“The only tool I carry is a pocket knife,” says Ted Salsbery. “The market is where you make your money, not tightening bolts. If you are the best agronomist but sell for the cheapest price, you’ve wasted your time.”
The Sharpsville, IN, grower focuses on marketing and delegates crop production to his son-in-law, Stuart Rounds.
This past year was Salsbery’s best year ever, in 45 years of growing corn and soybeans. But it took more than great weather to make that happen. He hires the best agronomist and invests in proven new technologies.
“You really need to know about everything going on in the world and why the markets are doing what they’re doing,” he says. “Understand why things are happening and develop your own opinions; most people listen to too much stuff.
“I have three analysts I follow, but I try to understand why things are happening so that I can make timely marketing decisions on the rare occasion when they’re opportune. If the market moves in a certain direction, figure out a very solid reason why. Think for yourself.”
He sells big chunks at a time for cash, at times waiting more than a year or two for the right opportunity, but shops the basis. This approach paid off especially well in 2008 when he gothis highest price ever for a season’s worth of beans. “There is always a time to make good money in most every year,” he says.
“Earlier this year I was looking at the best yields and best prices in probably 10 years,” Salsbery says. “There was no time to waste. Be aware of what’s going on, do the best job you possibly can producing the best crop, stay up with the times and technology, have the best genetics and figure out how you can cut corners but still do the best job.”
Salsbery delegates the agronomy and precision technology to a sharp young agronomist and technology whiz, Justin Welch, Alexandria, IN. “He makes sure we are using the latest technology and the best genetics. “He’s been a huge asset.
“Besides doing the right thing, you have to get the timing right,” Salsbery says. “In the whole year, there’s a best day or two that are the best time to plant followed by quite a few that are not good days to be farming. It pays to have the best and fastest equipment to get the crop in during ideal conditions. When you look at aerial images, you can see the ground planted during the two best days.”
Try proven new technologies
Salsbery’s operation is well known for trying proven new technologies and agronomic practices. This year he sidedressed 90 lbs./acre nitrogen (N) just before tasseling with a Yetter late-season N-application attachment that attaches to the front of a stock machine. His goal is to raise his average corn yields from 200 to 250. But it’s all about the bottom line, not the yield, for Salsbery. “That sidedressing gave me 40-60 bu. more but only cost me $35 plus the depreciation on the $16,000 attachment; it’s a no-brainer,” he says. “It works best if you get some rain right after you apply,” he advises.
By split-applying his N, his N:bushel ratio was about 20% below standard, notes Welch. Doing the math, he saved $25,000/yr. on N just from that 20% bump in agronomic efficiency from split N applications. (With 31¢ N and $82/acre UAN, he saved $17/acre on N x 1,500 acres of corn =$25,000 year.)
Savings from variable-rate planting is harder to pencil out, but Salsbery thinks proven new technologies make agronomic sense (see sidebar). All of his 3,600 acres are variable-rate planted based on soil productivity and topography. His soybean populations range from 160,000-200,000 seeds/acre, and his corn ranges from 31,000-38,000 seeds/acre.
“Farming is so much fun with this new technology,” he says.
Aerial imagery twice a growing season identifies corrections that yield about 40 bu./acre more yield, says Welch (his agronomist). “He was able to see what a big difference starter fertilizer, split N applications and fungicide applications made. I like NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) because, even in a beautiful field of corn, it shows me what makes 255 bu. and what makes 245. It revals the weakest areas even if they are very good.”
The first shot taken right after pollination reveals different varieties, identifies spots where you planted too deeply or where you need more tile, Salsbery adds.
“Ted’s used imagery since the very beginning,” Welch says.
Salsbery had his first computer in 1980, and has been on the front end of the adoption curve in the field ever since. Just because he focuses on marketing doesn’t mean he’s averse to tinkering. Ten years ago, he invented a drill calibrator to match seed size on a new drill. “The drill directions said the rate varied from 150,000 to 180,000 seeds/acre,” Salsbery says. “That meant you could be doubling or halving your rate; it’s a big range. The local soil and water conservation folks want to use it to seed radishes.
“It’s simple math once you get it down,” he says.
Managing the 30% under your control
Most of farming hinges on the weather. But you can manage the remaining 30% of variables: seed traits, drainage, population, crop nutrients, weed and insect control.
Technology like variable-rate planting, genetics, seed treatments, aerial imagery, geo-referenced soil samples, starter fertilizer and late-season sidedressing are tools for wringing out extra yield.
“An entire year’s income is largely determined in the six days you plant your corn crop,” says Justin Welch, Alexandria, IN, agronomist.
“That leaves 359 days of the year to scout fields, manage weeds and insects,” Welch adds. Your job is to figure out the limiting factors on yield.
“Often various factors work cumulatively. For example, racehorse hybrids typically have weak stalks. Potash affects stalks, so I place them on great soils and/or check potash levels to avoid stalk issues.”
The growing season is like a circle, Welch says. “You begin with your soil type, drainage and productivity, nutrient-holding capacity and fertility. You choose your genetics accordingly and then plant them at a rate best of each combination of factors.
“Another variable is planting consistency. Do you plant at 6 mph or 5.2 mph? It makes a difference.”
Salsbery uses a Precision Planting 20/20 monitor to insure even seed spacing.