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?

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.

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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