Brandon Hunnicutt works with his father and brother on land that has been in his family for nearly 120 years. As a 5th generation Nebraska farmer, his days are packed with farm responsibilities, yet he finds time to serve on the National Corn Growers Association and Nebraska Checkoff boards, act as chair of Field to Market, and chase around his seven kids. He’s also learning as much as he can about carbon and sustainability. “And when I’m really bored, I start learning about blockchain, because why not?” he laughs.
Today, Brandon’s farm grows corn, popcorn, soybeans, and seed corn. Giltner, Nebraska, where Hunnicutt Farms is located, is a good area for corn. In fact, Nebraska is the Cornhusker State for a reason — the state ranks third in the nation for corn production overall, and first in popcorn.
Although the farm has been operating for over a century, the challenges Brandon and his family face today are very different from past decades. Not too long ago, cross-pollination and herbicide drift weren’t understood as serious issues, and many growers didn’t think about an insecticides’ ability to kill everything in a field — harmful or not — from an environmental perspective. Today, concerns about the environment and climate change play a much larger role in farm operations and Brandon has seen the focus shift to the broader environmental impact of these practices.“ These are nuances that growers weren’t thinking about even 25 years ago,” he says.
Hunnicutt Farms is using a variety of methods to face today’s environmental challenges, especially when it comes to finding the right nitrogen application rate. For years, they’ve used the University of Nebraska’s Nitrogen Calculator and a variety of farm-specific factors, including soil organic matter, carry over, projected yield, and data from soil samples, to calculate how much nitrogen they’ll need. Cover crops play a role, says Brandon, but the farm also looks to products like biologicals and SOURCE™, Sound’s microbiome activator, to enhance soil microbial activity to reduce their nitrogen needs even more. Because the area struggles with high nitrates in the groundwater, Brandon says they do everything they can to reduce nitrogen loads.
Historically, the farm relied on tillage, making multiple field passes each season, but Brandon’s family has been using autosteer since 2003 to reduce tillage and has moved towards strip tilling. Regionally, Brandon sees more growers trying to reduce tillage passes, which he calls “minimum till,” and new technologies like autosteer and advanced planters are a big help.
Meeting the farm’s nitrogen needs year-to-year means Brandon and his family have to be adaptable. Some years they have high carryover, he says. “We try not to frontload nitrogen, but it’s a challenge because you use a very static number to try to predict your nitrogen needs.” If growers apply nitrogen early and have perfect weather, he says, they can run out of nitrogen at the end when the plant needs more. On the other hand, poor weather and heavy rain can lead to leaching and runoff.
As growers, we always want to add stuff to our fields. If we’re told we need 200 pounds of nitrogen, we think ‘let’s add 220’; it’s that insurance premium. If you look at SOURCE the same way, it's insurance that you aren’t harming the environment by allowing the plant to utilize nature to thrive.
As part of their ongoing efforts to reduce nitrogen application and loss, Hunnicutt Farms tried SOURCE for the first time in 2019. “That was a fascinating experience,” Brandon says. They applied SOURCE late in the season and were surprised and pleased with the returns they saw. Those returns were even better in 2020. Even though a wind storm prevented them from applying the last of their nitrogen, Brandon says they still saw around a 10 bushel per acre increase in yield after applying SOURCE at V4.
SOURCE’s ease of application — just add it to the tank and go — and it’s wide application window are big wins for Brandon. “SOURCE allows the plant to do some of its own work while providing the grower with either a yield increase or savings in nitrogen costs, which also has long-term environmental benefit as well,” he says. Since increasing soil microbial activity and reducing fertilizer use are big priorities for the farm in 2021, SOURCE will be used to provide a yield lift.
Brandon is always looking to innovate to ensure the farm that has been in his family for over a century continues to operate at the most optimal level. For him, that means taking advantage of new tools that let him see what’s going on during the growing season, not only at the field scale but also within sections of the field. There are a variety of tools, including Sound’s Performance Optimizer, that weren’t available 10 years ago, he says. “Now, we can really hone in on what may or may not work on a certain field based on specific field conditions,” he says.
Brandon’s message about SOURCE to other growers is simple: try it. Use it on acres for a potential yield lift, or look at 10 acres where you can to try and reduce nitrogen application — you won’t be risking much and may be surprised at what SOURCE can do.
“As growers, we always want to add stuff to our fields. If we’re told we need 200 pounds of nitrogen, we think ‘let’s add 220’; it’s that insurance premium. If you look at SOURCE the same way, it’s insurance that you aren’t harming the environment by allowing the plant to utilize nature to thrive,” he says.
As a fifth generation farmer, Brandon knows how far the industry has come and he’s hopeful about the future. Agriculture has always combined science, nature, and technology to some degree, but Brandon sees the industry on the cusp of a monumental shift in those relationships. In the future, Brandon sees growers using science-backed, nature-based solutions not only to reduce impact, but actually benefit the environment through carbon sequestration and improved air and water quality. He sees farming changing relatively little, but the tools getting better and better. “If someone in 1990 heard that by 2021, we’d have tractors that drive themselves, crops that can protect themselves from bugs, and double the yields, they would have thought it was just a researcher’s fantasy, but here we are,” he says. “One day soon, we’ll look back and say, ‘This is when it all began.’”