Farmers across the province provide insight into their planting plans and decision-making processes.
by Kate Ayers
Planting season can be a stressful, yet exciting time of year. Equipment will soon start to roll, bringing new opportunity to innovate and improve.
This month, Better Farming speaks with cash crop producers to learn about the crops they are planting, their equipment and seed choices, and how their decision-making processes have changed over the years.
Also, an industry expert provides some tips to help farmers choose the best crop hybrids and varieties for their operations.
In Elgin County, Michelle Hoffsuemmer and her husband Nick use the latest technology and equipment to ensure they operate safely and sustainably. Their family have been farming in the area for over 40 years. In 2015, the couple established a fully licensed grain elevator.
Hailing from Perth County, Sara Wood is a no-till farmer. She runs her family business alongside her husband Chris and mother Deb. Wood is a graduate of the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program.
Bill and Cathy Vitucci are first-generation grain and oilseed producers from the Niagara region. The couple also manage an on-farm Pride Seeds dealership. They cultivate both owned and rented land. The Vituccis believe that tillage and no-till practices each serve a purpose for different crops.
Mike Pearson is a cash crop producer and custom operator from Simcoe County. He and his family cultivate 2,400 acres and Pearson does planting, spraying, fertilizing and combining for local farmers.
Kevin Wilson is a cash crop producer, custom operator and elevator manager from the United Counties of Prescott and Russell. His family also raise beef cattle and Percheron horses.
Better Farming asks these producers about their plans for the upcoming season and how they arrived at their decisions.
What crops are you planting?
Michelle: We are growing corn, soybeans and soft red wheat.
Sara: We are planting corn, IP soybeans, soft red and white winter wheat, and hard red wheat.
Bill & Cathy: We have soft red wheat and hard red wheat planted, which we will under-seed with red clover. Depending on the clover catch, our goal is to leave a few fields in clover for a year and the remainder will be tilled under in late fall. We will also plant corn and soybeans.
Mike: We plan to grow corn, soybeans, white beans, winter wheat – both soft red and hard red – and winter canola.
Kevin: Corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.
What are you doing differently in 2021 compared to previous years?
Michelle: We plan on increasing the number of acres that are variable-rate seeded. We will also try out some new varieties that we haven’t grown in the past.
Sara: This year, we are playing with planting widths in the soybeans and are starting to plant small plots of varieties that are new to us to see how they perform in strip-till and no-till systems.
Bill & Cathy: We will increase our corn acreage. The goal is to have a one-year soybean, corn, and wheat rotation. We will harvest a portion of our clover for seed.
Kevin: We are adding a rotation of teff grass to meet our forage needs.
What planting equipment do you use?
Michelle: To plant corn, we will be using a brand new 2020 Fendt 942 with our White Planters 9824. Attached to the White planter, we have a nine-ton Montag air cart for banded dry fertilizer. We also use a John Deere 8520 tractor pulling a John Deere 1890 no-till air drill with a 1910 air commodity cart.
Sara: We run a John Deere 1770 corn planter that we rebuilt with all Precision Planting parts and a John Deere 1990 Central Commodity System drill.
Bill & Cathy: For corn, we use a John Deere 7830 tractor and a John Deere 1770 12-row dry fertilizer planter. For soybeans, we use a John Deere 8260R tractor and John Deere 1790 planter. For winter wheat, we use a John Deere 8260R and John Deere 1890 air seeder.
Mike: We run a 2010 30-foot John Deere 1910 air seeder cart and an 1890 toolbar, equipped to make planting maps and document field conditions, seed varieties and planting dates. We run a 2010 16-row 1770NT John Deere corn planter equipped with Precision Planting technologies as well as dry and liquid fertilizers. We run a John Deere 4920 high-clearance dry bulk spreader for fertilizer applications as well as a John Deere 4930 sprayer for herbicide applications.
Kevin: We use a 2017 John Deere DB90 corn planter, a 2012 John Deere DB60 corn planter and a John Deere 1890 drill with a 2008 John Deere 1910 air cart. Both corn planters will also plant beans.
How do you go about choosing hybrids and varieties?
Michelle: We look at our own yield data from previous years and plot data from our area. Looking at DON levels in corn hybrids in past years has also become a very important deciding factor for us when selecting seed. Additionally, we review data from the Ontario Soybean and Canola Committee’s trials and GOCorn.net.
Sara: When we look at varieties and hybrids, we examine plot data (small and in-field trials). We try to always have 50 acres of a new variety so we can test it. We also work with our agronomist and discuss which traits will work best to align with our goals.
Bill & Cathy: Most of our seed choices are based on our own field data. We test new varieties in smaller strips across our acres to see how they fare. We are fortunate to see many varieties first-hand from our plot program as a seed dealer. We work very closely with our market agronomist who provides recommendations.
In Niagara, we are blessed to have a long growing season that allows us to plant corn that has a wide range of heat units and relative-maturity groups of soybeans.
