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Regularly scouting reveals in-season maladies

Each year, the “whoosh” of rustling leaves, the “che” of a shovel striking soil, and the “psshh” of flying shoveled dirt emanate from Jim Mitchell’s cornfields. That’s because the Eaton, Ohio, farmer spends a good part of his summer in his cornfields checking for maladies and taking root checks.

“My wife tells me that if we quit digging roots, we would have more yield,” jests Mitchell.

Mitchell has some good reasons, though, for regular field checks. It helps give him insight into how to crack the 300-bushel-per-acre yield level as part of Beck’s Hybrids 300 Challenge. Scouting also lets him know what he can expect come harvest.  

“I can see if there has been any insect feeding,” says Mitchell. “I also look at plant internodes. They will turn brown if the plant endured any stress. If there is no stress, they are perfectly white.”

Scouting also enabled him to detect gray leaf spot (GLS) last summer. “I pick mainly disease-resistant hybrids to manage disease,” he says. “Before this year, I just could never get fungicides to pay. This year, I sprayed fungicide to treat gray leaf spot.”

A 55-mph drive-by check doesn’t catch these factors.

“Scouting is a big deal,” says Jeff Hartz, Wyffels Hybrids director of marketing. “We make a concerted effort to get in a customer’s field and to learn about it. Beetle spraying is a good example of that. In some years, there can be lots of rootworm beetles out there that clip silks.”

It’s in the roots

Root checks reveal maladies like hatchet roots.

“A hatchet root grows right in the seed slot with none on the sides,” says Mitchell. “That signals too much downpressure and that I planted when it was too wet.”

Brace roots moving up a plant can indicate reveal dicamba herbicide injury and below-surface root problems. “If a plant is healthy, it will never shoot brace roots right above ground level,” he says.

Findings like these can tip Mitchell off so he can learn how to prevent them in the future.

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Good reasons

Mitchell has a couple other reasons to scout. First, he plants a lot of corn-on-corn. The increased residue creates a disease haven, especially in wet years.

“Usually, the disease is not bad enough to spray for disease. This year, there was lots of northern corn leaf blight, gray leaf spot, and rust,” he says.

He also plants all non-GMO that has no built-in trait pest protection. That makes monitoring corn essential for any pests that may attack it.

“I found out from (on-farm) seed company test plots that the conventional hybrids yielded more than the stacked hybrids by 15 to 20 bushels per acre,” he says.

This trend continued when Mitchell retained on-farm test plots after the seed company discontinued them. He also garners a 70¢-per-bushel premium by tapping a nearby river market.

“Traits protect yields; they don’t increase them,” says Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist.

Mitchell says he’s not missing the boat by not planting stacks. “I’m in a geographical funnel in southern Indiana and southern Ohio where I don’t have much rootworm pressure,” he says. “I treat with a half rate of a soil-applied insecticide just in case, but I just don’t have that overwhelming pressure.”

Finding conventional hybrids is a challenge. “I have to look for them,” says Mitchell. “Lots of times, companies won’t promote them, but you can find them if you look hard enough.”

Weeds, though, are still a challenge. “I constantly look for weed escapes,” he says.

Mitchell nixes escapes by an early postemergence application of Lexar EZ application with a three-mode-of-action mix that costs between $35 and $40 per acre. No GMO means no herbicide-resistant traits like glyphosate-tolerant hybrids.

“The herbicide does cost more than if I was just spraying with Roundup,” he says. Occasionally, he has to go out and clean up with a postemergence herbicide like Status, but Lexar most often holds until canopy, he says.

Test plots

Knowing fields up close also works for Mitchell’s extensive 200-variety test plots where he tests numerous new products.

“All these companies will say, ‘Try our product, it is the best,’ ” says Mitchell. “Everyone can make claims, but the only way I can find out if a product works is to test it myself.”

Growth regulators, desiccants, biological products, foliar fertilizers, you name it – he tests it. Sometimes, he finds inputs that work on his farm. He teams micronutrient foliar-fertilizer applications with regularly spaced fertilizer applications. It complements in-furrow starter treatments laced with a 2×2 band followed up by 28% N sidedressing passes.

These tests also provide fertile ground for techniques like variable-rate seeding. He normally varies population between 29,000 and 37,000 plants per acre.

“I used to think I had the most yield difference when I added population on black ground,” he says.

“I actually made more money when I cut populations on poorer clay soils,” he continues. “Certain varieties can go backwards if I plant them too thick. That’s why I started to cut populations on light hills.”

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