Most sports coaches will confess that talent can win games, but character and attitude win championships. Zack Rendel would add that studying and deploying the winning practices of champions doesn't hurt the odds either.
Last winter, Rendel told a room full of farmers at Commodity Classic that he yearned to make his mark in every national crop-yield contest. It's a lofty goal, and he admits that no crop will challenge his chances of hitting for the whole cycle quite like soybeans.
The 26-year-old, his father Greg, and his uncle Brent farm 3,500 acres on the outskirts of Miami, Oklahoma, just off I-44 as it enters southwestern Missouri. Rendel Farms includes land tilled by the family since 1893 and features a rotation of corn, winter wheat, soybeans and grain sorghum, with increasing amounts of canola making inroads into the wheat acres.
"We've done well here for years, but after I came back to the farm about seven years ago, I became convinced we needed to boost our production across the board," he explained. "Each of us has our own operation within the company, but we all work to produce the best yields we can for the farm."
After watching his uncle win a grain sorghum yield contest, Zack got the contest bug himself. He placed first in 2014 and second in 2015 with single-crop conventional non-irrigated milo entries.
"Entering contests encourages me to try some things to boost production on a small scale that I wouldn't try across the whole farm," he said. "A broad scale practice might boost inputs by $10 to $12 an acre, and when you multiply that by 3,500, it's just too much to try on speculation." On-farm test plots are also an important part of his yield-boosting strategy.
"It's much safer to isolate a smaller plot and try new management practices on a limited area, and if they pencil out, then it's easier to decide to spend the extra money on the whole farm. After all, a $10- to $12-per-acre expenditure can be paid for with only two additional bushels of beans per acre," he said.
"My family and I have been farming in traditional fashion for years. We no-tilled a long time until weed control became a real problem; so we've moved back to conventional tillage, and that has helped with the weeds, but our yields need to come up if we're to thrive," he said. "What I'm learning entering contests and adopting some of the practices of other high-yield growers is going to help produce those increases."
The family farms gently sloped, productive Tahoka and Parsons silt loam soils. An annual 40 inches of precipitation comes mostly in March through the first two weeks of June.
Average soybean yields on the farm are hovering in the mid-30-bushel-per-acre range, and the highest soybean yields they've realized are around 50 to 60 bpa. Still, only 50 miles away, he sees the potential as high-yield growers in Arkansas haul in 100 bpa and beyond.
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Traditionally, the Rendels plant Asgrow RR2 soybeans at 120,000 seeds per acre on 30-inch rows. Their John Deere 1760 12-row planter and a 60-bushel pull-type seed cart work equally well on conventional fields, as well as in wheat and canola residue on double-crop fields. In all, about 700 acres a year are devoted to soybeans depending upon weather and market conditions, Rendel said.
This year, in addition to their normal planting regime, the family is experimenting with a pair of Mycogen varieties at different seeding rates and different planting dates to compare the results.
SWEAT THE DETAILS
"Timely precipitation is our No. 1 limiting factor for beans and the whole farm enterprise, for that matter," Rendel said, "But, I can't do anything about that, so I'm watching fertility and improvements in seed stand and plant vigor."
The 2016 contest acres for beans this year will come from within a 25-acre plot where he's used seed treatments, soil micronutrient products and hormonal products to improve early-season root production.
"I'm experimenting with Stimulate from StollerUSA on my contest acres," he explained. "That product includes a number of micronutrients beyond the traditional N-P-K levels we monitor with biannual soil sampling. Also, it contains cytokinin and Gibberellic acid for increased root production."
Rendel is using Apron Maxx seed treatment on his contest acres after seeing positive to break-even results in some of his fields last year. He's zeroing in on fertility, too.
"Around here, no one fertilizes beans, but we cooperate with Oklahoma State University with test plots on our farm where their specialists are testing for yield responses to added nutrients. If those tests are positive and show an economically feasible yield increase, we'll adopt it as soon as possible," he said.
During the past two seasons, the Rendels have applied local poultry litter at a 2-ton-per-acre rate to partially meet yield goal fertility levels for corn and sorghum. The same material is a prime ingredient to start boosting P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) levels in bean fields -- an area Zack is convinced is a limiting factor in his soybean production.
"Our soil sampling indicates we've been fertilizing for average conditions and not banking fertility for years when conditions are just right for much higher production," Rendel explained. "We have good records back to the 1990s and computerized yield maps for the last six years so we can see what we've been doing. It's obvious we need to be building the nutrient levels in our soils," he said.
Grid-sampling on roughly 5-acre increments is a fertility-related goal Rendel has set for the farm during the next several seasons.
"Our move back to conventional tillage has helped immensely with herbicide-resistant weeds like waterhemp and pigweed," he said. "I haven't put the calculator to it, but increasing, tillage probably costs as much as what we were spending for chemicals. The only difference is the chemicals weren't working."
Today, Rendel starts with a pre-emergence application of Valor XLT and metribuzin, followed by a postemergence pass with glyphosate and Zidua.
"That post application has to be done when weeds are small, and that doesn't mean 8 inches tall," he said with a laugh. "We try to hit them when they are just emerging up to about an inch tall.
"With those two herbicide passes and conventional tillage, we have eliminated crop competition and weedy green material at harvest in soybeans," he said.
Rendel is well aware of the dicamba injury many soybean growers have experienced this year and is thankful his area has yet to be affected.
"We planted some Xtend beans this year just to watch their performance," he said. "That way, if we do have to use them in the future, we've got experience with them."
DISCIPLINE AND ROUTINE
Rendel gets a workout constantly scouting fields for insects and weed breaks. It's critical to get down and dig through the lower leaves for signs of nutrient deficiency or disease, he said.
"We depend on our Hagie sprayer equipped with Y-drops on a 100-foot boom for insect and disease control, and can tailor our applications for both with tank mixes," he explained. "That machine has become indispensable around here."
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