We are also able to take advantage of the full range of crop heat units to help us mitigate any disease and pest pressures and spread out our flowering times. We also look at dry-down time and flex of the ear.
With all the different options out there these days it can be overwhelming, but we tend to try and find hybrids and varieties that offer consistent yield year after year.
Mike: We take a lot of time in the late fall to analyze field data that we collected from previous years – from planting, right up until it’s put in the bin. This information helps us choose our hybrids and varieties for the upcoming year. We also work very closely with our local certified crop advisor (CCA), picking his brain about what he has seen in some of the test plots over the summer and fall. Twitter has been a good tool as well when looking at different varieties. It’s always nice to see and hear what other farmers liked and didn’t like with any of the new hybrids.
Kevin: We do not put a lot of faith in small test plots. We look at each field’s average yield per variety and we talk to farmers who have grown the hybrid on neighbouring operations. We will visit fields where the hybrid is grown and look for ourselves and we look at scale ticket data, not yield monitor data. We also do random evaluations on different soil types on our own farms. We get a weight wagon out and cut swaths in the field and do the math, then compare the weight to the certified truck scale at our elevator. We look at a larger area, not just six rows that are 200 feet long. We examine 36 rows by 1,000 ft. long in random areas.
Who is on your farm team?
Michelle: My husband Nick runs the cash crop side of our operation. His dad Ernst is still involved in the farm, along with one full-time employee who does quite a bit of trucking and mechanical work. During harvest and planting we have seasonal part-time help. I oversee the grain merchandising for our elevator, Hoffsuemmer Grains.
Sara: Our farm team consists of my mother Deb as an adviser, my husband Chris, our agronomist and me.
Bill & Cathy: We manage the day-to-day operations of the farm. During the planting and harvesting seasons, our two sons Callen, 18, and Cooper, 14, lend their time. For short periods of time during the peak seasons, we have a cousin who we call on. We also work closely with our neighbour and help each other out when either of us needs a helping hand. In the seed division, Jim Yungblut is our representative for Niagara South, and during the heart of the season, Jim is around to help service all of our customers.
Mike: We are a family-run farm. My dad Ron, brother Geoff and I work together to get the spring work done. At harvest time, we hire one employee.
Kevin: We are a family farm. I work with my mom Sue, dad Ian and brother Gary. Gary’s wife Charlene Wilson and my wife Maria Wilson are also involved in the business. We have a great team of employees, too.
What challenges did you face during last year’s planting season?
Michelle: Like many other businesses in the ag industry, finding qualified help has been one of the biggest challenges we face. We are fortunate to have friends and family members who can help on a part-time basis.
Sara: Our biggest challenge during spring planting is always deciding when to start. Because we are in a strip-till and no-till system, we tend to wait a little longer before entering fields. To overcome this challenge and spread our risk last year, we started planting but didn’t push planting progress.
Bill & Cathy: All in all, the 2020 planting season went pretty smoothly. Due to COVID-19 and school closures, we took full advantage of having our son Cooper home with us. He was our number 1 guy for completing odd jobs, helping with field work and equipment maintenance, repair and rebuilds, and helping with the seed dealership end of things, too. Our eldest son Callen was working full time on another farm and worked for us on the weekends. Our daughters also really helped with day-to-day chores around the farm and house.
Mike: Spring 2020 was challenging for us because the soil conditions were dry and the soil was cold. At our farm we made a group decision to start planting. Dad always says, “You can’t finish if you don’t start!”
Following this decision, we got a couple inches of snow cover on some of our corn during the first week of planting in early May. These conditions contributed to a slightly poorer population.
Kevin: We added the John Deere DB90 to our planting lineup last season to take advantage of the short windows that are available to get crop in the ground in a timely fashion.
It seems that if you want your seeds to reach their maximum potential, you need to get them in ideal conditions early. We were able to plant 1,200 acres of corn per day and get a good night’s sleep. This efficiency put pressure on our fertilizer crew, who had to keep ahead of three planters. So, our fertilizer supplier added some new equipment with good flotation tires, which allowed us to get fertilizer on ahead of the planters. However, this task required a lot of logistics to keep everything moving fast and safely in the fields. Moving forward, we will look at applying phosphorus and potassium in the fall to alleviate this problem.
How has your role and decision-making process changed over the last 10 to 15 years?
Michelle: The number of data analytic programs that we use to aid our decision-making process has greatly increased in the past 15 years. The two main programs we use are John Deere Operations Center, which we use to break down variety and yield data, and Granular Business. Granular Business shows us profitability on a field-by-field basis and is also an integral part of our planning process.
Sara: Ten years ago, my mother made all the farm decisions. As we worked through the succession plan about five years ago, decisions became a group discussion between Chris, mom and me. My mom is now a sounding board and adviser while Chris and I make the day-to-day decisions. The three of us still have monthly and quarterly meetings to discuss future purchases, sales or any other business that arises.
