Vanished yield potential

How much yield is lost every year because we don’t apply the knowledge from the past?

Huber, McNeil, Zimmer, and others have reported regularly achieving 400+ bu per acre corn yields during the ’70s and ’80s. What happened? How was that yield potential lost? Why are we going backward? Why haven’t we made more progress?

From my podcast interview with Gary Zimmer:

John: What is something that you believe to be true about modern agriculture that is very different from the mainstream view?

Gary: When I was at Brookside, back in 1976, I visited a farm in northern Illinois that was growing 375-bushel corn, with a public variety of corn from the University of Illinois, on forty-inch rows. You could stick your hand in the ground clear to your elbow. Of course it got my attention.

In the ’90s, in Iowa, there was somebody who grew 400- to 500-bushel corn. That really opened up the doors to say that there’s much more potential.

This is why I find it offensive when people say, “How are we going to feed all these people?”

I say, “Forty percent of our corn goes into making ethanol, and we have the capability to double our yields. And we can do it with a cleaner method of farming.” It’s not that we can’t produce more food. And most people don’t even eat corn and beans. We can do a lot of things if we want to feed people. I think that conventional agriculture, or whatever you want to call it— modern agriculture—is shifting to a biological farming system.

2022-02-08T18:58:05-05:00February 10th, 2022|Tags: , , , |

Early potato tuber set

This root system developed in 14 days after planting.

How many tubers do you suppose this potato plant can set in the first two sets and bring to full size at maturity?

The answer is: 20-30+, depending on the variety.

The first tuber set occurs much earlier than many expect, and can occur as early as 10-14 days after planting.

If a goal is to produce large numbers of tubers in a condensed early set, it is important to use products that drive reproduction rather than vegetative growth at planting.

These potatoes had a complete planter solution in the furrow that included Rejuvenate and Accelerate, and a foliar with Accelerate soon after emergence.

How much calcium do you think this root system can move into the tubers?

2021-07-30T10:39:52-05:00August 2nd, 2021|Tags: , , , , , |

Discontinuing all pesticide applications at once

The most intriguing element of the interview with Michael McNeill was the suggestion that you should stop all pesticide applications all at one shot. I know it can be done because this was the approach we took on our farm years ago, but I have been hesitant to recommend that leap to others.

Our approach in our consulting work has been that we have to earn the right to discontinue pesticide applications by producing such a healthy crop, it becomes resistant to possible pests, and you no longer need the pesticides. Of course, achieving that outcome is made much more difficult from the continued pesticide applications.

We also have slightly different contexts. We are working with many high-value crops, with more intense pesticide applications, where we don’t have the luxury of making any mistakes. Of course, broadacre producers would say they don’t have the luxury of making any mistakes either.

In practical application in the field, I am comfortable making recommendations to discontinue the use of fungicides and insecticides when we have sap analysis reports, and we can observe the nutritional profile of the crop is not conducive to infection.

In any case, who can argue with success?

From the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast with Michael McNeill:

John: Michael, what is the one action that you would advise all growers to take right now that could make the biggest difference in their operations?

Michael: Stop poisoning the soil.

John: I guess that’s easy!

Michael: It’s real simple—just stop.

John: That sounds simple. It sounds easy to do—but how? How do you manage that?

Michael: It is a challenge, if you’ve spent most of your life doing things one way. Stopping doing something is not necessarily easy. But that’s the one action growers need to take to be successful.

John: Are there transition steps that can be taken to move away from that? What are what are some of your growers who have moved away from using herbicides doing?

Michael: I have seen a full array of actions—from taking baby steps to jumping off the cliff—100 percent stop. And I have seen growers—from the smaller, 300- to 400-acre growers to the 10,000- to 15,000-acre growers—step off the cliff. And it’s worked really well for them. I was really concerned about some of the larger growers, but I found that they had the management ability and the resources to make it happen. And once they understood what they were doing and why they were doing it, they were very successful.

And I think that’s something that most people don’t believe. I get that thrown in my face almost every day. “I can’t do that—I have too big an operation.” And I really enjoy throwing it back—”Well I know somebody who has.” Those successful large growers have not necessarily added more hired men or anything. The one thing that they have added—if they’ve made a mistake or a failure—they’ve had to employ a large number of people for a short period of time to hand-weed a field. If they made a mistake, that’s the only fix there is.

John: I’m struggling with this a little bit myself as well. So, when you use the words “stepping off a cliff,” are you talking about eliminating 100 percent of all herbicide applications right out of the gate? What does that mean, exactly?

Michael: All pesticide applications.

John: Aren’t you going to lose your crop to potential disease and insect pests when you do that?

