Someone unaccustomed to working in agriculture might expect ag retailers and custom applicators to be facing the Spring of 2009 with dread and trepidation.



Quite the opposite is true, even though many face spring with an unprecedented amount of fertilizer to apply.
In anticipation of a wild and wooly application season, retailers are charging ahead by changing their game plans to fit their own unique situations.



2009 will be the first year Crop Production Services (CPS) in Boone, Iowa, has custom applied anhydrous ammonia in the spring. Fall anhydrous fertilizer sales were down 60 percent and weather limited application to 35 percent of normal. With at least 10,000 acres of anhydrous fertilizer left to apply, Will Woodruff, CPS Farm Center manager, is prepared to custom apply with three track tractors equipped with 21-foot toolbars and N-Serve injectors-one machine with a CPS operator and two operated by sub-contractors.



"Custom application of anhydrous in the spring is the biggest change in our operation from a nitrogen standpoint," Woodruff said. "In the future, I plan to encourage custom application because of the efficiency we can offer growers.



"I know we can maintain the equipment better, and we can get a lot more tons through these expensive machines if we are operating them ourselves. We'll do what most growers won't," he added. Last fall, when fields were too slick to apply during the day, his operators ran at night after a frozen crust formed to offer traction. He also believes custom application is critical because there isn't enough anhydrous equipment available to meet farmer demand on a timely basis.



Multiple nitrogen sources
On the nitrogen application front, Woodruff also expects to apply more forms of nitrogen this year than he has in a long time, including products such as ESN, a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer from Agrium.

"Compared to urea, we can leave a product like ESN lay out in the field without losing it," Woodruff said. "We're looking at a lot of alternatives because we have to do whatever it takes to help make our customers profitable."



With 12,000 acres of dry fertilizer to apply, winter didn't stop application of dry fertilizer on level fields. To improve efficiency on this front, Woodruff upgraded from a single bin variable rate TerraGator to a TerraGator 6203 twin bin variable rate machine to do dry applications in one pass versus two. The machine is equipped with a light bar and auto guidance system to allow application at night, which is another change for the operation.



Guidance systems now standard equipment
Autosteering systems, which once were considered extra bells and whistles, have become standard equipment on application equipment necessary to decrease operator fatigue, increase efficiency and cover more acres. In fact, Terry Schmidt, manager for CHS in Marshall, Minn., has seen an increase of 60 to 70 acres per day for each floater with the addition of autosteer systems.

"Last year we tried autosteer guidance systems on half of our units. We found we could start much earlier in the morning and go later at night, and our operators were less fatigued," Schmidt related. "This year we will have autosteer on all 10 floaters."



Another change was to upgrade from 16-ton to 20-ton tenders, with two tenders assigned to each floater. This change ensures that even when machines are spreading at the outmost reaches of Schmidt's trade area floaters never wait in the field for fertilizer. The two changes combine to add an average of 90 acres more per dry applicator per day for each of the 10 applicators.



"It doesn't sound like much, but in 10 days, that's another 9,000 acres," Schmidt adds.



Schmidt began a systems overhaul three years ago to improve efficiency, which is paying dividends as he prepares for the crazy spring expected in 2009.



In this new approach, preliminary farm plans were completed with all growers by January 15. Schmidt made all fertilizer purchases by mid-January-a cut-off necessary to ensure product is delivered to his location in time for application. By March 15, farm plans will be finalized with the specifics on rates, fertilizer, chemicals and directions to the fields recorded in the computer and on paper. The Marshall location of CHS also is in the process of converting to a computerized system that will manage product application from ordering through scheduling, blending, loading, delivery and application and finally invoicing. The goal is to complete this transition by 2010.



Shoring Up Seasonal Help
While finding and keeping qualified personnel is a year-round challenge in agriculture, finding seasonal help is another challenging step Schmidt doesn't take for granted. He began this process in January and by early March will have everyone in place. Full-time people will have received their assignments and any additional training needed on equipment. He taps into retired former employees, retired farmers and college students from the local community college to shore up staffing during the busy season.



Another important component to spring preparations is preventative maintenance. At CHS and CPS every floater is given a thorough bumper-to-bumper check by in-house mechanics and then each machine is inspected by a service professional from Ziegler Cat, the local Ag-Chem dealer.



"The last thing we can afford is for a machine to go down for a day or two. Even if one machine breaks down for an hour, it can seem like two days," Schmidt said. Tendering equipment also is included in the operation's local inspection and maintenance program.



More and more retailers are turning to the equipment dealers for help with everything from equipment purchases and leasing to maintenance contracts and employee training. Doug Pottinger, sales manager for application equipment with Ziegler Cat in Shakopee, Minn., said their dealerships have seen a tremendous increase in spring tractor rental. This year, Ziegler will lease 10 to 15 machines-due to the need for custom anhydrous application as well as retailers offering other spring services such as planting.



"We've always had rental demand for tractors in the fall, but this is the first time we've rented tractors in the spring," Pottinger said.



"Overall, we've seen a tremendous demand for equipment.



Fall sales of TerraGators were brisk, but we're also
seeing a lot of interest in renting machines. Most of our rentals are used machines, so this has caused a pretty good run on used equipment," Pottinger explained.



To meet demand and be prepared to help customers through the season, both Ziegler and Butler Machinery, based in Fargo, N.D., are sourcing equipment from other locations-Harold Slinden of Butler has found Canada to be a good source for clean, quality machines. Both dealers also are adding more new and used machines to inventory than they'd normally carry.



"Ultimately, a retailer or custom applicator will need another machine for those peak application days or will have a breakdown and need to rent a machine for a few hours. We will be prepared to meet those needs," Pottinger said.



On-site service, maintenance and repair and fully stocked parts departments are additional benefits retailers will probably need while running fast, long hours this spring. Working with equipment dealers that understand the importance of preventing down time can be key, too. On-site machine maintenance that can be scheduled after hours to reduce workload on machine operators yet keep the machines in the field could be essential.



Operator training during the winter to get new operators up to speed and refresh seasoned professionals means everyone will be ready for spring.



"When it comes to application equipment, even the operators who've been at it 15 or 20 years will pick up tidbits that will make them a little bit better, and this spring none of us can afford not to be prepared," Pottinger concluded.