Some people consider Drew Haines the "corn whisperer" of Maryland.
Don Stall, who farms near Charlotte, Michigan, is knocking on the 500-bushel door for irrigated corn.
Award-winning harvests are a regular occurrence for Kevin Kalb, of Dubois, Indiana, when Mother Nature doesn't negatively intervene.
The 2018 National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) national yield champions know how to push plants in contest plots. But, what about every acre?
Haines, Stall and Kalb claim their commercial corn yields have increased by 25% or more since they started participating in the NCGA National Corn Yield Contest. Each grower considers competition plots testing grounds to experiment with innovative management techniques, agronomic practices and new products.
Lessons learned are applied farmwide to boost production and profits.
"Their practices are delivering yield results," says Linda Lambur, NCGA contest manager. "But, there is no formula that works nationwide due to all the variables.
"Growers are under constant pressure to increase production efficiency but can't test every new idea or method on their farm," she continues. "The yield contest demonstrates what is possible in corn production and how some iterative changes can have big results."
Each yield champ provided Progressive Farmer five lessons learned through competition that they implemented on every corn acre.
"Like anything in life, you don't get any better by doing the same things over and over again," says Kalb, a repeat yield champ. "Sometimes you have to change … and listen to others."
Haines won the NCGA's A no-till/strip-till nonirrigated class last year with 366 bushels per acre. He farms about 600 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay with his brother, Dale, and son, Dustin, near Middletown. Haines also works full-time as an agronomist.
"Some people say I'm a corn whisperer," Haines quips. "I can go out, and the corn tells me what it needs. I don't know about that, but it amazes me what corn can do."
Haines entered the NCGA yield contest for the first time five years ago. He won after two consecutive second-place finishes.
While the recognition is great, Haines is even more excited about what he's learned and the results pouring into the combine grain tank. His whole-farm corn average has increased from 250 to 300 bushels per acre. Here's how:
> Build soil fertility. A combination of no-till, crop rotation, straw-based cattle manure and fertilization based on soil tests increased organic matter from a little more than 3 to 4.5%.
> Multiple nitrogen applications. This includes preplant, at planting and two to three sidedress passes.
> In-furrow starter fertilizer. It consists of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), micronutrients and an auxin root enhancer.
> Foliar feeding. Commercial corn gets three feedings of N, P, K, micronutrients and liquid sugar. Contest entries get seven.
> Variety test plot. Twenty-six hybrids were planted this year to see what responds best on his farm.
Haines claims his commercial corn averaged $450 profit per acre last year after $750 in expenses. Yields took off for Haines after a contest competitor told him to find his limiting factor.
"It was compaction," he continues. "We ripped a couple fields for the first time in 20 years, and it opened up a whole new yield window. Don't be afraid to try something new."
Stall continually pushes himself and his crops to be the best. That's expected from a former Marine.
The hard work is paying off. Stall won last year's NCGA irrigated class with a whopping 477.7 bushels per acre, topping his 2017 winning entry by 70 bushels.
"We were looking for ways to push yields," he recalls. "The contest plots are our proving grounds. If we have success, we find ways to implement practices on the rest of our acres."
The corn, soybean and wheat producer farms 2,800 acres. Twenty percent is under pivots. After 15 years of competing in yield contests, Stall says irrigated commercial corn production is up 40%. Dryland yields have improved 10 to 20%. Here's how:
ï‚†Balanced soil fertility. Grid soil-sampling and variable-rate application ensures N, P, K and other nutrients are applied to meet yield goals. It includes lime for good soil pH.
> Ramp up microbial activity. Feed microbes with biological products and active carbon to help plants utilize nutrients efficiently.
> Tissue-testing. Starting at V3 to V4, samples are taken every week or two to determine in-season nutrient needs.
> Intensive management. Make sure pivots and other equipment, especially the planter, are properly calibrated.
> Teamwork. Assemble a good team of agronomists.
"I'm not smart enough to do it all on my own," Stall admits. "It takes a team to get the right products on the right acres."
Kalb placed second nationally in his first NCGA yield contest in 2007, topping more than 280 bushels per acre in the AA nonirrigated class.
"We had a really good growing year with management nothing like it is now," Kalb remembers. "I thought, 'Man, this is easy.' That got me hooked."
The southern Indiana grower won the AA nonirrigated class the last three years, hitting 388 bushels per acre in 2018. He expects the winning streak to end.
Persistent rain and flooding prevented some contest plots from being planted in 2019. Kalb's two best fields were wiped out; prolonged saturated soils hurt surviving plants.
"Mother Nature is in control 100%," Kalb says. "Normally we [family] have nine to 10 entries. This year, we have three, and none will be very good."
Even though this year may be a washout contestwise, Kalb credits the competition for management improvements that have raised commercial corn yields by 25 to 30%. Here's how:
> Fertilizer timing and placement. He abandoned preplant applications and now bands fertilizer at planting 2 inches deep and 2 inches away from the seed. Sidedressing is done using Y-Drops.
> Nitrogen alone doesn't grow corn. Zinc, boron, manganese and other micronutrients are needed.
> Emergence is key. Planting patience is needed to ensure soil temperatures are near 50ËšF and rising, so corn emerges within 10 to 15 growing degree-days to get even stands.
> Tissue-sampling provides growing plants adequate nutrients.
> Harvest early. Combine corn at 25% moisture instead of waiting for it to dry down to 15% in the field and risk phantom yield loss.
"We've seen year after year how harvesting wet pays," Kalb says. "You will lose 8 to 10% yield by waiting, and bushels saved easily pays for drying gas."
For more information:
> National Corn Growers Association: www.ncga.com/for-farmers/national-corn-yield-contest
> Follow Matthew Wilde on Twitter at @progressivwilde.
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