It’s that time of year again, that time when all the fertilizer, chemical and seed dealers, reps and retailers have their winter meetings. It used to be that winter meetings were in February and March, but now they begin around Thanksgiving and last until field work begins. Winter meetings are great social events, as well as great places to pick up technical advice and pointers on crop inputs and to network. It is also the time when we go over test plots and side-by-side comparisons of various treatments. Again, all great learning experiences and well worth the time.

It’s good that we are all looking for ways to add that next one or five bushels to the bottom line. I encourage farmers to seek out and investigate management practices that will increase the return on investment (ROI) for their operation. Farmers should ask questions and dig deeper into the information they are presented at these winter meetings. By questioning and seeking more knowledge we grow our understating of production agronomy and how that relates to our own management practices and our objective of bettering ROI.

But, it is also the time of year when we begin to look for the next silver bullet. As we listen and study plot and side-by-side data, and look at analyses of different treatments we begin to seek out the next thing that increases yield. If we are not careful we lose our grasp on reality—the fundamental concepts of agronomy—and begin to chase dreams or that “one thing” that will make all the difference. This often begins with thinking that there is that “one thing” that the speaker said will make all the difference next season.

Let me give you some examples of “silver bullet” thinking. Mr. X said at the meeting that he used Nutrient Product Z and got a yield increase. Should I also use Product Z? Great question. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves let’s talk basic agronomy. What is your soil pH? Do you have a current soil test? What do tissue tests tell you?

If you don’t know your current pH or have a current soil test, then maybe your limiting factor is lime, potash, phosphate or something else. What is it that Product Z is supposed to do? Do you even have the problem that Product Z will fix? And what is the potential ROI on Product Z? You could spend a lot of money on something that you really don’t need.

Yet another example: Mr. Y showed that using practice A beat practice B by 7 bushels per acre. If we also did A would we see the same thing? Not every technology performs the same way every place or every year. Again, before you buy or sign up, ask some questions. What does A cost to do per acre? If A is a product we apply, then we must count the cost of not only A, but the cost to get it put on our crop. What if A is a management change that requires adding additional equipment—a capital cost? Can we use that equipment across enough acres to pay for it? What is the ROI once all the costs are figured in on A vs. the bushel increase they showed? If I increase yield but can’t cover the cost of the yield increase, then I don’t need the yield increase. Sometimes growers forget to project a return on investment when investing in a new technology.

One last example: I was listening to a talk where the speaker said that other growers out there follow this practice and it makes all the difference in the world on their yields. Should we also immediately try it? Again, ask the questions. Do we farm similar soils? Are our weather patterns that the same? Do we have the same or similar management practices to make that work “here”? Network and talk to other farmers. Try to understand why it works, but may not be repeatable here.

There is nothing wrong with following up on any of the above examples. They are all good things to ask questions about, study and investigate. But they are not that one magic bullet that will make all the difference in the world. Many of these technologies work because the growers get the basic agronomy right in the beginning.

Again, remember if you can increase yields but can’t cover the cost of the yield increase, then you don’t need that yield increase.

We all want a magic or silver bullet in tough times or times of depressed commodity prices. But the only silver bullet is using good judgment to evaluate all your agronomic practices against one thing, ROI.

Seek more knowledge. Question everything. Study success. Adapt practices and management that add to the bottom line, ROI. There are no magic bullets, only sound decision making and application of proven agronomic practices.

Kelly is serving as the Illinois Soybean Association Double-Crop Specialist. He was raised on the family farm in Benton, Illinois and graduated from Southern Illinois University (SIU)-Carbondale with a BS in Agriculture Education and Mechanization, and a Master’s of Science (MS) in Plant and Soil Science. Kelly has spent 25 years as a soil fertility agronomist and precision agriculture consultant in southern Illinois while also spending 4 years as a Farm/Agronomy Manager and GIS Coordinator for a large farm in southeastern Illinois. He is a Certified Professional Agronomist and a Certified Crop Advisor.

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About the Author: Kelly Robertson

Kelly Robertson has been a soil fertility agronomist and precision agriculture consultant since 1989 and also spends time in farm/agronomy management roles for farms in Southern Illinois. In 2012, Kelly and his wife Lori started Precision Crop Services in Benton where they provide agronomic services for their customers including soil testing, crop scouting, data analysis, GPS/GIS services including variable rate seeding and fertility recommendations as well as farm and agronomy management for their customers. He is a Certified Professional Agronomist, Certified Crop Advisor, Certified 4R Nutrient Management Specialist, 2015 Illinois Soybean Association Double-Crop Specialist, 2016 Illinois CCA of the Year and the 2021 Illinois Soybean Assoc. Dave Rahe Excellence in Soils Consulting Award winner.