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On-farm test plots lead to successful practice adoption on Illinois farm

Receiving an average 32 to 35 inches of rainfall may seem like nirvana to many farmers. Yet, this can be a Faustian dream; one that has current gain with future negative consequences.

That’s the situation Aaron Gingerich, who farms with his father, Dannie, and their cousin, Darrel, near Lovington, Illinois, finds himself in. This spring, rampant rainfall – complete with several inch downpours in an hour or two – stretched the farm’s corn planting from mid-April to late May. 

“Everything we do is set up to farm in wet years,” says Aaron Gingerich.

On-farm test plots help them do this. “We can find out if a practice or input works on our farm,” says Gingerich. 

The test plots have been a step in boosting the farm’s corn yields. In 2016, the farm took second place in Illinois in a no-till/strip-till dryland class with a 288.4-bushel-per-acre yield. 

More importantly, though, the test plots help them determine which inputs and practices best benefit the bottom line.  

“You can get big yields, but they have to be economical,” says Gingerich.

Test plot findings 

The Gingeriches normally test a practice or product in their test plots for three years before adopting them across their farm. Starter fertilizer is one practice they are now honing in the plots. 

Early planting, combined with strip-till and the often-present cool and wet soils, makes starter fertilizer an option for their farm. 

“Corn planted in strip-till doesn’t take off as fast as it does under conventional tillage, so starter helps early growth,” he says. 

The on-farm test plots also key in hybrid selection. The farm normally has 35 hybrids from four companies ranging in relative maturities from 104 to 117 days on on-farm test plots planted at the same populations.

“Not only do we compare each hybrid to the one beside it in each maturity group, but also we compare them for performance under different soil types,” he adds. 

Performance obviously matters, but so does price when it comes to buying seed corn. Two numbers from two different companies that yield 245 bushels per acre sound equal. 

“If one costs 15% more than the other, the greater value belongs to the lower priced one,” he says. 

One way the Gingeriches have reduced seed costs is by cutting hybrids with trait stacks containing corn rootworm resistance. 

“We’ve increased our nonstacked corn by 30% this year,” he says. So far, it hasn’t impacted yields. 

Corn rootworm infestations have been absent in many areas in recent years. 

“Heavy rains during egg hatch have helped with this,” says Brent Tharp, Wyffels Hybrids agronomy and product training manager.  “But don’t let your guard down, because populations can quickly rebound in favorable environmental conditions. Scouting is essential.” 

“As they (populations) climb back, we will have to go back to that trait,” adds Gingerich. 

On-farm test plots are also a way to ferret out the plethora of add-on products (growth regulators, biological products, foliar fertilizers, and others) that are purported to boost yields. 

“The thing you have to question on those products is if yield increases are due to the product or due to all the other things in the field,” says Gingerich. On-farm test plots can help sort out which ones work and which ones don’t, he says.

fertility program 

The Gingeriches formerly applied most of their nitrogen (N) in a fall anhydrous ammonia application.

“That strategy cost us in the wet springs of 2008 and 2009,” Gingerich says. “We had to add about 50% of N as a rescue application with a Hagie unit with Y-drops.”

Now, they broadcast 18-46-0 and 0-0-60 in the fall. In the spring, they band 50 pounds of 32% N on strip-till ground. This is followed by a pop-up application and 10-34-0 banded application laced with zinc and Avial at planting. They sidedress 150 to 170 pounds of 32% N at V5. They use an N inhibitor on their wettest fields at sidedressing to curb N loss.

“There are tools where we can come back into a field later on the back end (tassel time applications using Y-drops at tassel time),” he says. “Frankly, though, it comes down to the economics of the machinery to get across those acres.” 

He says the cost of such technology outweighs any benefit he’s seen in late-season N applications. 

So far, this system has beat any N modeling program they’ve evaluated. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I love to use technology,” he says. “There is a mind-set that you can model everything. If we had the ability to instantly respond, I think those models would work for us.” 

Backing Down on Corn populations

Corn populations have been trending upward in recent years, as there’s a belief that high seeding rates are linked to higher yields. That’s only the case, though, if subsequent fertility accompanies it. 

“We’ve cut populations by about 15% of what they used to be,” says Aaron Gingerich, who farms with his family near Lovington, Illinois. Typically, they variable-rate planting populations between 32,000 and 36,000 plants per acre, he says. 

“With lower populations, more nutrients are allowed per plant,” he says. “If we go too high, we seem to starve those plants and starve them of water.”

To better match plant populations with nutrients, fertilizer applications are keyed from biannual soil tests using zone testing. 

“We start with a soil map and draw lines between soil types and yield history,” he says.

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