When To Say No

Yield Champ David Hula's management system shows him when to go fast and when to pull the plug.

David Hula works to influence productivity at three stages—when the ear is setting girth, length and building test weight, Image by Joel Reichenberger

David Hula sits high in his Deere S670, its header chewing through nearly impenetrable rows of corn at 2 miles an hour--52,000 plants to the acre, 780 kernels per ear, eight rows on a pass. He watches the yield monitor tick up, and again, then 600 bushels. “We saw some 600s,” Hula recalls of the day in August 2017 when he picked his entry in the National Corn Yield Contest. “Not that the monitor hit 600. We saw it hit 600 and stay there for a little bit.”

By day’s end, from the broad James River peninsula that is Curles Neck Plantation, in Virginia, Hula had collected a new, and for himself, another world corn yield record. His Curles Neck entry was 542.2740 bushels to the acre (test weight 65.7 pounds). Hula had bested himself again, having previously set yield records in 2015 (532 bushels per acre [bpa]), 2013 (454 bpa) and 2011 (429 bpa). In 2003, Hula won his first national corn yield class with a contest yield of 322 bushels.

“That was exciting,” says Hula. More importantly than records it might be noted, is that Hula’s practices are boosting his yields 13% per year.

When something is not working, Hula will pull the plug. He did it on his contest fields this year. The reigning corn yield champ put no entries into the 2018 yield contest, breaking an unbroken chain of entries back to 1994. “Most of our irrigated corn was off at Curles Neck. At 200 or 210 bushels, it was not the irrigated corn we want to see,” Hula says.

KILLER STORM. Blame goes to a June storm with 70-mph winds that broke hundreds of stalks across five hybrids. “We learn when to put on the gas but, more importantly, when to hit the brakes. We saw what was happening early. We weren’t going to keep spending money on it.”

Hula is philosophical about it. “The secret to growing more corn is by growing a lot of bad corn. We had a little hiccup this year because of the weather,” he says.

Corn production is a game of offense, not defense, by Hula’s reckoning. Irrigation, daily scouting, bi-weekly tissue sampling. Hula looks for opportunities to push the crop growing in Curles Neck’s fine, sandy loam Pamunkey soils. There are three times after emergence when Hula knows he can influence productivity: when the ear is setting its girth, when ear length is determined and when the crop is building test weight.

“If you have good temps and sunlight, and the plant is off to a good start nutritionally, you can allow [the ear] to express itself with extra rows,” Hula says. At V4, if he sees an opportunity to influence girth, Hula applies micronutrients. On average, Hula counts 1.7 additional rows because of it. The package includes zinc, iron, boron and calcium, copper, manganese and molybdenum.

Farmers see things no one else sees. The challenge is interpreting what they see--to find opportunity and to push. It was Francis Childs, of Iowa, who urged Hula to push. Childs took the corn yield crown a half-dozen times during his career. In 2002, he set what was then a production record--and remains still a dryland record--of 442 bushels to the acre. He warned Hula not to be overly cautious, to be bold enough to risk calculated mistakes. “I’ve failed more than we’ve had success. But, you have to be open-minded. You learn from your mistakes, and appreciate your successes,” Hula says.

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KNOWING THE UNKNOWN. “David is aware of what he doesn’t know. He has theories, but he seeks out people who may have different ideas,” his agronomist, Paul Bodenstine of ag.systems, Ashland, Virginia, says. “His thought process looks for the weak links. If it’s weather, then not just the forecast. He wants to know trends, is a weather event different from the average, can we learn from it and repeat what we learned?”

Production year 2017 was nearly a perfect year, Hula recalls. “We were dry. So, that gave us a lot of sunlight and radiation. Temperatures were cooler during grain fill, so we had a longer grain-fill period. That allowed the crop to express itself.” Did it ever. In the space of 50 irrigated acres, Hula produced the record in the National Yield Contest’s no-till, strip-till irrigated category--and the largest yield ever in the contest. His son, Craig, captured second place, with 529.1376 bushels. Hula’s brother, Johnny, picked 504.6890 bushels, for third place and a 500-bushel family sweep. The 500-bushel winners came from Pioneer, DeKalb and Progeny hybrids. Hula won with Pioneer P1197AM, a seed product from the same genetic family with which he’d set the 2015 record.

DATA WINS. When he wins--and Hula is charmingly competitive--he wins with information, with data, with facts drawn from observation. He seeks to turn information into practices he can replicate. “There is a great sense of accomplishment,” he says of his yield records. “But, then you think, look what I saw in the yield monitor, it was higher than that.”

