Precision Profile: Breaking Tradition, Not the Bank with Banded Fertilizer Application
Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Name: Mitch Nissen
Farm: Nissen Farms LLC
Location: Oakland, Neb.
Crops Grown: Corn, Soybeans and Alfalfa
Precision Pain Point: How to increase ROI of dry fertilizer placement with more accurate application and monitoring
Breaking Tradition, Not the Bank with Banded Fertilizer Application
Curiosity can provide valuable motivation for change. When Mitch Nissen joined the family’s Oakland, Neb., farm full-time in 2019, his inquisitive nature provided a catalyst for transitioning the operation out of costly tradition.
With the majority of corn and soybean acres in a no-till system, broadcast application of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) had long been the adopted method for feeding the crops. But after reviewing recent soil sample data, Nissen questioned whether surface-applied fertilizer was providing the best return on investment.
“In looking at the parts per million readings, we had great numbers in the top 1-2 inches of our soil, but beneath that, it dropped off sharply, and that’s where we really need the fertilizer to be during the growing season,” Nissen says.
After consulting with the farm’s agronomist, Nissen learned that banding fertilizer could stretch availability of nutrients, and potentially cut annual application costs by as much as a third. The eye-opening analysis made strip-till an attractive option, despite it being an anomaly in the Nissens’ eastern Nebraska neighborhood.
“I looked at the numbers and asked our agronomist, ‘why aren’t we doing that?’” Nissen says. “His answer was ‘because this is how things have always been done around here.’ Most farmers in our area don’t want to invest the time in another pass, much less find and train an operator to make that pass.”
So Nissen took ownership of the opportunity to break from tradition and pursued more precise placement and monitoring of dry fertilizer - a combination that has helped cut application costs by at least 25% and created opportunity for a custom strip-till business.
Hustle & Flow
With the support of his brother, Michael, and their parents, Tim and Dennette, Nissen began transitioning the operation’s corn acres to strip-till starting in fall 2020. They started with a 12-row DMI 3250 anhydrous bar attached to a 6-ton Gen1 Montag dry fertilizer cart, banding up to 400 pounds per acre of a 11-52-0 monoammonium phosphate (MAP), 0-0-60 potash, ammonium sulfate (AMS) and a micronutrient blend 5 inches deep in the strip.
A John Deere 8245R pulled the bar, and a StarFire 6000 receiver ran RTK through the 2600 display in the tractor cab. While it’s a single-bin fertilizer cart, Nissen says he’s been able to correlate P and K needs with soil sample results and create modified variable-rate maps and prescriptions.
With the volume and variety of fertility placed in the strip, Nissen says the best measurement of early success with banded vs. broadcast application are provided by the J.Assy Visum Fertilizer sensors that detect and report blockages on each row unit. The circular sensors, added in 2021, surround each dry fertilizer tube and monitor flow vibration, then wirelessly alert Nissen of a blockage on the connected Visum monitor in the tractor cab.
“We wouldn’t plant today without the advanced metering and sensing technology available to place that seed as accurately and consistently as possible,” Nissen says. “Why wouldn’t we be just as precise with our fertilizer placement and know if it’s not being properly applied when we’re creating those seedbeds.”
He says the $3,600 investment in the system has delivered the best economic return on their evolution into banded application and helped validate the transition to strip-tilled corn.
“We didn’t have the sensors our first year strip-tilling and I did 250 acres with no idea if we had any blockages,” Nissen says. “Once we added the system, I realized there’s a couple of rows more prone to clogging because that dry fertilizer blend doesn’t always smoothly run through those tubes.
“So for $300 per row, it didn’t take long for the system to pay for itself by knowing when and where we had a problem. If row 5 plugs up on our 12-row bar, there’s a lot of row 5’s in an 80-acre field.”
Working with their fertilizer dealer this past fall on the operation’s fertility recommendations for 2022 strip-tilled corn acres, Nissen says the proposed budget was surprisingly comfortable compared to prior years, a result of more strategic placement and management of nutrients.
“I had to ask if the numbers were accurate because usually, we’re looking to shave another $5,000 or so off the cost,” he says. “But with banding, we’re using about 25% less fertilizer and now we’re being much more efficient with our dry fertilizer application.”
As Nissen gets increasingly comfortable with adapting strip-till to the family farm, he also plans to be a local ambassador of sorts for the practice. With a scarcity of strip-tillers in the area, custom berm-building and banded fertilizer placement are services Nissen views as potentially valuable for other farmers looking to be more efficient nutrient managers.
“We have all of our crops custom harvested, so while everyone else is in the combine, I can be in the next section of the field strip-tilling,” Nissen says. “I figure if I can cover 1,000 custom acres per year, it will be worthwhile and show some other farmers the benefits of the system.”
He purchased a used 12-row Case IH 5310 strip-till rig to start running in fall 2022. Despite it being an older model, Nissen says the addition of rolling baskets and cutting discs on either side of the fertilizer shank will be an upgrade to strip-till into corn residue and smooth out the strips.
“We’ve certainly had our growing pains, but I’m excited about how far we’ve come and the opportunities ahead,” Nissen says. “We took our best crop ever out of the ground in 2021, and a lot of things went right. But they won’t all be like that, so I think it’s important to question how and why things are done to see if we can do them better.”
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