A family operation crunches the numbers on the road to greater efficiency.

By Des Keller | Photos By Des Keller

Brothers Paul and Todd McGuire are nothing if not relentless in their pursuit of research data that allows them to be more productive. Case in point, they’re moving toward using urea as the nearly sole source of nitrogen fertilizer on the soils they farm with lower organic matter, which amounts to about half their 5,000-acre corn and soybean operation.

“We did about five years of strip trials with urea compared to a regular system,” says Paul, comparing his and his brother’s tests to the more expensive alternatives of anhydrous ammonia or UAN (urea-ammonium nitrate).

Adds Todd: “Applying urea preemerge or sidedress gives us the opportunity to fine-tune nitrogen timing release to the crop when it most needs it.” In addition, he says, they are “also adding other dry fertilizer products like P, K and sulfur on an as-needed basis with a single application.”

The trials and tests of new practices continue on the McGuire farm near Urbana, Ohio. Even this spring, the McGuires were using a variety of different openers, closers and coulters on their planters to determine “what is the most versatile combination for all conditions,” says Todd. 

They’ve conducted numerous on-farm experiments on tillage strategies, settling for the most part on strip till for their corn on their most productive acres. On the other hand, vertical tillage is used on the corn acres getting a preemergent urea application and on the soybean acres that don’t lend themselves to no-till.

“Generally, we’ve been able to grow the operation and eliminate debt load,” says Paul. “I think we’ve been successful in using data to do that. Certainly, we’ve spent money on technology, but it has helped us gain information we can use.”

Nitty, Gritty, Data 

After graduating from college, both Paul and Todd came back to the farm in the early 1990s to work with their father, Jack. They returned even though their dad hadn’t necessarily encouraged the move. The operation had just survived the difficult ag economy of the 1980s, battered but not broken.

The brothers, however, believed they could help sustain the farm by using good research and data to watch costs, all while maintaining or increasing yields. With an assist from an improving farm economy, the approach worked. “We nearly doubled the size of the farm within a five- or six-year period, and have farmed a similar number of acres since,” says Paul. 

As the operation grew, the McGuires realized they needed help in collecting and analyzing that data—something they increasingly found they didn’t have time to do themselves. Today, they rely on consultant Evan Delk with Ohio-based Integrated Ag Services to conduct their soil tests, then compile and interpret field results to make recommendations based on cost-benefit analysis. 

“We get down to the nitty-gritty,” Delk explains, while in the McGuires’ farm office one day this past spring. “We do analysis by hybrid, by soil type. We use yield trials.” He is quick to add they partner with Iowa-based Premier Crop Systems, whose software analyzes precision-gathered agricultural data.

“The Premier Crop software,” says Delk, “allows the grower to do small-scale field trials on ‘learning blocks’—a Premier Crop term—while still using large-scale commercial farming equipment.” With that software, Delk can set up prescriptions to test varying factors, such as seeding populations, nitrogen rates or fungicides, on 2- to 4-acre blocks. 

Increased Yield, Decreased Inputs

This season, according to Delk, the McGuires are using learning blocks to test seeding rates, as well as nitrogen application levels. “The software allows us to put in the parameters, so the machinery does all the trial work via variable-rate prescriptions.”

Todd, Jack and Paul McGuire

The basis of the prescriptions and the research is driven by Integrated Ag’s Precision Soil Sampling system that Delk has been conducting with the McGuires since 2011. The main benefit generally has been better data-driven decisions that increase the bottom line.

“With the more intensive 0.5-acre-grid soil sampling, we are better able to identify the low- and high-fertility areas of the field at a much higher resolution,” says Delk. “This allows us to reallocate fertilizer dollars to where you need them. The result has been increased yield with no money wasted.”

The McGuires’ corn and soybean yields are both up about 10% from 10 years ago, according to Todd. And, he adds, “We are bumping up to the 300-bushel-per-acre corn threshold in a lot of places that we haven’t prior.”

The increases come over a period of time in which commodity prices peaked, nosedived and foundered, and then recovered a bit. Such instability makes what the brothers can save in costs, while getting higher yields, all the more important.

“If we can trim costs 15%, when you are talking about the entire operation, that’s a big number that can be pure profit,” says Todd. “Without the gain, we would be status quo, and that wouldn’t have been good. The data is what’s allowed us to make the key measurements and make choices as a result.” 

For instance, the brothers believe the knowledge they’ve gained through testing helps them generate comparable yields, even without having to buy the most expensive traits available in seeds. “We may use seed that has less technology at $200 per bag, rather than the $300 bag,” explains Paul. “We think we can do that and still be profitable,” he says. 

The McGuires have every intention to carry on with their trials, continuing to focus on nitrogen use in its various forms, while also considering the cost versus benefit of adding other minerals, such as sulfur. It’s helped keep the operation in the black during recent tight times and allowed for means of continuous improvement. 

“I don’t want my blinders to keep me from seeing the bigger picture,” Paul says. “The trials, from ourselves and others, have given us data that’s allowed us to make choices, to be profitable.