make adjustments as the season progresses. We’re here to help you succeed.”

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