Top Crop Manager

Features Agronomy Corn
Achieving fuel efficiency

Improved production practices assist.


November 13, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

Topics

12aRising fuel costs can take a chunk out of a farm's bottom line. Fortunately,
there are a number of ways to plan for next season with fuel economy in mind
– that will not compromise your crop success. It is a combination of efficiently
managing inputs and cropping practices that will yield optimal returns.

Reducing tillage, maintaining equipment, utilizing a good crop rotation, choosing
the right genetics and managing nutrients are all part of the solution. "Obtaining
on-farm fuel efficiency is dependent on the total operation," explains
David Townsend, technical services manager for NK Brand Seeds. "It starts
with how growers prepare and plant their fields."

Fewer passes save fuel, but don't decrease seedbed
quality

Seedbed preparation and planting can have a great impact on fuel efficiency,
but it can also influence yield. "With increasing fuel costs we're starting
to see growers decrease corn acres or alter their soil management practices
to save input costs," says Townsend. "They may be tempted to make
the least amount of passes required to grow the crop, but growers need to ensure
they are maintaining a level of seedbed preparation to achieve proper seed-to-soil
contact at planting. They also need to be careful to seed into soil at the recommended
moisture and temperature." Sacrificing optimal seedbed quality – required
for a quick, healthy emergence – could end up costing growers more in final
yield than what is gained by reducing early season fuel use.

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Improving fuel efficiencies during seedbed preparation and planting is best
achieved through reduced-tillage or no-till methods that limit equipment passes
across a field. Adam Hayes, soil management and field crops specialist with
the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, cautions against cutting
corners. "If growers are reducing tillage they should ensure their planter
is set up properly," he says. "The planter or drill should be able
to handle the extra residue to achieve good seed-to-soil contact. Row width
is another consideration: a narrower row-width will encourage quicker crop establishment
and ground cover. This will help the crop better compete with weeds, have a
beneficial impact on herbicide input costs and produce greater yields over the
long-term."

Minimizing the number of tillage passes over a field will have a direct impact
on reducing the amount of fuel being used. "No-till systems, for example,
use about 40 to 60 percent less fuel than a conventional tillage system,"
says Hayes. Even if growers use conventional tillage, they can still save by
using a more fuel efficient implement. "A mouldboard plough takes quite
a bit of fuel and doesn't work a very wide area. On the other hand, a chisel
plough requires less fuel, tills a wider area and can travel faster. The result
is growers will get more acres tilled per hour to increase efficiency,"
adds Hayes. Depending on soil type, shallower tillage – four inches rather
than eight – may provide sufficient seedbed preparation while also increasing
fuel efficiency.

Keeping all equipment on a regular maintenance schedule is one more recommendation
to keep implements operating at peak fuel efficiency.

An effective rotation and good seed choices help improve
fuel efficiency

According to Hayes, having a good crop rotation is also key to fuel economy.
"If growers seed continuous corn they will use a lot more fuel and inputs
than a corn-soybean-wheat rotation, or a rotation that includes alfalfa or a
hay crop," explains Hayes. "In a multiple crop rotation some crops
won't require as much tillage to get the seedbed ready and growers can make
use of nitrogen-fixing crops to reduce nitrogen inputs."

Good seed decisions will also influence on-farm fuel efficiency by generating
maximum yields and limiting the need for grain drying. Townsend says there is
a potential to save significantly on grain drying costs by selecting varieties
with appropriate maturities for the area. In preparation for variability in
weather conditions, however, he also recommends growers spread their risk by
planting a 20-60-20 ratio of short-day, mid-day and long-day maturing varieties
respectively.

"Spreading risk with this type of maturity ratio will help growers reduce
their chances of having significant drying costs at harvest. But it's important
not to shorten maturity days too much and risk losing more on average yield
than the cost of drying," explains Townsend. Ensuring dryers are well maintained
will also help achieve optimal fuel efficiencies. If growers are using an old
dryer they may want to consider comparing their per tonne drying costs with
an off-farm elevator and outsourcing their grain drying if it is more economical
for their operation.

Strategic use of nitrogen helps optimize input costs
With the cost of fertilizer nitrogen also on the rise, more efficient use of
on-farm manure, nitrogen fixing crops and cover crops will help growers improve
overall farm costs. Following recommendations for regular soil testing and manure
nitrogen analysis will help growers identify exactly what nitrogen they have
at their disposal and how much more will be required, allowing them to avoid
over-applying nutrients. To make the most efficient use of manure or fertilizer
nitrogen, Townsend recommends customizing application rates on a field-by-field
basis according to needs and productivity. "Seeding high value crops with
the required amount of manure or fertilizer nitrogen on the most productive
fields will also help growers achieve the greatest yield return on their investment,"
he adds.

Townsend and Hayes agree that achieving greater fuel efficiency relies on improving
practices of a total operation. And those benefits can be much broader than
just reducing input costs. "Greater fuel and nitrogen efficiency will have
a compounding affect in an operation," says Hayes. "For example, there
is potential for growers to save time in the field, minimize equipment use and
repairs and achieve better environmental stewardship to maintain soil life and
fertility." -30-