TAPS for Success

Growing up on a multi-generational farm in southwest Nebraska was an excellent opportunity to play, break and build things and dream. As I grew, I started to dream of venturing to where there would surely be variety in each day, where things would change from year to year and where I could make a difference in the world.

Article by Tracy Zink - Indianola, Nebraska

Growing up on a multi-generational farm in southwest Nebraska was an excellent opportunity to play, break and build things and dream. As I grew, I started to dream of venturing to where there would surely be variety in each day, where things would change from year to year and where I could make a difference in the world.

I wanted a challenge and getting off the farm was the only place to find it. It didn’t take me long to realize how incredibly ignorant I was, and it took tens of thousands of miles and close to 30 years before I could get back and become fully engaged in the myriad challenges encountered in the profession of agriculture.

Our farm includes both irrigated and dryland acres using no till as much as possible, and we rotate between milo, corn, soybeans and hard red winter wheat. Water is typically our limiting factor with all our ground, so a majority of our irrigation attention is focused on sprinkler pressures and patterns and then working to maximize our ability to absorb whatever water is provided on all our acres.

I remember taking numerous years of swimming lessons as a child. However, my parents went with somewhat of a “throw her in the deep end” approach to my taking over the daily decisions and operations of the farm. I am blessed to have their trust and support as well as a genius (and patient!) agronomist, an even-keeled and very capable farming partner, two supportive sisters, equipment and financial guidance, Farm Service Agency programs and staff assistance, area producers and a large network across the country who advise, support and laugh with me through the years.

I have spent most of my spare moments over the past eight years reading magazines, attending conferences, researching past techniques and future technologies, and trying to understand the whys and proven trends over the course of history that make farming successful in southwest Nebraska. While I believe I am making good progress, it’s humorous to realize how far behind I really was.

Finding a way to blend technical knowledge with actual farming experience for this region is my greatest challenge. During my first winter of conferences and articles I learned that tiling could increase yields significantly.

Realizing southwest Nebraska has annual rainfall of 14-20 inches, it makes sense now why my dad suggested I keep reading. As silly and embarrassing as it is to admit, I still learned from it, and I continue to search and research more feasible options for our operation.

There are several events I try not to miss—Cover Your Acres in Oberlin, Kansas; Farmers Business Network’s Farmer2Farmer conference in Omaha, Nebraska; annual Crop Production Clinics sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s extension program; Executive Women in Agriculture by Farm Journal magazine; the Sorghum Symposium; regional trade shows; individual seed company meetings; Commodity Classic; and any financial and marketing meetings offered. I come home recharged and excited to share what I learned from every single event.

One of the best learning experiences I’ve had is participating in the University of Nebraska Extension program’s Total Ag Performance Solutions (TAPS) competition. TAPS goal is to provide a way for producers to evaluate profitability and input-use efficiency in an engaging and educational manner.

TAPS began in 2017 and has expanded in each of the last two years with the 2019 competition including irrigated corn and sorghum, subsurface irrigated corn, a new winter wheat competition, and collaboration with Oklahoma State University to offer an irrigated corn competition in Guymon, Oklahoma.

Each participant’s “farm” is comprised of three randomized plots totaling approximately one-half acre. The yields and costs are amplified to 1,000 acres in order to make the competition representative of a mid-sized farm. Several components are the same for all, herbicide and residue management, while the measured parameters of crop insurance, hybrid, population, irrigation, fertilization and marketing are used to determine and reward the most profitable, the most efficient, and the highest yield in each category.

We reintroduced sorghum into our dryland rotation, and I was very anxious to evaluate if it was viable for our irrigated acres. TAPS provided the perfect environment. What I didn’t realize is how much more it would provide me than just a “farm” to experiment.

TAPS provided more in the way of sponsored technology I wasn’t aware of or wasn’t sure could add financial value, and it helped guide farming recommendations or key decisions through an entirely new peer group that is both competitive and supportive.

The TAPS final review is published to provide everyone more by summarizing the specific details and results of each competitor’s techniques and methods to analyze when and if we implement irrigated sorghum. One element from the TAPS experience that we are putting into practice on our farm is chemigation—applying nutrients through the pivots. It was evident across all crops that it has the greatest potential to increase yields with the least amount of implementation costs.

One of the most valuable things I learned from participating in the TAPS program is how vital a detailed marketing plan is for success. All of the articles and classes preach it; however, it has always been a big scary monster to me and having this experience demonstrated that there is no single right way to market grain. You just have to stay aware, have a plan and take action.

Anyone can learn, but not everyone will make the effort to implement what they’ve learned. The TAPS program empowers its participants to share the responsibility of achieving excellence—which is the epitome of leaders developing leaders.

Tracy farms sorghum, corn, soybeans and wheat in southwest Nebraska with her family. She is also a graduate of the Nebraska LEAD program Class 35.


This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine in the Lab to Cab department.