Your typical independent crop consultant is not a pretty sight. He or she likely is covered with dust, mud, perspiration or corn pollen, depending on the weather and time of year. But a good crop consultant can clean up a slug of problems and improve a farmer's bottom line.

Take Mike Snyder. He combines classroom savvy with the field smarts that come from long days of walking crops. The Ashland, OH, consultant, like many independent consultants, pulls soil samples and scouts for weeds, insects and diseases. He makes recommendations on tillage, fertilizer, hybrid/variety selection and herbicide and insecticide choices.

“As consultants, we help our farmer clients cut costs and increase efficiencies,” Snyder says. “Those are the main selling points for our services. Either we deliver or we don't have a job. My clients' neighbors are always trying to find out what we are doing differently. They ask local suppliers what products we're buying.”

Snyder says fertility is the first place he cuts costs. “Most farmers either over- or under-apply and both cost money,” he points out. “Based on thorough soil testing, we correct that. Some of our farmers, especially livestock producers, are now at a place where they need to buy practically no P and K.”

By choosing the correct source of commercial starter fertilizer, says Snyder, he can cut farmer costs by more than $4/acre on starter alone.

“Another area where I cut costs is on chemicals,” Snyder says. “We reduced outlay $3/acre for one of our new clients last spring by using a similar but less expensive herbicide and lowering rates. Weed control was as good as or better than he'd been getting.”

“With insecticides, there have been many times when I recommended an application and saved serious damage. Likewise, there have been many times where clients wanted to spray and I told them it wasn't needed and saved them that cost.”

Snyder says he saves most clients the cost of his fee in just fertilizer and chemical expenses alone. All his other services — hybrid/variety recommendations, crop scouting, etc., — are a bonus.

Independent crop consultants in the Great Plains take deep soil samples to check nitrogen levels. “We sample to a depth of 30”, says Bill Dunavan, York, NE. “This past fall we were finding carryover N amounts in many fields of 50-80 lbs/acre (irrigated), even up to 100-200 lbs/acre in many dryland cases.”

At a conservative price of 14-22¢/lb for N, that saved clients $7-44/acre in fertilizer costs, while the cost for the service is as low as $2.50/acre.

Dunavan's sampling for other major and minor soil nutrients has resulted, at times, in documented corn yield increases of up to 30 bu/acre. This has occurred where a deficient element, often a micronutrient, has been corrected. At a corn price of $2.30-2.40/bu, that's a gross return of $69-72/acre.

For $7-10/acre, many crop consultants scout weekly for insects — cutworms, corn borers, aphids, rootworm beetles and more. The benefit of rootworm beetle counts alone may more than pay that fee.

“When we do a weekly beetle count in a corn field, we can tell the farmer whether or not, based on the projected volume of eggs deposited, he can cut back on a soil insecticide if corn is planted in that field the following year,” Dunavan explains. “If the beetle count is below a certain level, he will need only a half rate of insecticide. That saves $8/acre.”

On the other hand, a beetle count may be so high and projected egg laying so heavy that a soil insecticide would be overwhelmed the next year, Dunavan says. “In that case, we advise the client to rotate to another crop.”

Crop consultants in the Great Plains, while doing their regular weekly scouting, typically check to see if all nozzles on center pivot overhead rigs are working properly, says Dunavan. If not, the defective nozzle(s) need to be replaced. A non-functioning nozzle can cost a farmer 75 bu/acre in the portion of the field the nozzle covers.

Jeff Polenske, Polenske Agronomic Consulting, Appleton, WI, is in the heart of dairy country. And that means manure.

“We write nutrient management plans designed to make maximum use of the manure,” says Polenske. “In many cases, we have eliminated the need for all commercial fertilizer for the dairy farm and also for neighboring cash crop farmers who are applying the dairy's surplus manure.

“Yields are improving while our clients are lowering total input costs,” he says.

Corn rootworms that attack first-year corn following soybeans are an increasing challenge in the eastern and central Corn Belt. To combat this, some farmers now routinely apply soil insecticides to first-year corn.

But often an insecticide is not needed, says Dave Harms, president of Crop Pro-Tech, a crop consulting firm headquartered in Bloomington, IL.

“By monitoring soybean fields weekly from mid-July to late August in the affected areas, we can determine whether there are enough egg-laying rootworm beetles to justify a soil insecticide on the following year's corn crop,” Harms explains. “Over the past six years we've found, in some cases, that 20-60% of the bean fields have enough rootworm beetles that a soil insecticide will be advisable for the corn. It varies greatly. Those farmers who don't need insecticide save $14/acre. Those who do need one will save an incalculable amount in corn yield by using one.”

In 2001, Harms and other crop consultants scouted many soybean fields for soybean aphid. One of Harms' clients, who had a field with a sizeable aphid population, was considering an insecticide application. But Harms, while monitoring that field, found that predators had started killing the aphids. No spray was needed and the farmer saved $8-9/acre.

Soybean aphids, while not as much of a problem in 2002, could be back this year.

“Our goal as a crop consulting service is to get the farmer back $5 for every $1 he pays us,” adds Harms. “I believe that most clients would tell you they are getting that rate of return.”

Hiring A Crop Consultant

Consider these points before hiring a consultant, suggests Earl Raun, a member of the Nebraska Independent Crop Consultant Association.

  • Technical qualifications are key in choosing a crop consultant. Look for experience and competence in the services you're seeking.

  • Ask existing clients of the firm you're considering hiring about their degree of satisfaction with the firm and its pricing.

  • If possible, talk to more than one consultant and evaluate the services provided, costs and your needs before making a final decision.

  • Insist on a written contract that would detail the types of services to be provided and the fees for those services.

  • When interviewing a perspective consultant, discuss management styles and philosophies. Ask what his or her attitudes are toward risk, general crop production practices, making changes and adopting innovation.

  • Make sure there's a solid understanding of expectations and attitudes.