Ask David Hula to name an important key to his high-flying corn yields, and he'll point to how he starts each season. It all begins, he said, with proper planting practices and even emergence.
Hula, of Charles City, Virginia, held the world corn yield record of 454.9837 bushels per acre until 2014 when Georgia-grower Randy Dowdy topped it with a yield of slightly more than 503 bpa. Two weeks ago, it was announced Hula regained the record with 532.0271 bpa in his entry into the 2015 National Corn Growers Association National Corn Yield Contest.
Walking though the many practices he has followed over the years to produce winning entries in the corn yield contest, Hula often went back to one: the yield-building benefits of proper seeding practices.
Faced with a tough winter and spring, Hula and his son, Craig, found themselves planting corn in May, not late March and April as they are generally accustomed to doing. "We had a cold winter. Lots of snow, and we don't have that very often," Hula recalled. By what would normally be the beginning of planting season, the soil remained far too cool to plant.
"We just held off. We need good emergence, and you get only one chance to do that correctly," said Hula, whose farm is anchored on the shore of the James River, about 30 minutes south of Richmond. Hula and Craig were finally able to get into the field by May 1, a point at which corn planting is generally finished on the family's Renwood Farms. Father and son planted 1,950 acres of corn in just 11 days.
Normally, planting would go at a slower pace. "This year there was no slow pace. We just started and ran hard from the get-go," Hula said. "We still paid attention to all the details. But with the smaller planting window, when the planter coulters and stuff started wearing out, we didn't spend time replacing them. We just kept running."
But planter speed, within certain constraints, is not an overriding concern for Hula. "We want to make sure we minimize skips and doubles. We can see that and fix it in real time (with the monitors) in the cab," he said. "We have planted some ground, with lower productive soils and lower seed populations, at 6 miles per hour, and we are still getting a consistent drop."
Hula does pay close attention to his corn-emergence pattern.
"Steve Albracht from (Hart) Texas told me he had his highest-yielding corn when he paid attention to emergence," Hula recalled. "We tried to mimic that. We have seen zones where the plants emerged very evenly, within six to eight hours of each other. That minimizes plant-to-plant competition." Albracht and Hula, along with Dowdy, find themselves of late, placing consistently in the upper ranks of the corn-yield contest.
He has quantified emergence, Hula said of Dowdy. "He puts out flags to see what has emerged and how that impacts his yields. We have learned to pay close attention to emergence. We do all that we can to control that."
Emergence first and foremost begins with a finely tuned planter. "We like to pay attention to the planter through the season. With some exceptions this year, as things wear out, we fix them," Hula said. He plants his corn with a 16-row John Deere 1770 NT planter with Great Plains Turbo-Till coulters and double disc openers. Hula strives to maintain a 2-inch seed depth, sometimes a quarter-inch less, depending on the soil.
"Any shallower and you get into the zone where temperatures can fluctuate the greatest." That condition directly affects emergence, Hula said. The Virginia farmer has put a new tool to work to help him manage planting depth.
CONSTANT SEED DEPTH
Hula is using Precision Planting's DeltaForce, a hydraulic controller that manages down force on each seeding row, independently of one another. Precision Planting's literature says its DeltaForce reads down pressure on the planter 200 times per second, adjusting the hydraulics accordingly to maintain a constant seeding depth.
Hula has grown fond of its performance. In fact, he was a bit surprised that when he filled the planter's hoppers with seed, DeltaForce exerted more lift than down force to accommodate the extra weight.
"We were seeing consistent seed depth," Hula said. "In wetter conditions, and in lighter sandy soils, we actually see more lift than down force."
Hula's farm is 100% never-till. But this spring he did plant through some soils he had worked up lightly to clean up groundhog holes. It gave him another opportunity to judge the performance of the DeltaForce system. When they got to those small tilled areas, they could see where the down pressure declined to near zero, he said. "With that smooth ride, we have a better seed drop."
Hula gives DeltaForce a good amount of credit for a well-planted crop. "We had a consistent, good 2-inch planting depth (with it)," Hula said. "It's another tool in our tool chest."
Editor's note: From its very first day, the corn seedling is under attack by much of the world around it. Weeds are its biggest threat, stealing yield from the moment the corn seed settles into the bottom of the seed trench. In this series, DTN/The Progressive Farmer looks at why weed control and good early season practices are key to producing high-yielding corn crops. This is the fourth story of a six-part series.
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