Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

As is often the case, farmers looking ahead to 2023 planting are faced with good news and bad news. On the plus side, they saw record prices for their grain harvests last year: $8 corn, $17 soybeans, and $12 wheat. Unfortunately, the prices for inputs, which rose sharply last year, have barely budged. For instance, the graph below shows a huge spike in the cost of potash in 2021 (green line) that stayed consistently high throughout 2022 (red line).

It’s the same song for phosphorus (DAP), urea, and ammonia, all of which are priced at levels well above their average costs. And according to Kansas State Ag Economist Greg Ibendahl, the cost for anhydrous ammonia – the preferred nitrogen source for Midwestern growers – will likely remain over $1000 per ton, nearly double what farmers paid as recently as January 2021.

Soil testing can help reduce input costs. In fact, the payoff can be significant. For instance, we know that some of our fields have sufficient levels of P and K to justify skipping a year of applications without reducing yield. And soil tests have confirmed our commitment to no-till, which has increased organic matter in the top 12 inches of the soil. Organic matter is a crucial soil health component. By increasing the level of organic matter, we can confidently reduce fertilizer applications while maintaining yield.

Lowering corn drying costs can also help the bottom line. Using short- and full-season hybrids, in-field drying, on-farm storage, fans, and bin monitoring, we reduced the amount of liquified petroleum (LP) we needed for drying last year by almost half. We farm in a grain-deficient area with a large poultry industry, so I used to think on-farm storage was just a luxury. Now I see it’s an important part of our farm’s long-term sustainability.

A call to use cover crops. It’s hard to pick up a farm publication these days without reading about cover crops, which makes it surprising to see that only a small percentage of farms are using them – less than 7 percent of U.S. corn and soybean acres, as seen in the chart below. Farmers I talk to cite the extra management, extra costs, and perceived limited returns as reasons not to plant cover crops, and in my humble opinion, many of the cover crops that are planted are the result of local or federal subsidies.

But we’re long-time believers in the use of cover crops, and for good reasons. Our corn and soybean acres are in the fields most susceptible to erosion, and cover crops help guard against this. Because we can get the soybean and silage crops off from mid-September to mid-October, we have plenty of time to drill wheat or rye. That’s not the case for corn for grain, where harvests can routinely bleed into November, which is too late to plant small grains. But since our no-till corn acres are 100-percent covered with crop residue, which also helps stop erosion and reduce runoff, we’re comfortable with our decision not to plant cover crops on our corn acres.