Ever wonder how your input use stacks up against other growers? Mike Thede, Palmer, NE, benchmarks his use of fertilizer, soil and water vs. local and national counterparts, thanks to the Field to Market Fieldprint Calculator.

For example, he knows that each bushel of continuous corn consumed 27,155 Btu. This is just 65% of what his local Fieldprint counterparts used, and 60% of national participants. He also learned that almost 40% of his energy use goes to pump irrigation water.

The confidential and free Fieldprint Calculator was developed for an initiative by the Keystone Center: Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. The alliance is a broad group of farmers, agribusinesses, food companies and conservation organizations that aim to create sustainable outcomes for agriculture. Field to Market launched an updated version of the tool in January.

The United Soybean Board (USB), one calculator supporter, sees it as a way to boost farm profitability and sustainability.

Thede, as a member of USB’ssustainability committee initiative for three years and now its leader since December, has piloted the Fieldprint Calculator.

Besides the obvious input savings, Thede likes having third-party validation for the public and regulators “that we’re doing the right things to protect the land that we care for,” he says. “We will be asked to provide more of this kind of third-party evidence in the future. I’d prefer to be ahead of the curve.”

As a fourth-generation grower, he shares his ancestors’ goal of minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs. But they never dreamed of this when they staked a claim in east-central Nebraska (Merrick County).

With just 23 in. a year of average rainfall, Thede switched from furrow to pivot irrigation to use water more efficiently. The Fieldprint Calculator documented his water use decline from 16-18 in./year using furrow irrigation to 9-11 in. in 2011 with center pivots. And there are additional savings of reduced pumping costs and labor.

A Fieldprint Calculator report on one of his 155-acre (one pivot’s worth) continuous cornfields reveals the crop used 0.095 acre-in./bu.

“We see an additional slight reduction in irrigation cost because we’re now getting roots down at least 3-4 ft. deep,” Thede says, “using more

of the soil profile for moisture storage. This is due to two things: The stubble left standing reduces water runoff and allows more time to soak in.”

The second reason for Thede’s reduced water use is his switch from ridge-till to a modified strip-till system by using the Soil Warrior (see http://ow.ly/8LiVc).

“It penetrated the old compaction layer, allowing rains to infiltrate soil more quickly,” Thede says.

Although this switch was mostly a financial decision, Thede knew it would also be better environmentally.  

“I conservatively think we will see a 10-14% reduction in the amount of water we’ll need to pump on a given field compared to our old tillage system,” Thede says. “Our trendline is coming down. We could wait an additional day this year before turning on the irrigation.”

Another example of Thede's drive for conservation and efficiency involved modifying his Soil Warrior to have three separate fertilizer tanks instead of two. Now he can vary the rate of three different fertilizers (P, K and micronutrients), and complete all applications in the fall.

Thede compared this new system in the Fieldprint Calculator to his farming practices’ resource useunder his previous irrigation and tillage system. He learned:

*About 40% of his corn’s energy consumption is used to pump irrigation water (10,598 Btu/bu. in energy to pump the water out of a total energy corn energy requirement of 27,155 Btu.)

*Saving soil with his new tillage system also saves energy. “Five years ago we were creating ridges each summer, requiring one or two passes more than we make now with our new modified strip-till system,” Thede says.

*“Our new tillage implement allows us to apply the fertilizer directly into the root zone, using three variable-rate formulas based on soil types. Our tillage-related fuel use is now 1.2 gal./acre, down from 1.45 gal/acre under ridge-till.

*“We’ve improved our P and K efficiency use per bushel grown by placing nutrients right in the root zone and reducing application rates by 10-15%,” Thede says. “More importantly, what we apply is used more efficiently.

 “The calculator illustrates how my decisions impact natural resources. It’s also helpful to review this over the years, and see how weather patterns like a cold late start rippled the through the system.”

Thede Farms also uses Validus to provide third-party validation of its environmental practices. “For now it’s a great tool to prove to landowners that we’re doing things right.” Validus found no shortcomings in soil and water-quality farming practices and levels. “The calculator got us pointed in the right direction,” Thede says.