“Another word for farming is risk,” says Steve Schmidt. His unpredictable Plains climate made risk management a matter of survival tool since day 1. He uses field and soil data to precisely match soil zones with appropriate plant populations, hybrids and fertility plans.

Farming on the margins of erratic precipitation in south-central Kansas keeps him on his toes. “Our Plains environment creates greater yield variability,” Schmidt says. “We survive by using tools like variable-seeding rate and fertility management to maximize available moisture,” he says.

Not knowing when he will receive moisture or in what form drove him to convert to no-till 14 years ago. It reduces his fuel use and machinery wear and tear, builds organic matter, conserves moisture and anchors soil nutrients. Diversifying into corn, soybeans, milo, cotton and cover crops also spreads his risk.

His rainfall last year was 67 in., but its seasonal distribution would give any grower heartburn. “Half of it fell in just May and June,” Schmidt says. “It's not unusual to go without rainfall for six to eight weeks, along with a week or so above 100°. In 2006, the rain quit July 10, and in early August we had 100-113° for a week; it rained only 0.5 in. by mid-September. So it's imperative to have something growing at all times to capture the moisture when it comes.”

HE MANAGES THIS vexing variability with information and records. Knowing the limits of each crop zone, soil type and slope dictates the maximum profit threshold of what he has to work with. “Some soils don't have the water-holding capacity, organic matter and cation exchange capacity (CEC) to maximize yield,” he says. “There, an older, cheaper hybrid or variety yields just as well. The same goes for refuge plots. On the better soils with a better chance of higher yields, I can justify the newer racehorse genetics.”

This zone management saves him an estimated $10/acre in seed costs by selecting the most appropriate hybrids to a given soil, $22/acre by varying plant populations accordingly, $27/acre in fertilizer costs and $21/acre in choosing the best insurance option to a given zone (enterprise vs. unit option).

As he puts it, “Zone management enables me to pick similarly productive soils for growing corn, and selecting the cheaper enterprise options with added hail insurance to reduce specific location risk. The same level of coverage with CRC unit option would cost $21/acre more to cover risk on soils of different potential productivity.”

His principle zone variables are soil type, topography and sometimes pH or micronutrient levels. Some fields have 30 years of soil analysis data.

“For example, in corn, a silt loam can yield 154 bu. with a 26,000-plant/acre population and 160 lbs. nitrogen (N),” Schmidt says. “Compare that to a sandy loam Shellen-burger soil yielding 80 bu./acre with 20,000-plant/acre population and 100 lbs. N/acre.” That's why he soil tests all his fields every three years, georeferencing soil samples by slope, soil type, pH and areas of diminished yield.

“On upland corn, 18,000-20,000 plants/acre stretches the moisture longer,” he says. “On bottom ground I plant 24,000-26,000, but I'm experimenting with populations of 30,000 there.

“Our primary soil types here are silt loam, with some Pratt sands and Tabular clay loams mixed in the same field. The topsoil depth varies quite a bit, from shale out-croppings to deep soils,” he says.

GATHERING INFORMATION is easy, says Randy Taylor, Oklahoma Extension ag engineer and precision-ag specialist. “It's converting information into decisions and profits that makes you money. That's where Steve Schmidt is on the cutting edge of using technology. I told my precision-ag students that this should be their focus. If they simply wanted to return to the family farm and drive a tractor, they could hire that out. But creating soil-management zones, using the Greenseeker to drive fertilizer programs - that is the value you can bring to your farm,” Taylor says.

One of the biggest surprises from Schmidt's data was the wide range in soil pH, so he uses smaller one-acre pH zones to track it. His soil pH typically increases 0.1 pH/year after switching to no-till. He has low-pH soils. (Management zones based on soil type and topography are much larger.)

Another profitability builder is no-till. By using only about 1.6 gal. diesel fuel/acre for field operations, his energy costs are minimal. No-till also enables him to put just 175 hours/season on his 280-hp, 1981 tractor (across 3,000 acres). His tractor lasts forever and his machinery cost is $65/acre (present machinery value divided by harvested acres). He asks, “How do you depreciate a 28-year-old tractor that isn't challenged on power and is used fewer than 200 hours/year? I paid $40,000 for it in 1983 with 2,000 hours. It has bottomed out on depreciation unless another major repair is needed.”

