Times of high fertilizer and fuel prices have Blackland region farmers looking for cost-saving soil strategies. The recent Stiles Farm Field Day featured several take-home solutions to help offset record-high input costs.
The Stiles Farm Field Day is an annual event hosted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and attracts producers from throughout the Blackland region and across Texas.
The Stiles Farm is fully self-supported by the sales of both crops and livestock.
Banking on the soil
During the field day, Ben McKnight, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension state cotton specialist, Bryan-College Station, emphasized to producers the importance of soil testing and determining how much nitrogen is stored deep below the surface.
“Soil sampling pays for itself,” he said. “Soil testing is key and is an excellent investment considering the high costs of fertilizer.”
He noted cotton producers have an advantage since cotton “is more of an outlier and doesn’t require as much nitrogen as other crops to achieve profitable yields.”
McKnight said in certain situations farmers may already have enough nitrogen stored deep in the soil profile and initial or secondary applications may not even be needed. He cited an AgriLife Extension nutrient management study in 2010 that found high rates of nitrogen in San Patricio County available to cotton plants at depths of 12 to 24 inches.
In San Patricio County, as much as 20 pounds of available plant nitrogen was discovered. Almost the same favorable amounts were found in soil samples conducted in Wharton and Colorado counties.
McKnight said nitrogen rates will vary across the Texas region and soil compaction will have negative effects, but saving on input costs on fertilizer will help farmers keep more dollars in their pockets.
“Every farmer has their own individual production style and plan,” he said. “Soil sampling is an investment, but it pays for itself.”
Another study conducted in 2013 revealed that if soil testing costs an average of $3 an acre, more than 81% of farmers having their soil tested had a savings of $10 or more per acre in nitrogen expense. Even if a farmer were to save $40 an acre in nitrogen input costs on a 3,000-acre crop, that would total $120,000 in savings.
“Every crop in every region is different, but there are some savings that can be achieved by conducting a simple soil test,” he said.
Soil compaction issues
Ryan Collett, farm manager and AgriLife Extension specialist, said the farm has experimented with no till and cover crops over the years, but both options have a very thin margin of error.
“It has been a struggle to see the benefit with some of our no-till operations,” he said. “My plan is to start with smaller acreage and slowly add to it if we start seeing soil health and production benefits over time. Soil compaction has been a major issue, so when we do plow we are trying to go as deep as our horsepower allows. Then we follow up with a land finisher to start clean before planting.”
Crops endure conditions
Collett said the wheat crop was very variety dependent this year.
“It was a great year to show the benefits of our statewide wheat variety trials,” he said. “Hessian fly was the biggest concern for us. Where we planted TAM304, it handled the hessian fly better and we yielded between 50-60 bushels. However, our wb4699 did not handle the hessian fly as well and our yields suffered.”
Following wheat harvest, a sesame variety was no-till drilled into the stubble and is showing some promise, Collett said.
“It takes only three or four days for the seed to start sprouting,” he said. “Some rows are emerging better than others. Sesame is very drought tolerant but is tricky to make a stand.”
Collett said he was counting on a strong corn and cotton crop to offset input costs this season, but the extremely hot and dry spring has been difficult.
Regarding the corn crop, Collett said initially they were shooting for higher yield projections, but the escalating prices of fertilizer throttled back plans for a second application.
The farm has two fulltime employees and with funds from the Williamson County Farm Bureau board of directors, has hired two local high school student interns. They are getting valuable first-hand experience, Collett said.
“The first thing they learn is how to drive a stick shift, then they are ready to learn how to operate a tractor, help put out hay for the cows and learn equipment maintenance,” he said. “They’ve really been a big help, and I think they are enjoying their experience.”
The Stiles Farm also features a fiber hemp trial led Gary Pastushok, AgriLife Extension agent for Williamson County.
“There are still a lot of unknowns regarding fiber hemp as a new crop opportunity in the area.” Collett said. “At this point we are trying to evaluate which varieties have a chance for fiber success and then from there try to build market opportunities. But again, the trials are important because several of the varieties planted did not establish at all. Better to know now than when we plant larger acreage.”