Agriculture, Education March 01, 2021
Lessons from contest plots chart a path to higher corn yields.
When the results of the National Corn Growers Association’s National Yield Contest were totaled up for 1963, the winner that year produced a whopping—for that era—218.9 bushels per acre. The current world record was set in 2019 at 616.1953 bushels. Genetics get a lot of the credit for this 355% yield increase, but there’s more to the picture. Contest corn is piling up a treasure-trove of knowledge that growers are passing along to new generations of corn farmers.
Family foundation. That’s particularly true for the corn grower who produced that world record, David Hula, who says he’s simply following in the path of his innovative forefathers.
Hula represents the third generation on Renwood Farms, the family operation headquartered near Charles City, Va., and each generation has addressed—and overcome—yield barriers. “Grandad was one of the first in this area to grow 100-bushel corn, and my father broke through the 200-bushel mark,” he says. “We’ve been able to surround ourselves with good people who help us identify what’s holding us back, and then we try to push through the next yield barrier.”
Breaking those yield barriers has been a study in long-term incremental improvements that come about once a limiting factor has been identified.
Uniform emergence, for example, has been a big key to his family’s success, but that started as an effort to get the proverbial “picket-fence” uniformity in a stand of corn. “We’ve checked that box, but now we want all those spikelets to break out of the ground at the same time,” Hula says.
Another area that has yielded more bushels is a more precise approach to nutrient application. Before returning home to farm at Renwood, he worked as a nutrient management specialist with the Virginia Department of Soil and Water Conservation.
Renwood Farms pulls tactics from its contest acres to boost yield on all its fields; starter fertilizer is applied on both sides of the row, and in-season tissue testing helps guide the family in supplying needs of the growing crop.
These management approaches are being passed along to the next generation at Renwood Farms, represented by David’s son, Craig. The younger Hula already has found success growing contest corn, and is now looking at a number of innovative concepts—such as growing two short-season corn crops in a single growing season.
Next level. In Brooks County, Ga., Randy Dowdy and his family are regular winners in yield contests. Randy was the first to pass the 500-bushel-per-acre mark in the NCGA’s yield contest, and he holds the world-record soybean yield of 190 bushels per acre.
“Most people don’t share information, but we are determined to pay it forward,” says Dowdy, a first-generation farmer.
“When I was starting out, it was hard to find anyone who would share information with me,” he says. “I vowed that, if I had success, I would be open to sharing.”
Dowdy was making 100 or more appearances a year on the speaking circuit, but now has formalized a method of passing along family secrets of crop production. It’s a formal commitment to learning called Next Level, and it involves a series of informational meetings as well as the study of aggregated data that cooperating growers gather through the use of a proprietary software program called Yield Management System (YMS). “It’s a way for a corn grower to pick up strategies by accessing our database,” Dowdy says. Information on Next Level can be found by visiting Dowdy’s website at dowdycropinnovations.com.
Networking. Younger growers are looking to increase their knowledge of family secrets by entering the NCGA’s National Yield Contest. Ben Price and his father, Randy, have been producing eye-catching yields on their northwest Missouri family farm. Ben won first prize in the 2019 conventional non-irrigated class with a 323-bushel yield.
“We have definitely learned a lot about growing higher yields—from hybrid selection to getting the crop off to a good, clean start,” he says. “We gain a little more knowledge every year.”
The next step for Ben is to figure out when a practice will be profitable on non-contest fields. A tactic such as using fungicide has proven itself to the point that the family budgets for it on all corn acres. Other management inputs are more difficult to judge, with variables such as weather and soil type coming into play.
“Practices such as tissue testing can help us figure out what to put in a second or third pass,” he says. “But we still have a lot to learn.”
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