No-till completely changes what you need from your tractor, says Oklahoma Extension's Taylor. “To simply pull a drill and a planter greatly reduces engine wear. A neighbor who farms conventionally would easily run 500 hours/year.”

No-till has made Schmidt's soil more productive due to higher organic matter, more soil microbial activity and better CEC and buffer indexes. “No-till gradually returns the soil to its prairie state,” he says. “When I walk through a field I don't want to see the soil.

“As we raise organic matter, we raise the CEC (for higher soil nutrient retention). A field that I just got recently, having been farmed conventionally, has a 0.9% organic matter, a CEC of 7 and a pH of 4.8,” Schmidt says. “After eight to 10 years in a no-till system, I expect to see the same zone with 1.6% organic matter, a CEC of 13 and 5.6 pH. Our soils are of mineral origin and the heat increases organic matter decomposition.”

After he's no-tilled ground for eight to 10 years he's typically able to stop liming it.

Schmidt's normal rotation is corn or milo, wheat, double-crop milo or soybeans, then soybeans or cotton. This allows him to harvest four crops in three years. “I anticipate approximately 16,000-20,000 lbs. of residue from the three grass-type crops before a low-residue crop like cotton or soybeans,” he says. “It's not perfect, but I am usually growing something 12 months each year.”

THE RESIDUES HARVEST and conserve moisture, anchor crop nutrients in the top of the soil profile and feed valuable microbial populations that metabolize residue into crop nutrients. “You want those soil microbes to have something to feed on all of the time,” he says.

The diversity of crops also spreads his risk in such an unpredictable climate. “If we knew when we would get rain we could better optimize yields,” Schmidt says. “We try to bank on ‘average,’ and if conditions merit we sidedress to pump up our yield potential. We've grown 155-bu. corn here.”

Next Page: Economics of Early Adoption

Schmidt farms 16 quarters with some help running two combines and cotton strippers. He's gotten out of livestock and now has just 200 sheep to maintain the pastures.

He believes in just-in-time fertilizing. “It all boils down to the most limiting factor,” he says. “Crop physiology dictates the stages at which yield is determined: ear size, vegetative vs. reproductive growth, kernel count, number of pods or seeds per pod in various crops.” That stage is when he sidedresses, assuming there's moisture expected in the next two to three weeks.

HIS HAND-HELD Greenseeker infrared and near-infrared sensor optimizes his N sidedress timing, saving him an estimated 20-30 lbs. N/acre in wheat by optimizing application timing. “Without an accurate yield estimate, it is easy to overfertilize,” he says. “Oklahoma State University has documented this savings.”

On his corn, he applies 120 lbs. preplant N/acre, and if conditions merit, he sidedresses another 60 lbs. On wheat, he applies 30-45 lbs./acre in the fall, with the rest in one or two shots after Jan. 1, depending upon tillering. Double-crop milo is sidedressed based upon fifth-leaf analysis.

“If I save 20 lbs. of N at $240/ton (UAN), that equals $8.57/acre on my wheat, the Greenseeker has paid for itself at 338 acres,” he says. He uses rates determined by maximum return to N principles plus 10%. “You can't cut corners on fertility.”

With 30 years of soil analysis data, he uses spreadsheets to budget and compare crops each winter. He uses local custom rates for field operation figures.

“The interesting thing about the adoption curve,” says Schmidt, “is that the technology we adopt will someday define the new breakeven production costs, and that's what the average farmer will be doing. So if you're not adopting new ideas and reducing costs, you're falling behind tomorrow's norm.”

He adds, “A farmer's purpose is to harvest the sun and rain to produce food and fiber while maintaining or improving the soil, using specific inputs (primarily seed, fertilizer and livestock). “That is why I no-till. Through the Sumner County Residue Alliance (where he is president) and the Su Co conservation district, I try to help others achieve this goal.”