Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

Legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant famously said “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.” This may sound quaint in today’s world where college and professional teams are built around offensive schemes that roll up yards, and where a pro quarterback recently signed a contract that will pay him $500 million.

But it’s still true, and it’s true for ag, as well. In our not-so-distant past, farming was on a distinctly offensive roll, with high commodity prices that rewarded nearly any innovation. But times have changed. Looking ahead to 2021, if you have friends, clients, or partners who grow corn and soybeans, make sure they know that it’s the defense that will determine success or failure.

It’s time to play defense. According to the USDA, the last profitable corn year was 2013*. In each subsequent year, the typical corn grower lost $86, $62, $74, $65, $45, and $22 per acre. Soybean growers fared a little better but have seen losses in three of the last five years.

According to University of Illinois Ag Economists, the 2020 forecast is bleak for both corn and soybean growers. The projected cost to raise a bushel of corn is $4.33, and for soybeans, $10.50. With current prices at $3.56 and $9.03 respectively, we’re a long way from breaking even, much less becoming profitable. To help farmers survive, it’s time to revamp and invigorate their defenses. And a good defensive plan looks at every dollar spent, minimizes the need for in-season corrections, and relies on products that maximize return, rather than yield.

Start by hiring great coaches. A good seed adviser can help build a strong defense by making the best seed and trait decisions. It starts with a field inventory of common plant diseases. Selecting hybrids for their disease resistance can potentially eliminate a fungicide application. Since a single fungicide application requires an additional 4 to 8 bushels-per-acre to justify the cost, a resistant hybrid may be a better choice, even if it yields slightly less.

Seed companies provide solid ratings for a long list of common diseases, including southern rust, gray leaf spot, and northern and southern leaf blight. And if the crop is threatened by less-common diseases like Goss’s Wilt, fusarium crown rot or diplodia ear rot, the expertise of a seasoned seed adviser is even more critical in selecting and placing products in each field.

If there are glyphosate-resistant weeds in the field, the farmer needs Liberty and/or Enlist, plus a plan to apply overlapping residues for season-long weed control. It may make sense to stay in corn for an additional year to keep dicamba in the mix to help control weeds like water hemp and Palmer Amaranth. Again, a good adviser can help weigh the pros and cons.

If cover crops like cereal rye are being used, the defense should be prepared for above-ground insects like army worm; traits like Viptera should be part of the solution. In corn-after-corn acres with high corn rootworm (CRW) pressure, the traits may need to be rotated. Or, the farmer might take a page from an older playbook and use a soil insecticide. Counting CRW adult beetles at tassel is critical to building next year’s CRW defenses; if there’s one more than one beetle per plant in July, the defense must be ready for root feeding next spring.

A good seed adviser can also help decide the best seeding rate, and whether it should be static or variable. According to Midwest extension research, 28,000 to 32,000 seeds per acre is the sweet spot to maximize corn return in medium to highly productive soils. This is generally lower than most company seed calculators recommend.

Your planter is your MVP. It’s a common fact that success at harvest can be traced back to decisions made at planting time. This is why the planter should be the weapon of choice in a farmer’s arsenal, and the focus should on delivering even emergence. The goal is simple: ensuring that every seed will germinate and emerge at the same time. Every off-type plant costs the farmer money, so having a calibrated planter filled with seed that has excellent vigor and delivers even emergence is critical. To close the loop, seed advisers should sit in the combine cab with the farmer at harvest and see if the plants are similar in height, and with identically sized ears. If the answer is no, the adviser can help identify whether the issue is with the product, the planter, or both.

Reinvigorating the defense is crucial to helping farmers weather the current economic crisis. A good seed adviser can play an important role in helping select seeds and traits that will anchor the defense and maximize the farmer’s return on every dollar.

*USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) profitability based on crop revenue minus total costs, not including any government payments