Bill & Cathy: Not a lot has changed over the last 10 to 15 years. Bill has maintained the role as decision-maker of major equipment and field decisions all the way along. I have become more involved in the field work in the last nine years after I left the dental industry and started working full time on the farm and in the seed dealership. We are approaching a time where the dynamics of our farm will see some major changes as our eldest son becomes more invested in the family farm. It is definitely an exciting time for us!
Mike: In the last 10 to 15 years, our decision-making process has changed dramatically. We use a lot more yield data and soil tests. We also conduct research with our CCA to make our planting decisions. I would say probably 15 years ago we could make most of the planting plans in an afternoon. But with today’s rising costs of seed, chemicals, fertilizer and fuels, we spend a lot of time crunching numbers and looking at different products to see what might work best for us.
Kevin: I spend a lot of time talking to fellow farmers each day at our grain elevator in Vankleek Hill. We have found that as our producer and customer networks grow, sometimes the best advice comes from people who have experience. I like listening to these farmers to get their thoughts. I trust the experience of people who have invested their money into an item. Often, they will call a spade a spade and tell you how it is. Many farmers have a lot of good ideas and are willing to share. BF
Advice from the field, for #plant2021
Farmers must consider many factors when choosing the best crops for their operations each year.
“Producers should look at selecting corn hybrids and soybean varieties field by field on their farms to maximize, or maybe more importantly, optimize their yield potential,” says Stephen Denys, a farmer and brand director at Maizex Seeds.
Denys is based in Tilbury.
Some operation and business aspects that farmers can examine include:
- Soil type – What soil types are you planting into? Corn hybrids and soybean varieties can vary in performance depending on different soil types. For example, farmers may prefer a taller variety on clay soils where soybeans can shorten up. In sandy loam or sandy soils, a medium-height variety may be best because taller varieties could have standability issues.
- Planting date – Does the field have early or late ground? Based on this information, farmers can choose the best-suited maturity. If you have early ground, you could consider a longer-day hybrid to take advantage of greater heat units. If you have late ground, an earlier maturity may be best.
- Harvest timing – Timing affects maturity selection. Do you want to harvest early to leave lots of time for planting wheat after soybeans? Do you want to ship corn early or reduce your potential drying charges? You should ask these questions in the variety selection process.
- History – Did the variety perform well on your farm last year? Most farmers will plant a percentage of hybrids with a track history of performance on their farms and introduce new hybrids or soybean varieties to take advantage of higher yield potential or access specific desirable traits from an agronomic perspective.
- Risk management – What are you doing to spread your production risk? Farmers can use two approaches. One approach is to split corn maturities by planting 20 per cent of acreage in long-day hybrids, 60 per cent in ideal maturities for area, and 20 per cent in shorter-day hybrids, for example. This diversity can spread your yield risk by spreading flowering dates. The other approach is to spread planting dates. Some growers in high-risk areas or on heavier clays, for example, will wait to plant until the ground is fit and enough heat units accumulate. This strategy helps to ensure that plants will emerge quickly to avoid the risk and damage of soil crusting from heavier rains.
- Intensive management considerations – Some farmers want to access corn hybrids or soybean varieties that will respond to intensive management practices on high-performance ground. Some of these practices include increased nitrogen levels in corn, use of fungicides or high populations. Corn hybrids, for example, can respond quite differently to intensive management programs, ranging from no response to terrific yield responses from additional inputs.
- Agronomic considerations – Factors range from weed control to disease risk management. More often, variety decisions are made based on other considerations that can affect yield. For example, resistant weed populations in soybeans may cause growers to use newer herbicide systems and plant Enlist, Xtend or new XtendFlex varieties to open up herbicide options for resistant weed control.
- Seed treatment options – Seed treatments play an important role in stand establishment. Farmers should carefully consider which seed treatment packages they need to ensure good stands. For example, in soybeans, sound seed treatments and fungicide packages are important in high-risk heavy-pressure Phytophthora areas.
Hindsight is 20/20
The range in weather conditions across the province provided some growers with excellent planting conditions and presented others with a multitude of challenges.
Farmers are at the mercy of Mother Nature throughout planting and the rest of the growing season – they hope for the best and plan for the worst.
This year, “farmers will need to watch short- and long-term weather forecasts,” Denys says. “If it is still early and the forecast is for cold rains, on heavier soils the right decision likely is to wait.
“Regardless, you should plant into good soil conditions where a good seed bed can be prepared and there is no smearing in the seed trench with wet soils underneath.
“The most important implement a farmer owns in the spring is a shovel. This tool should be used first on every field to see how the soil is shaping up, at and just below planting depth level before planting or tillage occurs,” he says.
Overall, growers should always consult their farm team members and operation records to minimize planting stress and maximize crop yields. BF