Top yields may not be economically viable

Is it wise to shoot for maximum yields? While big yields provide bragging rights, maximum economic yield is what really matters. 


Various contests and projects recognize top yields per acre. Whether it’s the drive for 100 bushel an acre canola somewhere on the Prairies or recognition awards for top yielding corn in Manitoba, the top yield numbers are often jaw-dropping. 


While this demonstrates the yields that are possible, which has some inherent value, very little useful agronomic information is generated.


If your goal is simply maximum yield, you spare no expense. Top rates and multiple applications of fertilizer are employed along with more than the usual weed and disease control applications. 


Frequently, unproven and even downright questionable products are added to the mix. Being part of the recipe that generates award winning yields is a promotional bonanza for products that may have little value. 


If and when someone is able to produce 100 bu. per acre canola, how do you determine which inputs and practices contributed to the result? What have you learned except that big yields are possible when the weather co-operates and you spend a lot of money?


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A far more interesting and relevant measurement of success is maximum economic yield. Take the value of what’s produced and subtract the cost of seed, fertilizer and chemical to come out with a gross margin. 


To provide fair comparisons, an adjustment would be needed for soil nutrient levels heading into the growing season. This would help account for the nutrient benefit of a preceding pulse crop or a manure application. 


Under good growing conditions, the best gross margins would no doubt come from fields with a high level of inputs, but in most cases the highest input levels wouldn’t generate the best gross margins. And in a year with challenging growing conditions, more moderate input levels might generate the best return. 


Of course, to actually determine the optimum rate on any particular input, there’s no replacement for replicated tests. And to generate reliable data, the trials should be at numerous locations over several growing seasons. The plethora of products being peddled with questionable science and farmer testimonials seriously need real data.


Precision agriculture has a major role to play in the optimization of inputs. Varying input levels according to predetermined soil zones in the field is no doubt the future of agriculture, but input optimization is complicated. Like everything else, precision agriculture prescriptions should be tested in replicated trials to determine if they’re truly effective. 


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While shooting for maximum yield is economically unwise, yield improvement is a critical component in the development of new crop varieties. Surprisingly, not all producers see it that way. 


Their argument is that increasing yields just leads to overproduction and thereby lowering the price of the commodity. It’s better to keep a lid on yields to support prices, they argue.


This line of thinking is misguided, even in crops where Canada dominates the world export market. When prices get too high, other areas of the world start growing those crops, horning in on our markets, or buyers will start turning to substitute ingredients that are less expensive. 


Either way, a crop will eventually lose out if there isn’t ongoing yield improvement while maintaining favourable agronomic and quality characteristics. As the saying goes, if you aren’t moving ahead, you’ll eventually get run over. 


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Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

  • Bruce

    I am a fan of your articles Kevin. But I have a major problem with this article. Overproduction is the only reason for the ruination of the price of any grain grown in Western Canada. This overproduction then costs the tax payers of Canada billions upon billions of dollars for such things as ad-hoc payments or agri-invest or supplementing tax rebates for farm fuel. Which crops does Canada dominate in the world export market? When Canada grew bananas or coca for chocolate. Then your statement of yield improvement would be true. As these two foods are only grown in certain countries in the world.

  • ed

    As the supply/demand lines near equilibrium, for every 2% increase in the supply of a product, the corresponding price drop is approximately 10%. The last 8% increase in volume towards the equilibrium may drop the price 4 times at 10% reverse compounding, or as much as 35%. If the industry has you at mere cost of production before you start and you add 8% to a 50 bushel canola crop, by attempting to raise your gross revenue per acre by $40 at great and risk and costs to do so, you could undermine your gross revenue by over $100-150 per acre in the process if it became the norm for the industrial average. Your meager net??? You were probably not the only farmer at the last crop production meeting that you were at, so it is evident where it is all going. Excellent headline at least.

  • Dayton

    Supply and demand is key to profitability. Under my contract I need to grow 3 bu. of Organic Brown Fax to cover my 2017 expenses just 3.

    • Bruce

      Yes, Dayton the organic sector is doing wonderful. The demand is good and all you have to do is grow a crop. Supply and demand is key to profitability. Not the price of bread in Canada for example. I can buy organic bread that is only 50% more in price than non organic bread. Or sometimes twice as much as non organic bread. But any extra cost is well worth the price.

      • Harold

        My rule of thumb is; if mold will never “eat” it, than neither should I.
        When I don’t bake bread myself, I buy Organic non-gmo and not the “dead bread” that cannot even support the life of mold, because sickness and the lack of energy costs me a lot more. I would rather pay 50% over a dollar, than to have my health worth 50% of one dollar, which is what processed cheap food really is.