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Precision Agriculture Critical to Sustaining Crop Yields

How high can farmers push yields using precision technology and how long can they sustain land at these high production levels?

These are questions that have perplexed North Carolina Crop Consultant Steven Valencsin for many years.

Instead of wondering about the benefits of technology to agriculture, he has set about finding ways to implement advanced plant production systems through his work with Growers LLC, his Raleigh, N.C.-based crop consulting and custom applicator business.

Valencsin has literally seen agriculture from coast to coast. He spent his early years on a farm in Washington, then moved to South Dakota, and graduated from North Carolina State University’s Agriculture Institute. 

It was while working for a custom applicator as a teenager in South Dakota that he began to develop some of the strategies he now uses to help well known growers like David Hula push their crops to new yield limits.

In his first year as a crop consultant, precision applicator and sole owner of Growers LLC, Valencsin found few interested listeners to his theories about advanced plant production.

One of his first clients was David Hula, who did listen. In 2011 Hula set a world record with 427 bushels of corn per acre on his Charles City, Va., farm.

Prior to starting his current company, Valencsin was a partner in a high tech soil testing lab in Duplin County, N.C.  As part of his work in the soil testing lab, he got to know David Hula and has been working with the Virginia grower for the past three years.

Precision is the key.

Precision is the key, Valencsin says. “David Hula is just one of many growers across the country who are relentless in their efforts to give every plant in a field exactly what it needs and exactly when it needs it to produce yields as close as possible to the biological capability of the crop.

“David and his brothers are always on top of everything that has to do with producing their crops,” Valencsin says. “As a result they often win state and national yield competitions and are recognized among the elite farmers in the country,” he adds

Valencsin says his first take on agriculture came from following his grandfather. The precision approach he now takes to growing crops, he says, is an extension of, if not a microcosm, of the way his grandfather grew crops in a small, but intensive system.

All too often, he says, growers have reached a flat line with grain yields. They all use Roundup Ready-Liberty Link technology, double stack corn, and Bt technology and they are investing large amounts of money in producing a crop.

At the same time most good growers today are inclined to look closely at fungicide use, for example, because they can see a reward in terms of a few bushels per acre yield. At today’s prices, a bushel or two extra can pay for a herbicide application.

Much the same philosophy is true in weed control. Good growers are willing to invest in multiple modes of action for better control and to delay or stop expansion of herbicide resistance on their farms.

“Top farmers now pay close attention to seeding rates and time of planting and crop/pesticide interactions. Despite doing all these positive things, most seem to have reached a plateau of yields, and we’re looking for ways to help them move beyond the era of plant protection into a new era of plant production,” Valencsin says.

“In a way, I’m going backwards by looking at the factors that most significantly impact yield and which a grower can manage with minimal cost,” he adds.

“The first factor is the soil. How much an individual plant in a field can yield is first of all a function of how much nutrition a plant can get from the soil.

“We look at soil as a limiting factor in yield and try to help a grower manage, within field variability, the amount of nutrients a plant needs for top production into the soil and into the plant at the precise time the plant needs these nutrients the most,” Valencsin says.

One factor has improved yields.

“This one factor, better management of soil and plant interaction, has allowed most of the growers I work with to significantly improve their yields,” he adds.

“Without spending a lot of money, most of the growers I work with have seen a 20-40 bushel per acre increase in corn yield over a two-year period, for example.

“This is my livelihood, but more so than that, I get a kick out of trying to figure out exactly what a field of corn, for example, needs to bump up yields 15-20 percent.

“In 2011, my first full year in this business, I did a survey of all the growers I worked with and after all costs were factored into the equation, they averaged a savings of $23 an acre on their lime and fertilizer costs alone,” Valencsin says.

Though the majority of his work is in the Carolinas and Virginia, Valencsin also returned to his precision roots in South Dakota to work with a limited number of farmers there.

“I work with a young grower in South Dakota, who farms about a thousand acres of irrigated grain crops. He shoots for 200 bushels per acre and has averaged 180-190 bushels per acre for the past several years. 

“We did some extensive soil sampling, created a variable application map and generally did a better job of managing soil pH and fertility. He finished up with nearly 240 bushels of corn per acre — the best he’s ever done, and did it in one of the hottest, driest years on record,” Valencsin says.

For this particular grower, he made a $12 per acre investment and got more than a $300 per acre return. While it seems like an economic no-brainer, the North Carolina consultant says it’s still hard for growers to make a commitment to spend that kind of money up front, before the crop ever goes into the ground.

“Too many farmers have invested in precision agriculture and somewhere along the line the process broke down and they lost money. Whether the breakdown was bad soil analysis, bad samples, bad timing or management — all reasons for precision technology to not work,” he says.

Getting everything right on the application and timing side of the whole precision process led Valencsin to add a custom application component to his business.

He bought a John Deer 4930 self-propelled sprayer with a dry box that can be removed and replaced by booms.

In the Southeast he can use the sprayer year around. He hauls the big rig on a semi-truck and will take it to South Dakota and Nebraska next spring.

In the Southeast, he contends, he averages about 600 acres a day and double that in some areas of eastern North Carolina. In the Midwest, on a good day he can cover 1,600-1,700 acres with the big rig.

High yields, Valencsin says, are a function of good management.

“Growers like David Hula in Virginia and Kip Cullers in Missouri, stay on top of their crops and they try to never let plants get into a ‘want’ or ‘need’ situation.

“They always give plants what they need, when they need it, for growers like them, the sky is really the limit, he says.

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