Wednesday, November 12, 2014
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Dr. Bill Becker of Agrosystems Management, Inc. explains how he uses a "systems approach" to farming.  Dr. Becker was a guest lecturer during a field day at PrairiErth near Atlanta in September.  The event was hosted by Illinois Stewardship Alliance. 

Other topics of the morning included Cover Crops, Value adding with diversity, as well as research projects being conducted at University of Illinois and Illinois State University

                                      Photo by Curt Fox


2014 Fall Farm Outlook:
What's bred in the ground
By Jan Youngquist

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[November 12, 2014]  LINCOLN - One morning early in September, local farmers came together to hear some of the latest on land stewardship and crop production. The Illinois Stewardship Alliance hosted the in-the-field Sustainable Agriculture program at PrairiErth Farm near Atlanta.

One of the guest lecturers was crop science researcher, Dr. Bill Becker, better known as "the Crop Doctor." Dr. Becker is an agricultural consultant based in central Illinois, but he does work all over the county. Becker shared his method of evaluating a field and some of the latest breakthrough measures in sustainable agriculture.

Becker implements a full system analysis approach. He looks at each field, even its quirks, and uses biology, chemistry and physical factors in his recommendations. He emphasizes no-till or modified no-till. The combined measures consistently result in healthier soil conditions that lead to lower crop input costs and increase yields.

Each type of plant has specific nutrient needs. Corn needs differ from soybean. While elements like phosphorous, calcium and other essential nutrients are plentiful in Illinois soils, they are often inaccessible to the plant. In less than optimal soil conditions when a plants roots are unable to take up the needed nutrients, or the nutrients are locked up, the plant's health suffers giving opportunity for insect or disease infections, and the general result is lesser and lower quality product.

A pound of roots equates to a pound of grain.

The healthier the plant, the more able it will be able to withstand uncontrollable environmental stresses -- wet soils, drought, wind, cold; and biological stresses -- insects and disease. Also, nutrients taken up by a plant may influence nutritional values in products processed for human, livestock and pet foods consumption.

Soil is a solution full of nutrients subject to change with the environment throughout a season and over years. Dr. Becker uses soil and plant tissue tests to macro-manage major and minor nutrients that bring soils into balance for crop needs.

Becker says that farmers focus too much on the standard nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK), and not enough on the other thirteen essential elements that act as 'micronutrients' for healthy plant tissue. While N and K make a corn stand; phosphorous, sulfur and zinc are important too.

He uses soil tests to determine the amounts of nutrients already present in the soil. Comparatives to plant tissue tests show what is not being absorbed and what might be going on in a soil. The nutrients might be present in a soil but not in an available form. Chemical or biological changes can be induced in the soil to free up nutrients.

Becker says that soil nutrients can significantly be brought closer into balance in a three year period. Each year sees results leading to greater sustainable lower costs and higher yields.

Becker's full system blend of chemical, biological and physiological measures includes adjusting fertilizer, which acts as a catalyst for nutrient absorption; maintain or increase organic matter; reduce compaction to improve soil structure, which allows a plant to utilize important micronutrients; and one other big thing, control nematodes that cause root damage.

Balancing nutrients in soil is a complex process that may be achieved by chemical or biological/physical means.

Nutrients are influenced during a given season by natural forces, such as drought can change the concentration of calcium (Ca). Ca plays a complex and variable role in soil affecting structure and other nutrient availability. Ca can be chemically freed up for absorption or bound through introduction of other more or less active elements. Ca forms a complex with magnesium, making the magnesium unavailable, which is already low in Illinois soils. Other elements that combine with magnesium are phosphorous, iron, copper and manganese. A soil and plant tissue analysis comparative can determine what is needed in the soil.

A biological additive has been found to aid plants in absorbing phosphorous. Phosphorous is plentiful in Illinois soils, but the form is as a contact element. Roots must come in contact with phosphorous for it to be absorbed.

Mycorrihizal (my-core-rise'-zay) fungi attach to plant roots and the fungus extends hyphae out, which then absorb the phosphorous. These fungi are already present in Illinois soils, but the addition a super variety of the fungi increases plant roots ability in phosphorous uptake.

Becker says, "The phosphorous uptake by the hyphae is so good, that there is no need to use phosphorous fertilizers after the soils are inoculated with the mycorrhizal spores and good infections occur."

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Using the most current statistics for Illinois, in 2010 the average use of phosphorous on corn and soybeans acres was 21.7 pounds per acre. Phosphorous at $1.7525 per pound on 21.7 million acres cost Illinois farmers $825,234,730.

Spores are a bit pricey, Becker said, but a one-time inoculation of aggressive mycorrhizal spores at five pounds per acre typically pays for itself in the first year.

And, even better yet, add dry kelp meal at 10 pounds per acre. The fungi and kelp work synergistically. The two increase soil aggregates improving soil structure. With the use of shallow- or no-till practice, the fungi increase and soil aggregates increase.

With these practices you will also gain the benefit of earthworm channeling and casts which provide even greater soil structure, more potassium and phosphorous. The benefits compound by the year.

Plant health is also challenged by soil nematodes. Becker said that nematodes in the soil have increased since the use of Roundup began. He was very excited to share a breakthrough in his research that came just this year. The use of Redman's salt, (salt mined from Utah salt flats) at 20 pounds per acre decreases nematodes. But it has now been proven that up 40 pounds per acre can be used with greater results of eliminating nematodes and no harmful build up of salt in the soil. Soil can go 100 parts per million.

Liquid chitin recently received an EPA label, has been shown effective in control of nematodes. In 2008 a field of soybeans near Jacksonville increased yields by nine bushels.

According to Becker, when analyzing a field, there are 1200 potential relationships to examine. The most important factors related to yield are related to organic matter.

Dr. Becker strongly supports using no-till or shallow-till (no more than two to three-inches), cover crops and maintaining surface residue to enhance soil health and protect it from erosion.

For more information you can contact Dr. Bill Becker 'the Crop Dr.' or the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.

Agrosystems Management, Inc.
Dr. Bill Becker
1229 W. Edwards St.
Springfield, IL 62704
Cell: (217) 622-5322

Illinois Stewardship Alliance
230 Broadway Street
Suite 200
Springfield, IL 62701
Phone: 217-528-1563


Read all the articles in our new
2014 Fall Farm Outlook

2014 Year in Review 4
Flip-flop Weather 10
The up-side-down harvest 16
Will corn producers make money this year? 18
At the Elevator 24
Harvest Quotes 29
What's bred in the ground 34
The growth of farm transportation 38
Behind the wheel 41
New combine head attachments 47
What's happening on the GMO/foreign trade issue 51

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