John Werries takes a look at the yield monitor as the combine gobbles its way through the field. The machine is ravenous, the cab is comfortable and the electronics are working flawlessly.

“This is my 50th corn crop,” he said with a smile. “Way back then I was out here with a Farmall tractor and a two-row planter.”

It’s a sunny autumn day near Jacksonville, Ill., and there’s a lot to smile about. A break in the weather will allow a solid day of harvest, and Werries is feeling good about the numbers moving around 250 on that monitor.

Anyone who’s farmed that long can offer a real story of the blessings of new technology, and Werries and his son, Dean, are clear examples.

“We do strip-till,” explained the younger Werries. “We put on anhydrous and build a strip in the fall. And then we plant right on that strip. We use cover crops, spray a burn down and as the cover dies, that strip is open and ready.”

John and Dean aren’t the only ones finding benefits from strip-till. With the increased accuracy of GPS and automatic steering, more growers are having that “a-ha” moment—that precision agriculture means we get closer to making an individual “pot” from which each corn seedling may thrive.

Research in the past 10 years has shown that using strip tillage significantly increased corn yields compared to no-till at several locations. For example, the average corn yield increase of strip-till over no-till was 28 bushels per acre at a plot near Manhattan, Kan., in 2003. At the Irrigation Research Foundation (IRF) in eastern Colorado, they found a four-year average corn yield increase of 16 bushels per acre in strip tillage compared to conventional tillage. The range of increase was anywhere from 11 to 24 bushels.

Strip tillage is optimized through accurate GPS, making precise nutrient management a realistic, attainable goal. Add in the current growth of products designed to enhance N availability and many are set for real progress on nutrient placement that can increase both yield and margin.

“With all the stabilizers and other products, it just opens up a whole new world in how you put nitrogen on,” said retailer Vern Bader of Bader Agricultural Services of nearby Meredosia, Ill. Bader was influential in helping Werries consider a more nuanced approach to fall application. So much so that both were honored as 4Rs Advocates by The Fertilizer Institute.

“It was a good conversation with him, but it was really hard,” Bader remembered. “One of the main things for him and for us was, what if it doesn’t work? Then we lose a customer. It was up to us to accept a (new) philosophy.”

The riddles of variability are made clear again when you ride in the jump seat and watch the yield monitor hit 272 and then 227 a little while later. Both numbers to be envied by most, but inside them are all those “why” questions that keep growers like Werries looking forward to a shot at greater excellence with the next crop—his 51st. And then there’s the issue of stewardship.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in educating farmers about the wise use of nutrients,” said Werries. “There will be more rules and regulations if we don’t get on the ball here. We need to keep these nutrients here in the soil where they belong, instead of washing down the river.”