Even if you already are doing a top-notch job of farming, a few ideas from crop specialists may help you hone your performance.

Soybean Digest asked three independent crop consultants - pros who advise farmers on many thousands of corn and soybean acres each year - for tips on fertilizer timing, tillage, hybrid/variety selection and weed and insect control. Here are some of their responses:

"Fine-tuning nitrogen for corn is a good place to start," says Don Brucker of Boehle Consulting Services, Melvin, IL. "We like to see 80-100 lbs/acre N applied in fall on most soils. Then in spring we recommend a pre-sidedress soil nitrate test to determine how much more, if any, is needed.

"We've found from experience that there's nearly always time to sidedress corn," Brucker adds.

Mike Snyder, Ashland, OH, advocates sidedressing most nitrogen because of the greater efficiency and slightly lower cost.

"But we always apply 35-40 lbs of nitrogen and some phosphorus as a starter to give corn seedlings a boost," Snyder explains. "This program has worked very well."

Some farmers may be tempted to cut back on phosphorus and potassium to save money during these tough economic times. But Brucker cautions not to do it without recent soil-test readings.

"We have some producers who could go two years without P or K, but not everybody is in that category," he says. "The important thing is to have good fertility balance."

Snyder prefers to apply most P ahead of corn and most K ahead of soybeans. That's because corn responds more to P and soybeans more to K.

Tillage-wise, Snyder generally recommends 100% no-till for soybeans and no-till for corn where there is risk of erosion.

"For most of our corn production we've had good success with the DMI ecolo-til 2500," he reports. "We pull it 12" deep after soybeans and it fractures the compaction layer with minimal disturbance to the soil surface. We usually need just one pass with a field cultivator in spring and the soil is ready for planting.

"In places where we used to get standing water after a heavy rain, it's now quickly gone because of improved infiltration. We also get far less runoff."

Brucker says strip-till is gaining favor.

"It reduces the labor, fuel and equipment needs of full-width tillage, and overcomes the cold-soil problems of straight no-till," he says. "However, it does require a high level of management."

Devoting extra time to corn hybrid and soybean variety selection delivers a sure-fire payoff, points out Bill Dunavan, owner of Nebraska Crop and Soil Systems, York, NE. Dunavan spends late September and October screening various test plots to evaluate hybrids.

"I monitor for the Big Six S factors - stand, snap (stalk breakage), stress tolerance, spots (diseases), stalk quality and shank strength," Dunavan says. "Most seed companies hold their plot tours in August and that's usually before problems show up. That's why I do my evaluations just before the corn is harvested."

He uses the information when making hybrid recommendations to clients. Farmers can also do their own ratings.

Ohio's Snyder encourages farmers to consider public soybean varieties, which generally cost less than private varieties, on at least part of their acreage (see "Going Public," page 16).

"The public variety Sandusky, for instance, does very well on good ground," he says.

Weed control costs can be cut nearly in half by banding a herbicide and cultivating, points out Dunavan. "We have many farmers in the 750- to 2,000-acre range who are doing this. It's a matter of gearing up for the job."

Dunavan says big cultivators with guidance systems allow farmers to move fast and cover lots of ground in a day. Some incorporate 25-30% of their total N needs as a liquid sidedress while cultivating.

"They seem to have the most consistent yields."

Scouting crops can determine whether or not an insecticide is needed, Dunavan adds.

"For instance, farmers who grow continuous corn may or may not need a soil insecticide for rootworms. We scout weekly, and if the beetle count is below the economic threshold, we do not recommend a soil insecticide for rootworms the next spring. That saves $13-15/acre."

In much of Brucker's east-central Illinois area, the western corn rootworm beetle is laying eggs in soybeans. The rootworm larvae then attack corn planted in those fields the next year. This relatively new phenomenon is moving eastward in the Corn Belt. "For the hardest-hit areas, we recommend a soil insecticide on first-year corn," says Brucker. He adds: "In surrounding areas to the north and west, we're placing sticky traps in soybean fields. If the number of beetles exceeds the economic threshold, we recommend a soil insecticide for corn the next year. If not, the farmers save that cost."