If your crop scouting is mostly through your pickup's windshield, you're missing profit opportunities.
That's something Alan Karkosh can't afford. Karkosh, a true disciple of crop scouting, is a partner in K&O Farms, Inc., a sizable corn and soybean operation near Hudson, IA.
"Crop scouting is one of the most important activities related to the success of our crop production," Karkosh says. "Scouting is the basis for most of our crop production decisions and the key method in evaluating those decisions."
Karkosh farms in a family corporation with his father, Gary, now semiretired; his uncle, Jared Owen, who's the "O" in K&O Farms; and his younger brother, Brian.
After attending Iowa State University, Karkosh worked for John Schillinger, a well-known soybean breeder for Asgrow Seed Co. That's where he learned about the importance of effective scouting.
"Crop scouting isn't always the most pleasant activity one can do, especially on those hot July or August days in a cornfield," Karkosh says. "But there is a lot of important information to be gained by spending time out in those fields.
"I spend more time scouting than in any other activity I do in our farming operation," he says. "From March through October, I'm scouting our fields in one manner or another, sometimes while performing other tasks, such as combining. I'm always looking carefully for diseases and other pests."
To be an effective crop scout, you need to be very observant, or you could miss things that will bite you in the pocketbook, Karkosh cautions. The combine seat is an excellent place to scout for weeds, stand problems, diseases, drainage problems, animal damage, etc.
For some things, Karkosh only makes mental notes. But, often, he makes written notes. They're increasingly important for interpreting yield maps on big acreages.
Here is this grower's scouting checklist:
* Crop emergence. Shortly after the crop has been planted, he rides fields to make sure the crop is emerging properly. If problems are identified, those areas can be replanted, if necessary.
* Weed situation. The key period for weed scouting is late May through early June, although it's almost a continual process from early spring through harvest. In the May-June period, weed species present are identified and severity of the pressure noted.
* Crop residue counts. During late May-early June weed scouting, Karkosh takes crop residue counts on all fields. Percent of residue retained after planting is entered into their computer records for long-term use.
If and when environmental regulations become more stringent, he'll be able to document how their practices impact the percent of residue levels in their fields - and can prove they are in compliance on highly erosive fields.
* Stand counts. Karkosh takes stand counts in all their fields. Plant population can have a big impact on yields, especially for corn. Stand-count scouting documents the quality and performance of specific hybrids and varieties. The information is used at year's end to determine if plant population was a factor that limited yield.
* Herbicide performance. One to two weeks after postemergence herbicide applications, Karkosh scouts to evaluate performance of the herbicide and check if all weed species present have been controlled. He then decides whether control is acceptable, or respraying, spot spraying or cultivation is necessary.
He checks weekly until the crop has canopied to see if any new flushes are coming on.
* European corn borer counts. With the introduction of Bt corn, the scouting chore for corn borers has been reduced. But he still walks fields, especially non-Bt fields, near the end of June or early July, scouting for first-generation borers.
Karkosh randomly pulls plant whorls, records the larvae per plant and determines the average for the field. As pressure increases, he pulls more samples. If economic thresholds are exceeded, fields are treated.
If time permits, he scouts for the second and/or third generations. Treatment for them is difficult and not very effective, but fields with higher infestations are harvested early to avoid down corn.
* Silking date. The approximate date for 50% silking is recorded for all cornfields. That's generally done as a drive-by scouting trip. Silking dates impact yield, so Karkosh uses this information to help estimate yield potential. The information is plugged into his long-term database and used as an aid in marketing decisions.
* Yield estimates. From mid-August to mid-September, Karkosh collects yield estimates on all cornfields. They're used to help determine marketing and storage strategies.
For soybeans, Karkosh counts pods and seeds in pods and notes overall appearance to "guesstimate" yields. This scouting trip for both corn and soybeans also provides the opportunity to make notes on any disease problems or other pest problems, such as soybean cyst nematodes.
* Harvest scheduling. As harvest nears, fields are scouted, often by driving by them. However, he'll walk into cornfields if stalk quality problems or a corn borer infestation was noted earlier. Fields with stalk quality or ear-drop problems are moved up on the harvest schedule.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm just creating more work for ourselves by scouting," Karkosh admits. "But problems don't go away, and it's easier to attack the problem at an earlier stage. If you're scouting at 50 miles per hour as you go by a field in the pickup and can notice a problem, you definitely have a serious problem that probably will take drastic measures - or cannot be overcome at all."