• Shane Thomas

The Most Limiting Factor In Crop Production Isn't Water...

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

In dryland agriculture clear across North America and the globe we often talk about our most limiting factor. Liebigs Law of the Minimum states that a crop is only going to produce up to what the single factor that is most scarce will allow the crop to produce. In some parts of the world there are biotic stresses such as weeds, insects or nutrients that limit yield, in other parts there are more yield drags thanks to abiotic stresses such as heat, salinity or wind for example. Even today, some will reference soil health and microbial populations as the limiting factor. But, in many parts of North America, we often refer to water as the most limiting factor. While water does limit yields in many years, I believe there is still another component that constrains yield and profitability in not necessarily all situations, but many situations.

Mindset: The limiting thoughts and imaginative constraints we put on ourselves and our approach to crop production holds back yield even when moisture isn’t the most abundant. This is evident when we start comparing bushels produced per inch of moisture across various farming practices. The genetic potential of our crops and technology at our disposal now a days is unparalleled to any other time in history. And so are our yields, but when looking at the disparity between record yields and average yields globally it becomes evident that there is more that can be done to produce more, profitably, on a consistent basis.

What drives the “we can’t produce that much” mindset?

1. Fear of the Unknown – In farming there is only one shot per year to make hay, so to speak. Trying new things can be expensive, and risky if they don’t pan out. Generally, we don’t like to steer far from the most common path. If something hasn’t been done before it can be a bit daunting overcoming whatever happens; lost time, lost money or outright confusion.

2. Cognitive Biases – As humans there are many cognitive biases that hinder our desire to step outside our comfort zone. Negativity, social proof and status quo biases being 3 big ones that I notice keep us sticking to the norms.

a. Social Proof – We want to stick with what the neighbour or other agronomists are doing because it’s “normal” or it’s safe.

b. Negativity Bias – “My neighbour John changed up his rotation and has had weed issues for years, so did my brother on his farm”. We often remember the bad news better than we remember the good news. It’s easy to forget or write off individuals elsewhere who may have huge success with a new approach. We use these justifications too often when it comes to approaching new practices.

c. Status Quo Bias – This is likely the biggest one. It stems from the “if it isn’t broke, why fix it?” thought process. The reality is the majority of farmers that farm in 2019 are successful. They have been through numerous commodity cycles in the industry, horrific weather cycles, interest rate spikes and more and all came out ahead. Every single farmer deserves huge credit for what they accomplish year in and year out. With that said, just because something works, doesn’t mean it can’t be incrementally improved!

There is some validity to approaching new practices and approaches with caution, but approaching it with the right combination of skepticism and “can this make my operation better?” is the sweet spot.

3. Culture – Culture is one of the most powerful influencers. Not specific to farming, but in general. Culture can be summed up as “that’s how we do it around here”. When people say that, you know there is something running deep in the mindset of the people in an area. In many areas across North America you will hear “that doesn’t work around here” or “we don’t do that here”. While it may not be done that way, the real focus should be on “why”. If we look at typical farming practices in the 1970’s, they changed significantly by the 1990’s, and what was done in the 1990’s looks vastly different from what is done today. Things change, practices evolve…because new problems arise and so does new technology. The culture influences more than we often acknowledge; being aware of this is the first step to being a part of shifting it.

So how do we overcome these factors so that we can evolve more readily?

1. Have a test field – There is research that is well done all over by extension, life science companies, fertilizer companies and more. Their work is often exceptional and helps us progress production over time. But, I believe there is more that can be done, especially considering there is often no better research than that done on your own land/in your own area.

Having a specific area where you test new practices or products every year is a great initiative to drive innovation with in an operation and within an area. I have talked with agronomists who have worked with world record crop holders and often times the practices deployed on world record fields and within high yield production operation came from an “innovation field” where there were new approaches applied for the sole sake of trying to learn and progress forward. The field doesn’t have to be 320 acres or anything like that, but it might be 40 ac of a field where products and practices stacked in combination are tried to establish new standards when it comes to maximizing profits.

2. Ask why, what if and how come – “Why am I doing it this way?”, “Why did the home field yield more than the river section?”, “What if I did x and y?” and “Hey neighbour, how come you are doing _____?”. These questions push the envelope to overcome the status quo and uncover a litany of insight that can influence the speed of progress. It is often the why’s and then integrating the answers together that provide the idea for a new approach, or sometimes it’s simply the stacking of two practices together. Asking why can shift the culture and start a trend.

3. Leverage Expertise – There is tonnes of information out there now a days. But sometimes it isn’t applied in a practical way. Leveraging the wealth of knowledge that is available in the industry can help everyone. This isn’t just for farmers – I mean agronomists talking with other agronomists, extension researchers talking with company R&D leaders and beyond. There are too many silo’s even in 2019 in agriculture and the more breaking of these that happens, the quicker meaningful ideas will permeate to fruition to increase production and profitability consistently.

I’ll be the first to say, managing risk needs to be at the forefront of production. The economics remain exceptionally important. But when I say trying new things, it might not be spending more money; it could be just re-allocating the same budget in new ways, it may be a practice with minimal up front investment, leveraging the new digital technology available or it might be changing the application timing or splits (eg: more N on in crop, or more P down in years of cereal production).

Our mindset shouldn’t be the biggest constraint; there are already enough concerns thrown at us from Mother Nature. We should be constantly innovating to think of ways to produce more profitably even in the face of all the constraints. That kind of mindset will be what pushes the envelope and doesn’t hold anything back, increasing profitability and success in the long term in agriculture everywhere.

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