Maximizing Yields - What Do Top Growers Do?

3/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

LANCASTER, Pa. — What makes the top corn and soybean growers great? According to Brian Hefty, it’s that desire to figure out what they can do better — walking their fields and picking the minds of other farmers.

Hefty, a crop grower from South Dakota, kicked off last week’s Professional Crop Producer’s Conference at the Lancaster Host Resort. He spoke about what sets apart many of these great growers from the rest of the pack.

All farmers start out with the same initial advancements over their predecessors — improved hybrids, better equipment technology and fertility products. However, some farmers still manage to achieve yields above and beyond their contemporaries.

“My whole point is, I don’t think they are smarter than you and me, they are outworking us. Crop production is so important to them,” Hefty said. “You have to believe you can achieve very high yields and make an absolute commitment to achieving high yields.”

Herman Warsaw, a grower from the Midwest, achieved yields of 300 bushels of corn per acre in the 1970s. Francis Childs of Iowa broke the 400 bushel record. Kip Cullers of Missouri set soybean crop records, with more than 160 bushels to the acre. David Hula of Virginia is a perennial winner in the National Corn Growers’ yield contest, this past year with a yield of more than 380 bushels per acre.

Hefty said he never met Warsaw, but the other three growers have been at his farm for field days. Although there to present workshops, these growers were as interested in talking to others as they were in sharing their own insights, he said.

Hefty said his brother, Darren, heard an agronomist who worked with Warsaw describe the first time he met the famed grower.

Stopping at the farmhouse, the agronomist asked Warsaw’s wife if he could speak with him. She said he was not there.

“He sleeps here, but he lives in his cornfields,” she said.

And that’s where the agronomist found him — in the cornfields monitoring his crop, and it was where he normally found the farmer during the growing season.

Describing a couple of the other top growers, Hefty said Hula asked the question: What would happen to yield if he added more fertilizer during late maturity this past year?

He selected a small plot and hand-applied the fertilizer. It resulted in an increased yield.

Cullers is an early riser, Hefty said, waking at 4 a.m. every morning. He reads for two hours until his employees arrive at the farm. Each year, he has test plots to “try something new” in corn and soybean management.

Hefty said he has not had a record-setting yield on his farm, but in the past decade, there have been production jumps, increasing yields by 50 bushels per acre.

“It’s still not where I want to go,” he said.

Meanwhile the top producers are also increasing their yields. The average producer in Iowa is increasing production by 1.6 bushels per acre each year, he said. Farmers in the yield contests were higher, averaging annual increases 2 bushels per acre.

Pennsylvania shows the same trend, he said. Yield improvement is not something that happens instantly. It takes time and patience.

Top yields take more than just top seeds, they also rely on soil fertility, and Hefty said testing has to go beyond just a basic soil test.

“We want a balance of nutrients” in the soil, he said, recommending that farmers have complete tests done so they can discover nutrient imbalances and correct problems.

Hefty also recommends that once the corn crop is in the ground, growers conduct weekly plant tissue analyses until the corn passes tasseling, to monitor for nutrient deficiencies.

“Many farmers believe their crop is suffering from drought, when it is actually a lack of nutrients,” he said.

Farmers need to know how to read the difference between a phosphorus or potassium deficiency compared with water stress, he said.

Crops in well-balanced soils are more drought tolerant, he said, because plants will try to pull in a needed nutrient by increasing their moisture intake.

“Most people think of soil as dirt,” Hefty said, “but there is so much going in that soil,” such as building organic matter, soil pH and microbial activity.

Hefty talked about different options for tillage, including no-till, zone tillage or conventional tillage.

He said each brings different benefits and challenges to a farm cropping system. The key is any system can work, as long as it is well managed.

One area farmers question Hefty about is cover crops, which provide agronomic benefits including added nitrogen, reduced erosion, extra forages for livestock and reduced weed pressure.

Hefty talked about drainage tiling, which is used to even out fields, reduce plant diseases and reduce tillage.

As for hybrid selection, he said farmers should focus first on defensive traits, based on pest and disease pressures, and then, select for yield. He also encouraged selecting new hybrids to improve yields. Finally, he suggested spreading risk by planting a wide maturity spread and different varieties.

Hefty also recommended setting up the field for even plant emergence. Plants that fall behind the rest of the crop because of uneven emergence are like weeds, he said, robbing the overall yield in their struggle to catch up.

Farmers should continue to try new ideas, he said. Ideas should be started out on a small scale and if they work can be expanded to more acres.

Quoting Proverbs 4:7, Hefty concluded by saying, “Get wisdom. Get understanding before anything else.”

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