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What You Can Learn From Yield Contests

Back in 2007, Kevin Kalb’s seed dealer asked him to enter the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) yield contest.

“I asked my dealer, ‘What kind of contest?’ ” says the DuBois, Indiana, farmer. “I had never heard of it.”

Nevertheless, he entered. The only strategy he changed from previous years was a corn fungicide application. He was surprised at year’s end when he placed second in the nation in a dryland conventional division with a 280-bushel-per-acre yield.

“That hooked me,” he says. 

He really ramped up contest participation in 2012. “That was a year of the drought, but I brought in a yield of 282 bushels per acre when the county average was 45,” he says. 

This resulted in a second-place division finish in Indiana. It also taught him that intensive management can trigger high yields even in a drought year. He’s also taken what he’s learned to the rest of his farm. 

“What I’m doing now is totally different than what I was doing back then,” he says. 

Soils, of course, can play a large part in bumper yields. Yet, Kalb farms mainly timber clay soils with organic matter ranging around 2%. That pales in comparison with 5% to 6% levels in prime farming regions.

“I don’t have great dirt,” he says. “So, I emphasize plant nutrition. I don’t have the ability to irrigate and fertigate, so I really need to load my plants up early with nutrients.”

Kalb also tissue-samples to help him monitor nutrients season long and apply them in small but frequent increments, as needed.“I get a better benefit from that – instead of applying fertilizer in one large amount,” he says.

Crashing the Ball

Yield contest winners often become the belle of the agronomic ball, with giant photos adorning major agricultural events touting sessions like “Secrets of Yield Champs.” Many events are standing-room only, with farmers seeking ways to grow stratospheric yields. 

If all goes well – timely field operations, weather, genetics, and inputs – you could crash this ball. In many cases, though, yield dreams are often interrupted by myriad maladies. A sopping wet spring delays planting. More rain washes away yield-pulsing nitrogen. Sudden death syndrome slashes a July bin-busting soybean crop into a withering one in August. 

Even if your soybeans and corn approach world-record yields of 171 and 532 bushels per acre, it’s difficult to pin down the why of it all. Is it a certain product or mix of products? The timing of these products? The soil? Or maybe it’s just the weather.

Jeff Hartz
“The trouble with yield contests is that economics often go out the window in order to produce a giant yield,” says Jeff Hartz, marketing director for Wyffels Hybrids.

Agronomics and economics are much more complex than that, he says. In some cases, one factor completely out of control – weather – can have the main impact on yields. In some years, no nitrogen (N) can still garner maximum economic yields due to mineralization fueled by optimal weather. In other years, weather triggers N needs higher than normal, he adds. Yet, yield contests don’t recognize the link between pound of N to bushel of yield, says Hartz. 

Then there’s the promotional aspect. Ever notice how major companies flock to star athletes to plug their products rather than a benchwarmer ready to be put on waivers? It’s the same way with yield contests. Companies like to be associated with success, sometimes showering winners with products (free in some cases) to try. 

“There is some truth to that,” says Don Stork, Midwest key accounts manager for Stoller USA. “There are products given to farmers that may help and may not help. We take a different approach. We want growers to be invested in this. Most of the growers we work with buy the product they use in yield contests.” 

“People will go crazy with different products and cocktails to where there are many components going on,” adds Ryan Van Roekel, a DuPont Pioneer agronomist. “It’s impossible to know if a product works in those scenarios. So, you have to sift through them and look deeper.”

With seed treatments, foliar amendments, growth regulators, or biological products, ask about the active ingredient, what it is, and specifically how it works, he advises. 

“The trouble with biologicals is that there are no standard labels like chemicals or fertilizers,” he says. “So, you have to check what kind of strains they have. If the company person can’t tell you that, you are not talking to the right person.”

Giant Laboratory

Neal Bredehoeft
Still, yield contests form a giant laboratory, where farmers can observe others trying new products and practices without personally trying them. 

“One of the reasons we started it (Missouri Soybean Association yield contest) was to get data out to producers across Missouri,” says Neal Bredehoeft, an Alma, Missouri, farmer, who chairs MSA’s grower services committee. “There are farmers in the yield contest who try a lot of different things. The rest of the state’s farmers can see which things work and which things don’t. If we didn’t have the yield contest, they may not try them.” 

