Farm managers are constantly calculating their next move and align their practices with the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Principles. The concept is simple — apply the right source, at the right rate, at the right time in the growth cycle, and place products for specific crops and environmental factors — but the implementation of these concepts are knowledge‑intensive and site‑specific. In my experience, growers aligning practices with the 4Rs used to be like a game of checkers, focusing on short-term gains and gut feeling. But this approach might limit productivity and efficiency. When it comes to the 4R’s, a better approach is to think about it as a game of chess, with each move carefully planned and executed to achieve long-term, sustainable success.
When farmers consistently use technology and align their equipment with their specific 4R plan, they grow thriving crops. Notice that I didn’t say the latest or the greatest technology? But consistent technology. While it may take a bit more time to plan your next move, the payoff can be significant. From the field, let’s dive deep into the significance of each "R" to reshape the game through technology.
Find the Right Source with Data
Using data is about how we leverage our past experiences – what did we learn and how does that help us today.
To choose the right source, begin with data. And to start with the data, you’ve got to know where to find it. Many of us have file drawers and boxes stored with years’ worth of data and records, which is incredibly valuable but very difficult to search and analyze efficiently. If you want to find out the last instance a chemical was applied-- particularly if it is an infrequently used product – you could be looking through those files for days.
This is where a user-friendly farm management software (FMS) helps you answer those questions through key query tools. Here is the clever, all-knowing Knight in your chess game. Instead of rummaging through your box of applications records from two years ago trying to remember which potato fields had nematodes and the best pesticide, you could be doing a two-second search of “NemAttack” across all your files. Managing your data is one of the smartest moves you can make.
Tracking data through your FMS curtails errors and obviously expedites your data management. While the allure of using various FMS sources might be tempting, the focal point should be on a single, easily accessible system that remains retrievable long after notebooks have been misplaced and farm managers have retired.
When this information is centralized and searchable, you can easily understand the movement of less frequently used products or winning strategies to better manage pests. Operators, farm managers and agronomists like me, can access vital timing and application info to see the lay of this agronomic chessboard, and prepare the next move.
Select the Right Rate with As-Applied Maps
Now that you’ve identified winning source strategies and made the choice about what to use, it’s time to look at how much. Among the 4Rs, "rate" stands out as the most dependent on effective machinery operations and adjustments —but it doesn’t start there. Instead, I start with the data from previous applications. and compare these statistics with yields. I recommend looking closely at where the rate plan may have been different than the application itself. As you are doing that, ask questions such as:
- Was the rate set at a level that yielded the desired response?
- Was the product applied following agronomic standards or label requirements?
- Were there instances where sections of the fields were overlooked, skipped by the blast sprayer, or received incorrect application rates, which led to deficiencies in the overall application system?
To answer these questions, you’ll use the "as-applied" maps, which are generated based on data captured about the actual application rate, time and place. The “as-applied” map information is much more powerful when used along with crop yield data to better understand your field management zones. “Cause and effect” and “This or that” using objective measurements and methods are the keys to variable rate retention. These data sources are your two bishops that work together to protect you from uninformed decisions.
Hopefully, you have done a post-application analysis. Documenting sequence passes, like tillage performed after nutrient applications, can significantly affect the accuracy of the designated rate. Conducting a post-application analysis can tell you if an application made a discernible difference, or did it reach a point of diminishing returns? It might also be the canary in the coal mine for over-application, pesticide resistance, and soil salinity issues. By identifying areas of diminishing returns, you can adjust equipment or reduce inputs accordingly to save resources and agronomic potential. Like the Queen on the chessboard, you should always be ready to move in any direction to adjust and adapt.
Getting the “right rate" hinges on using these data together so you can clearly see the cause-and-effect relationship between actions and consequences — not just for this growing season’s game but for years to come.
Now that you understand the data, you are ready for the most critical part of getting the right rate, which is your equipment calibration. Rate controllers' prescription applications are affected by our adjustments and will vary depending on the manufacturer's model and display software. For optimal results, it is recommended to perform regular calibrations on a sprayer's rate controllers. Calibrations plus a sprayer-filling tender system like QuickDraw reduce user error when loading or applying the necessary rate.
Execute at the Right Time with Field Maps
The saying, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme," holds — especially in agriculture. Effective timing can determine whether an application helps crops thrive or winds up wasted. If we think about our chess game, we want to anticipate our next move based on an analysis of the state of play on the board. We mentally play out different scenarios and determine the best next move. Similarly, in farming, decision-making related to production timing hinges on anticipating the probable outcomes linked to each timing choice. This is where a history lesson can come in handy. Through annual field assessments, we can identify patterns based on varying conditions, like cold, warm, dry, wet, early, or late planting. We can draw parallels between data from comparable years to help us find the right time to apply based on moisture levels, growing degree days, or days lapsed between application of farming practices. Using the field maps in your preferred FMS, you can look at the qualities and characteristics of different fields — such as those that dry out faster or experience early pest pressure —to better decode unexpected outcomes for the current year.
Apply at the Right Place with Variable Rate Technology
Thanks to cutting-edge technology and agronomic finesse, fertilization at the right place can be based on real-time field conditions through Variable Rate Technology (VRT), including automated rate controllers and John Deere ExactShot. VRT is our chess Queen with the greatest flexibility to move and the ideal attacker – she plans, she moves and, then she strikes, just like we want in our applications.
VRT allows farmers to sync data from field operations, including soil moisture levels, seed growth, pests, and more, to identify microclimates. Farmers use FMS hardware and software to sync data. For example, John Deere's Data Sync feature eliminates time creating and transferring setup files between John Deere Operations Center™ and the latest John Deere in-the-cab displays. These displays collect and show information, making the process more efficient and user-friendly.
Farmers who sync data can leverage intricate algorithms and analytics to formulate customized prescriptions for fertilizer application. This precision ensures that every inch of the field receives the nutrients it requires, from nutrient-depleted zones to those brimming with potential. Real-time monitoring of field conditions, paired with rate controllers, can catch inter-field variability within seconds.
John Deere’s ExactShot, a robotics-based fertilizer system anticipating a release soon, deposits optimal application of fertilizers for the individual seed to create waste-free uniform growth. We can surgically place nutrients with precision ag equipment and VRT to win the chess game to grow thriving crops.
It has been said that winning in chess is all a matter of understanding how to leverage each piece and timing their moves just right. To move each piece of the 4R’s in the right way at the right time, you don’t need to be a chess master -- but mastering your technology is always a winning strategy.