Milk price has a significant impact on Pennsylvania Agriculture. The current dip in the price has dairy farmers asking "What inputs can I cut back on to reduce my cost of production and not greatly reduce my yield?"
This is a difficult question to address broadly, but I will try and highlight some points I made this winter when I presented on "Tips for saving $100 an acre in Corn Production".
First I strongly suggest you look at an Enterprise Budget for corn and determine your costs. The Penn State Agronomy Guide has budgets for corn silage , corn after corn and corn after soybeans . Top costs for corn for grain include: land rent, fertilizer, seed, machinery depreciation and pesticides. Obviously lowering land rent would be nice but if not possible, savings will likely come from machinery depreciation, fertilizer, fuel/drying costs and pesticides.
Be careful cutting seed costs
Hybrid selection is the single biggest factor you can control. It can have a yield swing of 70 bushel per acre or 12,000 pounds of milk per acre (silage). Farmers need to determine if yields can be maintained while lowering seed costs. Potential avenues for lowering seed costs include lowering seeding rates, switching genetics and opting for fewer traits. We often don't have insect pressures that requires control of all the above ground pests (black cutworm, corn earworm, European corn borer, fall armyworm, stalk borer, western bean cutworm), but corn rootworms are more of a concern for corn on corn acres that don't get rotated with another crop like soybeans or alfalfa. Herbicide tolerance is an individual decision, but if you do spend the money for herbicide tolerance you better plan on using that herbicide in your spray program. A $325 bag of seed compared to a $200 bag of seed corn with a 32,000 seed drop = $80/acre for the $200 bag and $128 for the $325 bag. That's a saving of $48/acre; it will take about 12 bushel at $4/bushel to offset that cost or over additional ton of corn silage per acre. Depending on what plant population you have been planting you may be able to lower your plant population by a couple thousand seeds per acre and save a few bucks.
Use a current soil test to determine your fertilizer needs. You can't manage every field the same, they will likely have different manure histories and yield potential. If P and K values are in the optimum range it is likely that adding additional P and K fertilizer will not increase yields this year. Calculate N-P-K contributions from manure applications. Don't forget about Nitrogen credits from previous years manure applications. Rather than applying all your nitrogen at planting, why not wait until the corn is about knee high (V6) and test with a Pre-sidedress Soil Nitrate Test for corn to determine if additional nitrogen in needed.
Keeping the soil pH in the optimum range is important. Corn can tolerate a pH as low as 6.0, but alfalfa fields should not be lower than 6.5. For fields with a low pH, given the choice whether to buy fertilizer or buy lime, first apply at least some of the lime that is recommended.
Starter fertilizer is another input that often does not payback, especially on a dairy farm with high P levels and when planting into soils that are warm.
Spray your own Crops
If you already own a sprayer and can get it done timely, you can save money by spraying yourself. This allows you to shop around for pesticides and also UAN, if you use that as a nitrogen source. That $10-12 application fee adds up if you spray a few hundred acres.
Weeds can have the biggest impact on yield, followed by insects and lastly diseases. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the best way to determine if a pesticide application is necessary and economical.
I know it is past the deadline, but don't eliminate crop insurance, consider the options. Talk with your agent to get a program that fits your operation.
Impact of corn management decisions on yield
- Weather: is the biggest factor but you can't change it (70+ bushel variation)
- Hybrid selection: can have a yield swing of 70 bu or 12,000 pounds of milk per acre(silage) This is the largest variable you have control over.
- Crop rotation: yield increase 10-19%(corn after corn will have a yield drag)
- Seed Treatment: decreases death loss to 5-10%
- Soil Fertility: can decrease yield by 20-50%
- Plant population: 0-22%, 24,000 would be the lower threshold.
- Pest control: timeliness is everything, 1st weeds, 2nd insects, 3rd diseases
- Harvest: 0-20% loss potential due to late harvest