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9 steps to higher yields

Finding a diamond in the rough sums up 2012 for Wally Linneweber, who farms with his son, Kyle, and his brother, Joe, near Vincennes, Indiana. Although last year's drought-scorched corn yields across their farm averaged 104 bushels per acre (far below their normal 220-bushel yields), in the midst of this was a field that dazzled like a gleaming diamond. Yields tallied 260 bushels per acre. It was part of a Beck 300 Challenge, a program by Beck's Hybrids in which farmers use a number of strategies to crack the 300-bushel mark. Although this was tough to do in 2012, hitting the 260-bushel level came close.

Linneweber notes that this diamond of a field didn't need all that much polishing. “Good dirt” helped them hit the 260-bushel mark. High soil organic matter and the field's lower topography helped it retain water – a key attribute in a drought year.

“That field always has been more consistent in yields than other fields,” he says.

Granted, a year like 2012 will thwart the best of plans. “On sandier ground, we had corn yields that went down to 20 bushels per acre,” he says.

Still, the selective use of technology enables the Linnewebers to take advantage of soils rich in organic matter and to make the best out of less-productive soils year after year. It's helped them to place several times in the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) contest, including a 2007 win with a dryland yield of 292 bushels per acre. Here's a look at nine steps they take.

1. Pick the racehorses

“When we pick hybrids, we go for the racehorses,” says Linneweber. They feel these fast-growing hybrids have the top yield potential.

“Sometimes, it hurts us,” says Linneweber. “Greensnap can be a problem, but that's where crop insurance comes in.”

Most of the time, though, racehorse hybrids beat other hybrids hands down, he says.

They cautiously eye new hybrids that take the place of older ones. “Sometimes, they aren't the best,” he notes.

That's why they start out gradually with a new hybrid. “Overall, we like a new corn hybrid to prove itself before we plant it to more acres across the entire farm,” he says.

2. Inject manure

To a corn plant, hog manure mimics a spiral cut ham basted in a heavenly honey sauce. That's why the Linnewebers inject 4 million gallons from their hog operation annually on corn. Injections are split between spring and fall.

“It used to be a liability, but now manure is an asset,” says Linneweber. “We've noticed that most of the winners in the NCGA contest use some type of manure. That tells the story.”

They also apply turkey manure valued at $40- to $50 to corn. Hog and turkey manure rates hinge on soil needs and manure content. Manure from hog-finishing units has a higher nutrient content than that from farrowing operations.

They follow up manure applications with preplant and sidedressed anhydrous ammonia applications. They normally sidedress anhydrous ammonia at the V4 to V5 growth stages.

There's a risk of corn growing too tall to be sidedressed if rainy weather prevents application. If required, the Linnewebers go all out to finish sidedressing corn.

“With the equipment we have today, we can run 8 mph and do 400 acres a day.” he says.

One 2012 leftover is unused nitrogen (N) that could be lost due to volatilization or leaching come spring. To prevent losses, the Linnewebers planted 300 acres of cover crops (a mix of oats and radishes) and 200 acres to winter wheat to scavenge some of the unused N.

3. Drain soggy fields


Linneweber eyes a field adjacent to the family's hog barns and bins. “Does that look like 50 miles of tile in that field?” he asks.

Sure enough, the field has that equivalent of tile in 40-foot pattern spacings. It was tiled in 1988, the last big drought year. Since then, tillng has morphed normally soggy soils into highly productive ones.

“That's the key to top yields,” says Linneweber. Since wet areas in the Linnewebers' field typically have the best soils, tile encourages timely planting and reduces compaction.

Pea gravel is another drainage tool they use. “When we see low spots where water is standing, we fill it with pea gravel,” he says. Water that passes through the finely grained gravel permits a well-drained seedbed into which to plant corn.

“If water stands in a low spot, it can really hurt yields,” he says.

4. Vary populations

The Linnewebers vary planting populations from 26,000 to 38,000 plants per acre with the John Deere GreenStar System. The system helps ensure higher populations on more-productive soils and lower ones on less-productive soils.

“The higher populations probably hurt last year, but we don't plan to change this year,” he says.

5. Minimize compaction

The Linnewebers start harvesting corn at 28% moisture. “We start earlier than most people,” he says. The longer harvest window enables them to use fewer trucks and less machinery. The expanded window also reduces the chance they'll have to harvest on wet, soggy soils.

“We stay off wet fields,” he says. “That is where compaction starts.” That also goes for manure hauling. They use a hose drag reel to avoid implement wheel compaction.

“Every soil type is susceptible to compaction,” says Tony Vyn, Purdue University agronomist. “You need to think about where wheel tracks go.”

6. Plant evenly

Planting at uniform depth and spacing helps get spring corn plants off to uniform emergence. A top-notch planter helps ensure this happens.

“We don't keep planters very long,” he says. “We can rebuild a planter, but when depth-control disks wear out, we'd just as soon trade. If we don't have the seed spaced right, we aren't going to get good yields.”

Balancing this is a 5-mph planting speed. “We won't get even emergence if we go much faster,” he says. “We eliminate skips, too.”

7. Use crop imaging

Through Beck's Hybrids, the Linnewebers take infrared crop imaging photos of their corn.

“This helps us see drainage and compaction patterns,” says Linneweber. “If they reveal we have a nitrogen fertility problem, we can come back and fix it with later applications of nitrogen.”

8. Control weeds

“We really work at controlling weeds,” he says. “Around here, marestail is starting to come up. We will take a knife to marestail in the fall to prevent it from going to seed.”

To curb marestail and other weeds, the Linnewebers use a preemergence herbicide of Balance Pro and atrazine. On heavier soils, they use Corvus and atrazine.

9. Use swath Control

The Linnewebers use swath control on their sprayer that automatically eliminates pesticide application overlap. This pays economic, agronomic, and environmental benefits.

“For the odd-size fields around here, it works pretty well,” he says. •

Did You Know?

Soil organic matter helps not only to maximize water use, but also to suppress soilborne crop diseases, weeds, and insect pests.

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