“He has a naturally inquisitive mind. He wants to know why,” Bodenstine says. Hula wants to know what is working, what is not. He wants to understand the risks of the unknowns. Like snow.

Hula once collected snow that had fallen over his Renwood Farms. “He wanted to see what the snow contains,” Bodenstine explains. “What does it contain? Not much. But, we can check that one off.” The important thing is to ask the question. “If it’s a dead end, fine, we can eliminate it as a [yield-limiting] problem.”

Nematodes can limit corn production. Hula doesn’t have nematodes. But, he checks every few years. “Biological systems change,” says Bodenstine, “and [David] wants to be proactive. There are little things he notices that add up and little things he does that add up.”

EMERGENCE CONTROL. Even emergence is worth 300 bushels, Hula believes. Timely emergence is the bedrock of his planting program. And, Precision Planting’s DeltaForce hydraulic down and lift control system is key to his consistent planting depth of 1¾ inches.

Darren Hefty has observed Hula for years. Darren, with his brother Brian, organize Ag PhD field days and create the Ag PhD broadcasts for television, radio and online. “He doesn’t make big mistakes,” says Hefty, “mistakes that take you out of the game. But, he is competitive. He makes changes more quickly [than other growers].”

Hula’s management philosophy is built on four words: develop, execute, adjust, evaluate. Hula likes to work with an idea for three years before rolling it out on a large scale. “Try something where you can afford to lose a little money, maybe on 2 acres,” he says.

“He doesn’t worry about how it’s always been done,” Hefty says. “But, what might surprise farmers about David Hula is that he outworks them, and not just by a little.”

SOIL WARRIOR. For the first time in 2018, Hula used a SoilWarrior tillage system (Environmental Tillage Systems, Faribault, Minnesota) to strip-till 600 acres. It was a big decision on a farm that has been no-till for decades. “It looks promising from a standpoint of corn emergence,” Hula says, adding, however, that the results were mixed. At his home farm near Charles City, Virginia, Hula picked 9 to 31 extra bushels of irrigated corn from strip-till fields. At Curles Neck, 30 miles away, the results were more mixed. Early on, Hula’s yield map showed 20 to 30 extra bushels. But, then that dropped to 9, and then, the yield monitor showed no gain. “I do like what the Soil Warrior did. But, did it benefit corn?”

At planting, the Hulas noticed the planter units rode fairly smoothly over the strip till zone. The zone warmed more quickly slightly benefiting emergence. “When we try something new we also have to evaluate what impacts there may be on the entire cropping rotation--corn, small grain and double crop soybeans,” Hula says. “How will it impact the wheat crop? It’s got to have a return.”

Hula’s overarching production goal is to keep the crop as green as possible for as long as possible. “In my mind, as long as the crop is healthy and green, it is continuing to pack energy into the ear.” Hula does not spoon-feed his corn. But, he feeds a crop that is responding to inputs.

“An ear of his corn should be registered as a lethal weapon,” Bodenstine says. “He keeps pushing. His work in the last six weeks of the year is as much as the first six.”

LONG-RANGE CHALLENGE. Glenn Herz, the field research lead for Hefty Seeds Co., in Baltic, South Dakota, works with Hula and several other high-yielding grain producers who manage South Dakota plots in cooperation with the Hefty brothers. The growers are challenged to apply their high-production practices to unfamiliar ground.

Four years into the effort, Hula’s plots are producing yields equivalent to 300 bushels per acre. His breakthrough came with better management of South Dakota’s high-pH soils. Nutrients, especially manganese, tend to become less available in soils with a pH above 7. It’s a level that affects chlorophyll production, among other plant processes, and overall yield.

“One thing I learned at [North Carolina] State,” Hula says of the university from which he graduated, “was that iron, copper, boron, zinc, manganese are more available at slightly lower pH.” The South Dakota soils have a pH of 7.2 to 8.4. Tissue tests showed low for these nutrients even after applications. Hula and asked Herz to apply ammonium sulfate as the nitrogen source to lower the pH. But, it wasn’t working. This year, they applied elemental sulfur at 1,000 pounds an acre. That brought pH levels down 1 to 1.5 points. “Then we noticed an increase of micronutrient levels in the tissue samples,” Hula says. “This is just the beginning, and I’m excited to work with Glenn next year to see if we can achieve even higher nutrient levels along with greater yields.”

Herz believes Hula’s corn management practices close some of the distance between Southern and Midwestern corn production. It’s not as important, he says, if Midwest farmers can grow 300 bushels in heavy soils. “But can they go from 200 bushels to 250 or even 275?”

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