Failing to Reach Potential

by Keith Byerly

by Keith Byerly

A few days ago, I was meeting with a group of growers from out of state that wanted to learn how other parts of the country were achieving higher corn yields. I told them I was going to ask a question, and to not overthink the answer. The question that I posed to them was, “What has the biggest impact on profitability?” Usually, when I ask this question, I get several answers, including the price of corn, weather, input costs, etc.… But I knew I was among my kind of people because in unison they all answered “Water, too much or too little.” I told them I liked where their heads were at, but I thought I could boil it down to an even more simplistic answer. My answer I told them, was “Failing to reach our profit potential.”

Reaching our Profit Potential implies that we are reaching our Yield Potential. Yield Potential doesn’t mean the maximum yield that our ground is capable of growing… necessarily. It means achieving our maximum economic yield, the yield where the cost of producing that last bushel is still profitable. To do this, we need to make sure that our inputs match our yield goal. Some areas that may mean fewer inputs, others that may mean more. The obvious idea is that we want to minimize our losses in areas with poor productivity, and maximize or profits everywhere else.

We all know that the highest yield potential is while the corn is still in the bag, but do you know what our top 3 yield-reducing factors are? In order, they are water, fertility, and population/stand. The group of growers I was with was right on for the #1 answer on the board. I don’t care if you are in NW Iowa, or Central Kansas, water is always our biggest problem, both too much and not enough. But for the sake of those of you who are regular readers, I am going to skip over the water today and save it for another time. So then, let’s start with fertility.

We all know that there are optimum levels of every nutrient that are recommended we focus on. This isn’t the time nor space to get into a full-on soil science course. So for simplicities sake, I want to talk about what being just a little off can cause us. In the case of pH, we know we should be between 6.3 and 7.0 to be in the optimum range. But what if we vary just slightly off of that, say 0.5. A 5.7 and a 7.5 pH have about the same effect on corn yield, taking away about 15% of the yield potential. The same story is true with Phosphorus. If I have a level of 20ppm, that is pretty good, not perfect, but pretty good. If I have a test level of 15 ppm, I am giving up 2-3% of my yield vs. a 20. Given the tighter margins right now, you may choose not to correct that 15 ppm, saying it’s good enough for now. I won’t bore you with the math, but that yield you give up between 15 and 20 ppm over two years is more than the cost of the fertilizer to correct the problem. I can make similar cases for Potassium and Zinc as well.

Finally, there is the population impact on profitability. Having a population that matches yield potential is hard, but is essential when it comes to reaching yield potential. Variable rate seed prescriptions that are built around yield potential, in my opinion, are a requirement in this day and age. If we haven’t established a variable yield goal that sets realistic yield potential for each square foot of the field, then we haven’t done the essential work to identify what the yield potential is. The variable yield goal not only lets us appropriately allocate seed resources, but also Nitrogen. With Seed and Nitrogen being the top 2 of the input costs, it is really easy to see how their optimization helps us reach our profit potential.

My take home for today is an extension of that from a couple of weeks ago. Profitability comes from proper management. If we are reaching our real Yield Potential on each acre, and allocating our inputs accordingly, then we are doing better than reaching Yield Potential, we are reaching our profit potential as well.