Michael: When you do that, you’d better have read that book that I just suggested (Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease – Datnoff, Elmer, Huber )—so that you understand that you need to have the right micronutrient balance to keep that plant healthy enough to protect itself. And you can do that through starter fertilizers, foliar feedings—multiple foliar feedings—you can pull it off.

John: What are some of the failures of growers who have tried to do this, and what has been their degree of success?

Michael: By and large, I have had all successes. I’m trying to think of a failure, but I really can’t think of any. I make sure they really understand and know what they’re doing when they do it. I’ve had a few where they missed a field or two, timing-wise—a rain caught them and they didn’t get the weeds taken care of when they should have. But they were able to get it cleaned up—to the point where it did not suppress yield.

John: Wow. How do their yields compare?

Michael: I think that their yields have been going up. That’s what’s been somewhat shocking. I want to be sure it’s attributed to that—not just necessarily a good growing season. Because we’ve had some good growing seasons recently. But their yields have continued to climb quite rapidly. They’ve moved to a different yield plateau.

John: So you’re saying that their yields are actually higher now than they were when they were using herbicides and pesticides regularly?

Michael: Yes.

John: Well, that’s exciting, because those are the same types of things that we’ve observed in the fruit- and vegetable-production world. And those are really the types of regenerative systems that we seek to create and to establish, and I absolutely agree with you that those are possible.

From a management perspective, the one piece we often do a bit differently on fruit and vegetable crops we work on is that we don’t usually advise people to “step off the cliff,” to borrow your terminology. Rather, we advise growers to manage nutrition and to regenerate soil health to a higher plateau of performance—to the point where growers earn the right to eliminate pesticides. Then, all of a sudden, we don’t have problems with powdery mildew anymore. We don’t have problems with spider mites anymore. We don’t have problems with leafhoppers anymore. When we get to that much higher plateau, and we no longer have the problems, then we start cutting and eliminating pesticide applications.

It seems a bit scary to me—when you’re managing a crop that is really valuable—to suggest eliminating all pesticide applications immediately. But obviously, you’ve been successful in doing so.

Michael: Yes, it’s worked. And it was really scary when I first started doing that. But I’ve learned the few things that you have to be sure to accomplish: getting the soil as healthy as you can, and helping the plants be as healthy as you can. And that’s pretty hard to do when stepping off the cliff. But it can be done.

2020-06-08T11:49:26-05:00May 29th, 2020|Tags: , , , |

Matching seed with soil quality

Much of the available genetics for commodity crops today are bred to perform well on imbalanced soil and are unlikely to perform as well on biologically healthy soils as varieties bred for those environments.

Here is a quote from Arden Andersen, Science in Agriculture –

Now, a poor seed will not produce good seed on poor soil, but it will produce the quantity of poor seed it was bred to produce. A poor seed on good soil results in impedance to the flow of energy back into the soil. A good seed on a poor soil causes impedance to the flow out of the soil into the plant. Therefore, seed matching is very important. The analogy can be made to two people talking to each other on their CB radios. If both CB’s are tuned to the same frequency, communication is successful. If one or the other is out of tune and can either transmit or receive but cannot do both, communication is unsuccessful. I have experienced seed matching on many acres, and without exception, those farmers employing anhydrous ammonia, potassium chloride, must use certain hybrids to obtain the desired volume of yield. The feed value is very poor, but that is of little concern to these farmers because they are selling the crop. Farmers who have well-balanced soils on biological mineralization programs will fail using the same hybrids. They must use seed grown on similar programs in order to achieve maximum efficiency.1

Back to John ~

My personal experience with alfalfa has been that the varieties bred and optimized for biological systems exceed the performance of varieties bred in the standard system across al soil types and management systems. However, mainstream alfalfa fertilization practices may not be quite as systemically damaging as annual commodity crop production.

I believe there is a lot of eagerness and desire in the market for more vigorous varieties, bred for biological systems, in many crops.

1. Andersen, A. B. Science in agriculture: Advanced methods for sustainable farming. (Acres USA, 2000). Page 83

2020-03-16T14:08:28-05:00February 28th, 2020|Tags: , , , , |

When nutrient applications cost yield 

Contemporary agronomy and plant nutrition management has been framed primarily around the Law of the Minimum: the nutrient with the most limited supply will determine the maximum possible crop yield. 

In practical application, we measure the nutrient concentrations that are present, either in soils or plants, and add what is missing or low. 

The Law of the Minimum paradigm is commonly misapplied with two gigantic gaps in thinking. 

This paradigm is often applied selectively to some nutrients. It may be applied to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but not to zinc, copper, manganese, cobalt, and molybdenum.

It is also common to apply this paradigm with no consideration for the opposing perspective, the Law of the Maximum. The law of the maximum states: the nutrients which are present in excess limit crops to the highest level of the nutrients that are antagonized by the excess.   

