Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Ryan Speer, co-owner of the 125-year-old Jacob Farms, a 6,000-acre operation in south-central Kansas, near Wichita, was recently interviewed by Dan Crummett from Progressive farmer magazine.
Ryan Speer at his farm. Photo by Dan Crummett
Below are excerpts from the excellent interview in which Ryan goes deep into the challenges of growing corn, cotton, soybeans and other crops, and how Phytech helps him rise to the challenge. To read the full article click here
"It's much better to listen to the plant"
"Despite our successes with the drops, nozzles and moisture probes, about five years ago, we introduced Phytech direct-plant sensors to the farm, and they changed the way we irrigate," Speer says.
Phytech's system features a clamp-on sensor around the stalk of the crop to measure shrink and swell of the tissue, which correlates to the plant's stress levels and water demand. "It just makes a lot of sense to consult the plant," he adds. "You may have water in the soil, but the plant still may be stressed. It's much better to listen to the plant than rely solely on monitoring soil water levels."
Speer recalls the early experience with the monitors that convinced him of their worth.
"It was hot weather in June, and we were busy trying to keep the corn watered on one circle by making a .90-inch pass with our 700-gallon-per-minute application rate," he says. "The monitors showed us we still had stress on the corn.
"We sped up the pivot and put on half-inch passes so the pivot would get back and cool the crop, thereby reducing the stress we were seeing with the shrink and swell of the corn stalks," Speer continues. "You would have never picked up that stress with a soil-moisture probe. The plant monitor registered the stress long before it was visible, and if it's visible, you're already losing yield."
Another experience with double-crop soybeans came in a year with generous rainfall.
"The beans were flowering and setting pods, and we knew there was not a moisture problem in the fields; but the plant monitors were registering crop stress," he explains. "When I inspected the area around the sensors, I found woolly bear caterpillars defoliating the canopy. The insects were causing the stress, and the swell and shrink measurements were catching it."
"I became a believer"
Speer says at first the watering recommendations from the plant-based sensors and their computer's algorithms frequently went against his better judgment, but they ultimately won him over. "Typically, we would water corn up to pollination to meet the plant's highest water-consumption period," he explains. "We'd try to get ample moisture in the soil and hold it at that level."
The first year the monitors were in use, Speer says he compared a direct-plant-monitored circle with an adjacent circle of similar soils and identical hybrids, and planting dates managed conventionally with .90-inch watering passes.
"I was uncomfortable throughout the season because the monitors were calling for less water than I thought was needed," he explains. The technology vindicated itself, however, when Speer tallied up an 18-bushel-per-acre yield increase in the monitored circle, along with a water reduction of 4 to 5 inches for the season.
"people were freaking out"
"The differences in pumping costs were not significant, but we did use less water. So, with increased yields and less pumping, I became a believer," Speer says. "The monitors also taught us we were watering corn too late into the season," he adds.
In 2018, the first year Jacob Farms hosted the KWO test site, the plant-based monitors were an important part of the demonstration.
"At our July 24 through 25 field day, the plant-based monitors said no more water was needed, so we stopped irrigating," Speer recalls. "People were freaking out that we'd quit watering, and many growers in our area watered two to three times after that date. On our farm, the system showed us the corn was happy, so we were able to successfully end our watering season early."