Do the Little Things
Art of Planting - Do the Little Things
Henderson Farms is a fourth-generation corn, soybean and wheat business -- dryland mostly, one-quarter irrigated -- working ground in Madison, Limestone and Morgan counties in north Alabama, just south of the Tennessee line. Not including 1,000 acres of sometimes-flooded Tennessee River bottoms, partners Chad Henderson, Stuart Sanderson (Chad's cousin) and Mike Henderson (Stuart's uncle and Chad's father) write production budgets for 7,000 acres a year.
Chad runs the day-to-day outside operations. Stuart is the grain marketer and general administrator of the business. Mike is the modern-day patriarch, splitting time between Chad and Stuart.
North Alabama soils are famously red Decatur silt loam that, for nearly 200 years, supported cotton. The soil is sticky, sandy clay with 7 to 9 cation-exchange capacity. Today, after much work to improve the soil profile, it is 2.2 to 3.2% organic matter.
"When we were growing cotton still in 2006, our organic matter could be from a half to three quarters [percent]," Chad says. The farm's more recent rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat -- three crops in two years -- has benefited the soil. "You put everything back into ground. Wheat straw builds organic matter," he explains.
Henderson Farms plants 2,600 acres of progressively productive corn. Chad owns the state irrigated corn yield record of 355.7 bushels (NCGA National Corn Yield Contest). Henderson Farms owns other Alabama records: 312 bushels conventional, nonirrigated and 276 bushels strip-till, nonirrigated corn.
Their planting window is early, as early as March 10, but typically March 20 to 25 for dryland corn and March 25 to April 10 for irrigated corn. The key is beating the Alabama heat, which jumps to 90ºF by mid-April.
"It's not the rain window so much as it is the heat window; where's your plant going to be when the heat shows up?" Chad asks. Illustrating the risk, Henderson Farms cut down 300 acres of zero-yield dryland corn in 2022, victim to weeks of heat and drought.
Chad sets out each morning during planting with plans to plant 250 acres with the farm's John Deere 60-foot-wide ExactEmerge 1775 NT 24-row planter -- at 6 mph targeting a plant stand of 26,000 plants per acre dryland and 36,000 plants per acre irrigated.
"You can't get hung up on speed," Chad says. "Ground conditions dictate speed." What's important is uniformity. "Everything we do to plant corn is about uniformity," he continues. That is consistent spacing, no skips, no doubles, 2-inch depth.
THE 24-HOUR DIFFERENCE
And, timing. "A 24-hour difference in planting, we've seen as much as 25, 30, 40 bushels difference in yield," Stuart says. "Our default now is to plant seed at the right time, the right speed, the right conditions. If you've got a bad skip, it doesn't affect just that seed; it has a continuing effect around the whole plant. One seed can affect four plants."
DTN/Progressive Farmer asked Chad and Stuart about the 1775 NT planter they use for corn. They have two other planters, a John Deere 1795 ExactEmerge (20-inch rows, 40 feet wide, 24 rows) and a 1795 split-row planter for double-crop soybeans (15-inch rows, 31 rows). Chad and Stuart list the planter's key features, in no particular order, that are important to their planting strategy.
First, "Fix it in the shop so you don't have to fix it in the field," Chad says. "There are so many variables we can't control," Stuart adds. "But, what are the controllables? It starts with the belts, it starts with bearings, shims, sensors, springs. It is all interconnected. And, it all has to work in a precision manner."
Second, think about joining a peer group for off-season consultations with other farmers. Chad is a founding member of https://www.xtremeag.farm/…. It's a private-member website community ($750 per year) of farmers who share insights to their crop-production practices (crops including cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat). "It is farmers talking to farmers," Chad says. "But, we're not here to tell you how to farm."
-- Tip: Wintertime maintenance is essential.
The better the planter unit rides, the more consistent the placement and consistency. Downforce is about both. "When that one seed gets higher or lower, then it's not consistent, and it's not going to come up the same way," Chad says. "After the planter runs, you can't fix it."
-- Tip: Very seldom does Chad have his Deere planter set to active downforce when planting in hard soil conditions. At its higher limits, the system can stress the planter's parallel arms.
As the seed drops, the jarring motions of planting can start that seed bouncing. "We want to control the seed as long as possible," Chad explains. Deere's ExactEmerge meter/seed tube system controls the seed with its brush belt (Precision Planting's SpeedTube uses a flighted belt to manage seed). Close attention to details such as belts is important. "You're trying to mitigate loss," Stuart says. "Some say corn has the potential for 600 bushels an acre. Once the seed leaves that bag, we're not trying to make 400. We're trying to keep from losing that 400th bushel."
-- Tip: Chad and Stuart store brush belts by hanging them from 3-inch PVC, keeping the belt in its original shape. Grooves in a belt mean it is time to replace it.
"You can have a debate for six months about closing systems," Chad says. Find one adaptable to your area. The key is a system that doesn't put too much or too little pressure on the seed trench, he says.
-- Tip: Find opportunities to experiment with closing wheels. Stuart and Chad are currently doing that by working with an Integrated Ag Solutions product, The Closer. Integrated Ag describes it as a 2 x 2 x 2 nutrient-delivery and closing wheel. It delivers fertilizer in front of the closing wheels while the corrosion-resistant poly design closing wheels work nutrients directly into the soil. Its swept-back, curved tooth design manages sidewall compaction.
A planter-mounted fertilizer system will slow down planting. "When people look at this fertilizer, and they get these tanks, it will slow you down. I promise you, it will slow you down," Chad explains. "But, without it, I can't reach my yield goals." The need to refill throughout the day is a theft of planting time, albeit necessary.
"From an efficiency standpoint, you know, we could go out there and spread a bunch of dry fertilizer on top, but that's not what we are about as farmers," he says. "When we put the 2 x 2 down, nitrogen and population go hand in hand." In the seed trench, Chad experiments with plant growth regulators and sugars.
-- Tip: Early on in his experience with a planter-mounted fertility system, Chad had problems with splashing resulting in rusting. Today, he uses Precision Planting's Conceal planter fertility attachment in a 2 x 2 x 2 banding system. Precision Planting says its Conceal system places fertilizer in a band and incorporates it into the soil. Conceal can be utilized to put either a single or a dual band of nutrients down beside the row.
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