“It’s a good way to try a different application timing or a new product on a small scale to see if it is feasible and sustainable,” says Rachel Orf, who heads the NCGA yield contest. “The contest is also a way to bring data to legislators to show that farmers can produce more and still be sustainable. It tells a good story to the outside world.”

In Kalb’s case, he’s adopted a systems approach to growing corn in contests and also across his farm. “I have eliminated the snake venom juice,” he says. “I found what works on my farm, and I pretty much stick with it.”

Nitrogen plays a big part in Kalb’s fertility program, but the amount to produce bumper corn yields isn’t as large as you might expect. “My best year in the yield contest was when I grew 374-bushel corn (in 2013) on 240 pounds of nitrogen,” he says.

He optimizes N by spoon-feeding it before and during the growing season. Applications start immediately following corn harvest, when he spreads 1 ton per acre of turkey manure packed with N, phosphorus, and potassium. This is followed by a deep ripper that tills and incorporates residue on his mainly corn-after-corn acres. 

In the spring, Kalb began mimicking a practice by Randy Dowdy, the Valdosta, Georgia, farmer who holds the world record 171-bushel-per-acre soybean yield and has won national yield contests with 500+-bushel corn yields. 

“Dowdy got me placing starter fertilizer in a 2×2 band on both sides of the row at planting,” Kalb says. This nitrogen and micronutrient package is complemented by an in-furrow 7-17-3 mix also laced with micronutrients. Although N is key, he says his timber soils also benefit from micronutrients like zinc and boron. 

“Tissue sampling is probably the most important thing I can do in-season to a crop,” says Kalb. “I have parameters that I follow for both contest corn and noncontest corn.”

Tissue samples taken weekly key in-season N applications. Normally, applications start when plants have soaked up 500 growing degree units (2,700 GDUs are normally required for maturity at black layer). Normally, this occurs just a bit past V6. This follows another shot normally made at V10.

“If tissue samples indicate the field needs more N, I will make my last pass right at tasseling,” he says. “I stay out of my fields until brown silk, and then I add another shot depending on tissue samples.”

Late-season applications are made with a Hagie unit with Y-drops. On acres not conducive to the unit, urea and Agrotain are applied with a dry spreader. 

Start with the Basics

Yield contests can provide a valuable learning opportunity, whether you participate or just watch. Focus on the big picture, advises Van Roekel. 

“A lot of people get sidetracked with different products,” he says. “Get the basics down first. There is usually room for improvement somewhere.”

Drainage is often a factor that deters yields. “You’ll hear someone say every year, ‘My corn turns yellow in that wet part of the field.’ Well, go tile the darned thing! 

“Once you start addressing things like that, before you know it, you can be growing 70-bushel soybeans (in central Iowa),” says Van Roekel. “Then you can start paying attention to other factors that are limiting your yields.”

Contest Improvements 

The careful observations and record keeping done in yield contests can be used as building blocks to better zero in on yield-building practices. A survey that DuPont Pioneer conducted in Nebraska and Kansas from 2013 through 2016 is an example, says Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist. It looked at 698 locations to determine which practices garnered high yields on dryland and irrigation acres. Besides evaluating practices already being employed, DuPont Pioneer encouraged farmers to try a new management practice to further boost yields. 

“Combining input and yield data on hundreds of fields allows us to gets hints about what inputs helped yields and which ones didn’t,” says Nafziger. “This is an example of the big-data approach that we’ll be seeing a lot of from companies like the Farmer Business Network. We worked with the Illinois Soybean Association several years ago in a project to compare an all-or-none input approach on two sides of a field before it went solely to a yield contest. It helps to have such comparisons in the same field, rather than just using whatever was done in a field. You can’t really untangle input vs. field effects without that.”

Jeff Hartz, marketing director for Wyffels Hybrids, proposes that corn yield contests be tied to nitrogen (N) applications and use. 

“We could tie bushels of yield per pound of N added,” he says. “That way, the exact amount of N could be measured. It would be more fair and economical.”  

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