David Padley has boosted his farm's profitability by 10%. The Lodi, WI, grower credits much of his gain lessons learned from the Wisconsin Profits through Efficient Production Systems (PEPS) program, which rewards the most profit generated per acre.

In fact, per-acre returns in the 2007 corn cash crop division varied by $133/acre (see chart) and 93¢/bu. In summary, the top PEPS corn producers tended to plant their corn earlier, use higher plant populations, have two fewer trips across the field and apply 37 lbs. more nitrogen (N)/acre.

Six years' experience in the contest has taught Padley the importance of decisions like fertilizer buying, hybrid selection, row spacing and rotation. Taking these figures to heart, he shaved $1,500 off his 2007 fertilizer costs. He also now takes a more active role in selecting corn hybrids, and plants his corn earlier. Participating in PEPS has taught him to make every decision “with an eye to payback.”

Spraying for soybean aphids is another area he scrutinizes. “It costs me $22/acre to spray, and I need to see a $22 return or it's a bad decision,” Padley says. “I scout more often, because I know that randomly spraying takes profit from me.”

He looked at his peers' production costs to look for ways to bring his costs down. Besides more persistence in shopping for inputs, he's moved to 20-in. row spacing. “I retooled, put $5,000 into a used planter and rebuilt my corn header,” Padley says. PEPS winners who had moved to 20-in. rows showed a good return.

The PEPS contest also pointed Padley to balancing his corn-soybean rotation to 50-50, instead of the 2:1 ratio he had previously had. “I switched to more beans based on what I could lock in and what my past production costs were,” he says. “That was definitely against the trend to more corn, but I looked at the numbers, and beans were more profitable.”

Padley garnered two first-place wins in the PEPS contest over the years. But “winning isn't the only thing in the PEPS contest,” he says. “It's like icing on the cake, because PEPS helps show you how to get the most profit out of every acre. And that helps you win the game of farming.”

IVAN GRUETZMACHER ALSO values the contest for what it's taught him. “The profit per acre difference between the cash corn division winner and the average for all participants was $133/acre,” says the New London, WI, corn and soybean grower. “So I know I can improve.”

Comparing his input costs to his PEPS peers, each input cost should have a 2:1 return for his farm. “Every trip across the field is reviewed, and I look at my past PEPS records to see where my inputs paid off, and where they didn't,” he says.

He's also become a stickler for scouting soybean aphids. He knows that just because his neighbors are spraying it might not be necessary - or economically sound. “PEPS makes you take a harder look at costs like spraying,” Gruetzmacher says.

He continually evaluates his fertilizer and N expenses, too. “There may be some areas where we can back off our N rates and still come out ahead,” he says. “I now have the data to show me what my costs are, and what the return would be.”

Gruetzmacher's bottom line is making the most profit per acre. “Everyone likes to have the best yields, but that's not where farming pays off,” he says.

LEARNING FROM THE NUMBERS

There was a striking difference between the 2007 profits generated between the bottom 20% and the top 20% of the Wisconsin Profits through Efficient Production Systems (http://corn.agronomy.wisc.edu/PEPS.htm). The 11-year-old program recognizes producers who show the most profit generated per acre in four divisions.

In the corn division, winners tend to plant their corn earlier, use a higher plant population, have two fewer trips across the field and apply 37 lbs. more nitrogen/acre.

The top PEPS soybean producers tended to plant five days earlier, on average, used a lower seeding rate, and averaged 1.7 fewer trips across the field.

PEPS gives producers feedback on how their management decisions affect return per acre, and provides a published history of how producers have adapted their management over time to grow profits. “Producers who have entered PEPS for more than a decade can look back and see how management decision changes have impacted their bottom line,” says Joe Lauer, professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin and the state's Extension corn agronomist.

Hopefully this moves everyday farm management decisions away from being done simply on impulse, says Shawn Conley, Wisconsin Extension soybean specialist and co-administrator of the program.