Counting kernels

  • 01

    A sample pulled from a field north of Des Moines--first stop on a crop tour that covered 1,200 miles from central Iowa to southern Indiana--some of the best cropland in the country. This field foreshadowed what was to be seen on down the road: high variability among and within fields.

  • 02

    Yield check

    Iowa farmer Jim Meade helped get the crop tour underway by sampling one of his fields using the Yield Component Method, a popular test that can be used well ahead of harvest. (Learn More). This check pegged the field at 190 bu/ac. "I would not be surprised if the farm averaged 175, but would be a little hurt if it did much less," he said.

  • 03

    Closer look

    Bob Nielsen, Purdue agronomist who has written on the Yield Component Method, says he uses it to estimate "ballpark yields for individual fields with the recognition that actual yield can vary easily by plus/minus 20 bushels."

  • 04

    Check time

    Another benefit for growers in using the yield check method, Nielsen says, is that it gets you out into the field. It's a good opportunity to "take notes on a number of crop factors, including kernel set that may help you understand the actual yield later," he says.

  • 05

    Looks are deceiving

    "We're seeing a lot of fields of 150 bushels or less that should be doing 200," says Jim Fawcett, Iowa State University Extension agronomist. "Biggest concern is all the tipping back of the corn ears. A lot of fields look better than they are.” Goss's wilt is showing up in area fields.

  • 06

    Grab one

    "We tend to overestimate yields," says Fawcett. When checking stands, he uses a technique of swinging his arm backwards to randomly grab an ear, as a way of avoiding the natural tendency to grab a big one.

  • 07

    'Hard to tell'

    "We had a lot of heat in July during pollinating and a lot of ears are only half full of kernels, so as you walk across a field, ears vary so much it’s hard to tell what it will do for sure," says Steve Clementz, Geneseo, Illinois farmer and precision ag specialist at a dealership.

  • 08

    Weird year

    Matthew Walsh said that his northeastern Illinois farm experienced a "weird" growing season: late planting, heavy rains, replanting, then the hot weather. Despite the adverse conditions, the crop is pulling through in pretty good shape. Yield check here was 175 bu/ac. He's expecting something closer to 160 for the whole farm--"not a record year."

  • 09

    Tipping back

    A familiar sight from Iowa to Indiana: tipped back ears. Another common sight in the Corn Belt this year: deep green corn on one side of the road, yellow-green on the other. It's probably the difference between fields that received split applied or sping N vs. those where it was applied in the fall, said Tim Smith, a Monticello, Illinois crop consultant and researcher.

  • 10

    Tom Mylet, Camden, Indiana, echoed a common theme among many farmers. “It looks better than it is.” The growing season at his farm in central Indian began extremely wet then turned hot and dry. “You can walk by a field and swear it will be 200 bushels, but it isn’t.”

  • 11

    Mylet and a local seed company representative, Woody Nichols, checked one of the best fields on the farm, and came up with an estimate of 161 bushels. “It will be less than that when you take out the two percent of the field that was washed out in the spring,” he said. Normally, this field will yield "in the teens," said Mylet.

  • 12

    Beans look better?

    Tom Mylet has higher hopes for his soybean yields. Ashlie Kolb, a guest host for, checks one of his fields. “We think that soybeans are going to be pretty doggone good, based on population and pod counts. Beans size is small but with recent rains should they should continue to develop into full-size beans. "We do better with beans on this ground in a dry year," he says.

  • 13

    Doing diagnostics

    Stephanie Porter, a University of Illinois, plant diagnostician, has been "very busy" this month testing corn and soybean samples sent by farmers and others. The big issue this year: Goss's wilt, she says. Watch out for charcoal rot in soybeans, too. It's more visible during plant senescence, she says.

  • 14

    Disease of the year?

    A lot of farmers are sending in samples to confirm the presence of Goss wilt. "If they do confirm it, they'll know to consider some management changes for next year," she said. The "freckles" on the plant leaf are a sign of the disease, she says.

  • 15

    Testing, testing

    Research specialists Tim Smith and Harold Reetz check a field-level demonstration on a farm in Livingston, County, Illinois. In the project, farmers are comparing spring and fall-applied N applications, split applications and ESN reduced rates. This has been a year when nitrogen management practices will have had an especially big impacts on yields, they say.

  • 16

    No N

    Two ears of corn taken from a Livingston County, Illinois check plot. Though both were in plots within the same field, the ear on the left came from a better soil, dramatizing both the difference soils can make and the amount of nitrogen naturally occuring in the soil.

  • 17

    High-value corn

    Yield isn't the only game. Marty Travis, Fairbury, Illinois, shows off a red corn variety from Italy that is much desired by chefs from high-end Chicago restaurants. He gets $7 a pound, nearly $400/bu for the rare variety.

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