When we first started using sap analysis on a large scale, it quickly became apparent the law of the Maximum is often missed.

It is often the excess of the nutrients the grower applies, which causes deficiencies of other nutrients, that limits plant health and overall yield potential. 

Excessive nitrogen and potassium at the wrong stage of development cost yield on many farms, because of other nutrient deficiencies that are created by the excess.


2020-03-16T13:55:45-05:00January 17th, 2020|Tags: , |

Yield: six thousand pounds of beef per acre

What is the genetic yield potential of forages and vegetative crops, rather than reproductive crops such as corn and tomatoes?

These vegetative crops do not have the same genetic constraints as reproductive crops. For these crops, the limit to growth and yield is the photosynthetic capacity. When optimal CO2, water, sunlight, and nutrients are provided grasses and forages can be extraordinarily productive, as described in this cover article of Acres USA in early 1977.

Original Acres article:

Moving cows from pasture to pasture has a long and respected history, notably in Australia and arid territory where overgrazing is a capital sin. Its application to irrigated and rain belt pasture has seldom been tested on a controlled basis.

Last summer, C.J. Fenzau of Boise, Idaho divided a 31-acre field into single acre plots. He put 272 cattle into the first single acre plot when the grass was knee-high on April 5, 1976. By the next morning the first plot had been mowed down much like a city lawn. During that single day the cattle had eaten the whole plant-the rich upper part, the leafy mid-part, and the fibrous stem. This gave the animals a total ration, a well-balanced ration at that. 

“If you put cattle on fresh young pasture,” Fenzau told Acres U.S.A., they eat the high protein buds the first day. The next day they get a little less value, and so on. In four or five days of milking, you see a cow on pasture give more milk than any grain would ever produce. As pastures go down, farmers put in grain. This animal is fighting her own droppings in the pasture. She is compacting the ground. When you’re stripping a plant, you’re putting it under stress each day, and you have less leaf capacity for photosynthesis. But in 30 days a plant has a chance to grow back all the leaves in their full working power for more productivity.”

On the second day, the cattle were moved to acre No. 2. The first acre was then given a shot of irrigation water. This melted away the still-soft droppings and set the stage for at least 30 days of growth. There was a second irrigation during the 30 to 35 day growth period. 

The growth period was stretched to 35 days as cattle were shifted from acre No.2 to Acre No. 3, 4, 15, 20, whatever. During May, June, and July only 20 of the 31 acres were used. Cattle couldn’t mow down the grass fast enough. 

“We’re looking at having 400 head of 500 to 600 pounders there next year to utilize the grazing potential of those 31 acres to the optimum,” Fenzau summarized.

What does this amount to in terms of beef production? Over the scales, Fenzau logged in 2.4 to 2.5 pounds of grain per head per day. A total of 2.25 or so on 400 head means 1,000 pounds of beef per day. This multiplied by 200 days comes to 200,000 pounds of beef off 31 acres, or in excess of 6,000 pounds of beef per acre.

Needless to say, the best fertility management has to underscore such heads-up farming. This management has only one name—scientific eco-farming.


These results were achieved in 1976. Today is 2020. 44 years. Who will follow through and test what new forage genetics are capable of when provided optimal water, CO2, sunlight and nutrients?

This is without question the most efficient protein production per acre.


2020-03-16T13:51:42-05:00January 9th, 2020|Tags: , , |

When Quality is the goal, Yield is a result

When yield is the goal we focus on, we manage plant nutrition to produce the highest yields possible. It becomes strictly a numbers game, making certain the crop has adequate quantities of water, sunlight, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and possibly other nutrients to reach our yield goals.

Soil health and microbial populations are discounted and disregarded, as they are not perceived to contribute to yields.

Of course, this approach generates a lot of externalized costs to the environment.

A better approach is to focus on producing quality.

The goal is to achieve both exceptional quality AND yield. This is not a case where we can only achieve one at the expense of the other. We can achieve both at the same time.

When we produce crops with higher test weight, protein content, sugar content, fat content, soluble solids, shelf life, storability, or whatever metric defines quality in the crop we are producing, we begin thinking differently about how we manage nutrition. Soil health and microbial populations become important considerations. It is necessary to manage calcium, magnesium, sulfur, and a dozen additional trace minerals.

This approach generates a lot of external benefits to the ecosystem. Pest pressure is reduced, carbon is sequestered, soil health is regenerated.

Best of all, when plants become vibrantly healthy, you can’t stop yields from happening.

The healthiest crops are the highest quality crops. And also the highest yielding.

2020-03-16T13:30:19-05:00December 1st, 2019|Tags: , |
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