'We're pulling in the reins, scrutinizing every pass we make and everything we buy."

Marc Briney is explaining how he and his five brothers will cut costs on their 3,500-acre operation this year. Like many corn and soybean growers, they're finding ways to keep a lid on expenses while improving production in 1999.

Marc, Mike, Marty, Matt, Milt and Mel Briney operate J.R. Briney & Sons Inc., near Browning, IL. They began trimming '99 crop expenses after last year's harvest when they strip-tilled about half their acres planned for corn this year. With strip-till, they fall-applied anhydrous with N-Serve onto soybean stubble. This spring they'll plant into the anhydrous knife tracks with their 24-row planter.

"Strip-till eliminates the ripper pass in the fall and the field cultivator pass in the spring," says Marc.

The Brineys trim fertilizer expenses with strip-till, too, growing corn with 0.9 lb of nitrogen per bushel rather than the 1.2 lbs/bu normally applied.

They'll take another swipe at crop costs by spreading the spring workload with more use of early preplant herbicide programs. Early application reduces the labor crunch during planting and lets the Brineys get more work done with fewer employees. And applying herbicides early keeps spraying equipment off fields when the potential for soil compaction is the highest.

Finally, they saved several thousand dollars in liquid chemical costs with volume discounts and aggressive bargaining on input prices.

The focus on costs has an effect on the Brineys' marketing plans for 1999, too.

"You've got to know your costs, and too many of us don't," says Marc. "Our goal is to be a low-cost producer. You then need to develop a marketing plan and stick with it. If you take the speculation and greed out of marketing, you'll be okay."

For Phil Kappes of Arcola, IL, one method of attacking crop budgets is by banding rather than broadcasting insecticide on his corn-on-corn ground. Even though he'll have to assume some liability for product performance, the 15" bands will save him $10/acre.

He may next look to squeeze his fertilizer costs by trimming rates. "We need to cut fertilizer until we get some return," he says.

Longer term, he's holding the line on cash land rent. Kappes negotiated with one landlord for a lease that fixes rental rates for five years. That follows a recent trend to longer leases in Illinois.

But Illinois isn't the only place where long-term leases are catching on

At London, MN, David Kline inked a pact with a landlord that fixed his rent for the next 10 years and gave him the option for another five years after that. Another tack will be to join farming forces with his brother Gene.

"The last three years we've worked together in the fall," Kline explains, adding that they have decided to work together this spring to cut costs. And, he looks to increase income by expanding his custom combining business, which last year covered 3,000 acres, including his own crops.

Tom Karr, Pomeroy, OH, is changing planting dates this year, shooting for higher yields by having corn in by April 15 and soybeans by May 1.

"That's about 15 days earlier than we have been," he says.

One method to get corn in the ground faster while shaving costs is more no-till. He'll no-till about 50% of his acreage this year - double last year's amount. But that could change.

"I plan on no-tilling as much as I can, but if it's cold and damp, I'll tear up some ground to warm it up."

He'll also grow 50 acres of sweet corn for a Canadian company that needs the crop in mid-July. "If it comes off early, I may doublecrop beans behind it," says Karr.