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Adapting old machines to precision ag is possible after all

When it comes to reusing, recycling or refashioning, farmers have always been the best. But mention “precision ag” and the feeling is that everything has to be expensive and brand shining new. Seldom does it seem possible to take something that’s already on the farm and rework it into something to use today.

What if there was a way to retool an RG 1300 C into a nitrogen applicator that also allows a grower to seed a cover crop into standing corn?

Wayne Black has helped develop that very system. He’s managed to add a series of drop hoses from a spray boom in answer to the demands by several customers, who in the past have spread urea on top of their corn crops and have seen a visual burn as a result.

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“My past experience has been with Y-Drops, being able to get that 28 per cent right down to the base of the stalk,” says Black, agronomy manager with Sunderland Co-op, north of Oshawa, Ont. “The thought process was to eliminate that visual burn and hopefully see a positive impact on the yield with corn. The other reason for going with that particular equipment is that we are able to go in later because it is a high-clearance granular fertilizer applicator. And with late-season nitrogen, the longer you can wait to apply, the more accurate your recommendation.”

The thinking on that is that a grower can better survive a dry spell, which was the case through the early summer in 2018 across most of Ontario, or miss that excessive rain that commonly occurs in the middle of July. With the water solubility in urea nitrogen, the later it’s applied in corn, the longer it’s going to be available when the crop actually needs it.

“We’re using the SoilScan 360 Yield Center to determine what rate of nitrogen we should be going in with,” Black says. “What we’re finding this year is that the nitrates are fairly high and with the genetics of the corn that are around today, the corn plant itself has only used eight to 12 per cent of the nitrogen of its life cycle, so far. And we’re using the SoilScan so we get instant results.”

There’s also less environmental waste.

The precision tool in this scenario is actually the SoilScan 360 used in concert with the RG 1300 C. A grower and their adviser can also use the pre-side-dress nitrate test, but it’s imperative that a nitrate test be performed at midsummer to see what’s available in the soil.

The SoilScan 360 Yield Center adds the element of precision ag, providing instant results from the field.
photo: Wayne Black, Sunderland Co-op

The RG 1300 C is the tool for that application. Adding the drop nozzles enables the grower to place the urea down between the rows, where uptake will increase while reducing the visual burn, and by going in later and keeping urea out of the whorl of the corn — it’s a healthier process for the plant. It’s not Y-Drops, but it’s for going in with a granular fertilizer where growers are looking to reduce their costs. They also have the option of adding in other nutrients like sulphur or potash.

And there’s more

The other benefit of using this configuration of the RG 1300 C is to be able to seed cover crops into standing corn at the same time as Black is applying urea down into the rows.

“So far this season, we’ve done 800 acres for various farmers blowing on the urea products along with a ryegrass for a cover crop,” he says.

Using this machine along with the SoilScan 360 encompasses other aspects of production: the precision ag component is one and there’s also the environmental, 4R principle and an opportunity to build soil organic matter. When Black moved to central Ontario, there was talk about trying more cover crops in corn, and he saw some examples earlier in 2018. That’s where taking that cover crop concept and bundling it in with that late-season nitrogen is another method to improve soil health.

“Or in the region I’m in, it’s maintaining the organic matter of the soils by adding in cover crops to hold the soils into the late fall after the crop’s harvested, or for early spring before you get back on the field,” says Black. “The more we can combine these tools together, the more efficient it’s going to be for the grower, so while we’re crossing the field putting the late-season nitrogen on, let’s do the cover crop at the same time.”

He found that ryegrass planted last year in July didn’t appear very healthy in the fall after harvest, yet it greened-up in the spring — like a golf green.

Since his arrival in the region early in 2018, Black has found more truth to the notion that every farm is different, i.e. what works in Illinois won’t necessarily apply in Chatham-Kent or Oxford County or Durham Region. But he’s also witnessed a sea change in attitudes and willingness to discuss crops and management practices. With the introduction of the urea-and-ryegrass spreader, he’s found more of his customers are asking questions, not just about the health of their corn crops but on issues pertaining to their soils, diseases and pests. The more they learn, the more questions they ask.

The more questions we ask

“We had some growers this year who didn’t do that initial pass of their nitrogen source,” explains Black. “They put a bunch of product through their starter on their corn planter and removed that up-front pass, and instead of crossing the field early with the broadcast, we’re doing it in late June or early July. It’s the same number of passes but we’re shifting when that nitrogen pass takes place. This is something that we as an industry need to play with to see what’s going to work properly for the growers.”

It’s also part of an evolutionary process that Black sees taking place in the retail sector. The first step is to get farmers off the practice of placing bare nitrogen products on the field in the spring.

“If you want to do ESN, that’s fine,” he says, referring to environmentally smart nitrogen. “If you want to use Agrotain products, that’s fine. Koch is coming out with a new product called SuperU — and those products applied in the spring are fine. But we need to move away from putting down bare 28 per cent or bare urea in the field, because if we get that three- or four-inch rain in the spring, we’re going to see the results of nitrogen loss in the fall with lower crop yields.”

It’s a slow process, and one that Black recalls as taking shape years ago in parts of Southwestern Ontario. It’s not just that soils in east Essex are productive with lower organic matter versus soils in east Middlesex that are less productive but with higher organic matter. Nor is it a question of how those soils compare to Central or even Eastern Ontario. What’s different is the approach — of farmers, agronomists, advisers and their dealer networks.

“The nitrogen component will be seen between now and November when we harvest the crop,” he says. “With the cover crops, we’ll see between now and next spring when we go into that next crop. But the trickle-down effect and the biggest impact I’ve seen is that growers are having the conversation about it now. They’re starting the discussion in the field, asking more questions and recognizing that they do need to change. They’re getting us out in the field to see their crops.”

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CG Production Editor

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