Do you know what your crops are doing when you're away?

Brad Aust, who farms 1,700 acres of soybeans in eastern Kansas, wasn't sure he would know. So he turned to a crop scout to help him cover the acres.

“The first year I hired a crop scout was because we had farms that were a long way away, and I didn't feel like I could cover it all,” he says. “It was about time management.”

And about risk management. Risk takes many forms in farming and, certainly, production risk is one of the most critical. Though many production factors cannot be controlled, scouting can help you take charge over other factors, especially where weeds, disease and insects are concerned.

The trick is finding the right help at a cost you can live with and a program that makes economic and environmental sense.

The design of a crop-scouting program plays a significant role in its ultimate value. If economic thresholds aren't reviewed or if parameters for what needs to be controlled aren't established, then it's unlikely any crop-scouting program will pay.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices are something most experts say should be implemented into a scouting program.

The basis of IPM, says Alan Bertelsen, staff agronomist with Agriliance in Inver Grove Heights, MN, is to take a systems approach to evaluating pest problems. Then look at all means of managing pests in an economically and environmentally sound manner.

“If damage potential is likely to be below the cost of treating the problem, it doesn't make sense to take control measures immediately,” says Bertelsen. “Instead, continue to monitor the problem, treat only when the economic threshold is exceeded and look for long-term solutions, such as drainage, planting resistant varieties, tillage, fertility, crop rotation, and so on, to mitigate or avoid the problem.”

IPM practices are not new, and, in fact, have been discussed for nearly 30 years. In recent years, however, they have taken on particular importance following the enactment of the Food Quality Protection Act and resulting increased scrutiny on pesticides and their application, says Joe Kovach, associate professor and IPM coordinator at Ohio State University.

“We're always getting new information, and all pesticide use should be considered under review using new standards of reasonable certainty of no harm,” Kovach says. “There will be more restrictions on use, and if some chemicals are taken away, especially the broad-spectrum products, managing and scouting will become even more important and challenging.”

Bertelsen adds that, with the right program in place, a professional scout will find problems before economic damage occurs and recommend treatment only when economic thresholds will be exceeded.

Aust's experience on his Kansas farm bears this out. “We had some insect problems that, if hadn't been caught, would have cost us 100 acres of soybeans,” he says.

Aust also points out that an experienced scout covering many acres in the same region can be a valuable asset at planning time. “They see so many fields and know what hybrids and varieties perform best in our area. That's a plus when we make buying decisions,” he says.

A fair price for a program is tough to pin down. It comes down to your objectives and need for information.

For example, you may pay more for an independent consultant than for a scout from the local farm supplier. Ask questions to find out what you get for the extra money or, conversely, why one is less than the other.

For example, are you paying more for a higher level of knowledge and experience, more detailed reports or one-on-one consulting? Or, are you paying less because the farm supplier offers scouting as a service when you purchase products there? Check with clients of each prospective consultant and raise any concerns before making a decision.

Another cost factor is where you live. Charges may be more in areas with better yield potential, and, conversely, less in areas with more limited yield potential. In addition, more acres in a smaller area equate to less travel time between fields, so scouts don't have to charge quite as much.

The next cost factor comes after a program is implemented. Many people think IPM practices will reduce treatment costs from past practices. However, Bertelsen says, this often is not the case. He points out that pesticide applications under IPM programs are based on need and economic return; scouting programs often find and correct problems that were missed or misdiagnosed in the past.

One final item, Kovach points out, is to remember what life was like before you hired a scout. Often growers save money the first years of a program, but then forget what it was like before they hired the scout.

Finding The Perfect Scout

Take the time to find the crop consultant for the job. Joe Kovach, Ohio State IPM coordinator, provides a list of items to look for.

  • Education

    This applies not only to universities attended, but how scouts keep on top of changes in the industry. Ask if they belong to professional organizations and check to see if they frequently attend commodity meetings or if they have ties to land grant universities. Continuing education is essential to staying current on product and pest developments.

    The Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) designation is one clue to the consultant's commitment level. To become certified, a participant must meet certain levels of education and experience, complete training sessions and pass comprehensive international and state exams. They are evaluated on their knowledge of nutrient management, soil and water management, integrated pest management and crop production. The American Society of Agronomy coordinates this nationwide program.

  • Analysis

    Ask to see examples of the report you receive. Is the data easy to decipher and clearly organized?

    Denny Schrader, agronomy production specialist at the Keota Farmers Co-op in Iowa, says he personalizes his program for each customer. “I don't want to just hand the customer a sheet of paper and that's that. We spend time up front assessing their needs, and we take time weekly to explain what we've found.”

  • Organization

    Visit the scout in his office, and even take a peek in his truck. Appearance tells you a lot about work habits. If it's well-organized and neat, it's a good bet the scout has an efficient system for collecting information. Remember, the information the scout collects and the action you take based on his advice could potentially end up in court.

  • Location/Availability

    If a consultant is a distance away, you may end up paying for that person to drive. Also, how many acres does the consultant cover in a given season? If he takes on your acreage, will he have time to provide the service you need or will he be stretched too thin?

  • The little extras

    Does the scout produce a newsletter to keep you informed of industry events? Schrader sends out a weekly newsletter from Iowa State University to all clients. He also calls on experts at the university if a problem has him stumped.

  • Check references

    This almost goes without saying. Word of mouth is often your best resource.