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XtremeAg farmers share wins and lessons of 2022 growing season, plans for 2023

A crowd of farmers and industry leaders gathered at Successful Farming’s Commodity Classic Main Stage last Friday to hear from XtremeAg farmers Kelly Garrett, Chad Henderson, and Kevin Matthews. The three corn, soybean, and wheat growers recapped their 2022 growing season, outlined plans for 2023, and paused to reflect on mentors over their careers.

Kelly Garrett is a National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) National yield contest winner who farms in Arion, Iowa with his dad and three sons. In addition to corn, soybeans, and wheat, the family raises beef and sells a portion of their meat direct to consumer through the Garrett Land & Cattle storefront in Dow City, Iowa.

Chad Henderson holds a corn yield record in the state of Alabama where he farms with his family. He raises corn, soybeans, double crop soybeans, and wheat outside the small city of Madison in the north central part of the state. When he’s not farming, Henderson enjoys carrying on the tradition of drag racing with his family.

Kevin Matthews is also an NCGA record holder. He raises both irrigated and non-irrigated corn and soybeans along with winter wheat and barley near East Bend, North Carolina. With his wife, Matthews operates Precision Nutrient Management, Inc. and Deep Creek Grain, Inc.

In addition to their panel appearance, while at Commodity Classic, the XtremeAg team announced a new TV show, scheduled to debut next winter on AcresTV. Each episode of The XtremeAg Show is designed to showcase the successes and mistakes of top producing farmers around the country.

The XtremeAg team with a scholarship recipient
Photo credit: Natalina Sents Bausch

SF: Immediately before our time on stage, there was a panel discussing soil health. I understand XtremeAg has a soil health announcement of their own?

KG: Yes, we’re working on the XtremeAg Soil Health Initiative in partnership with Truterra. There’s so much more to sustainability than no-till and cover crops. That’s what this initiative will be about. 

A lot of the things we do at XtremeAg for agronomic reasons are also sustainable reasons. I want to show the country that improving our nutrient use efficiency (NUE) and lowering our carbon index score (CI) is sustainable.

To be in our Soil Health Initiative, you have to be a member of XtremeAg and you have to do two of the three following practices:

  • No-till or minimum till
  • Plant cover crops
  • Use products that improve your NUE

In other programs, if you have been a long term no-tiller or long term cover cropper, it disqualifies you from the program. That’s not the case with this program.

Right now, XtremeAg is working with Truterra to vet the list of products that will be on the NUE list.

Farmers who participate will have two financial benefits. First, there’s revenue from selling their environmental asset, which is measured in acres. We’re working to find a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company to buy those.

The other benefit is farmers will receive a discount from the companies that sell those NUE input products for their Soil Health Initiative acres.

This program is designed to reward progressive farmers that are using new age technology for agronomic reasons, and recognize them for their sustainable ways.

Black cattle graze on green cover crop in Iowa
Photo credit: XtremeAg

SF: After looking at data from the 2022 growing season, what is something you won’t do again?

KG: I suspected that the nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) in the furrow wasn’t paying off as much as putting it on later in the season. For 2023, calcium and zinc are going to be in the furrow, but no N, P, or K. Of course, we’re going to have N in the 2x2, but we’re moving that stuff later in the season to a VT, or even an R5 pass. The results we see from that are much higher, so I don’t believe I’ll have that in furrow anymore.

CH: I think about every week I come up with something I say, "I can’t ever do this again," but it’s mostly minor things. I don’t know if there’s something I would say I’d never, ever do again because I feel like, maybe I didn’t hit it on the right spot. For us, it takes years of data to make some decisions. 

I have 300 acres of corn that we zeroed out because we had such a dry year. I could say, "I’ll never plant corn again." But, you know that’s not it. It’s just about learning all the time. 

Never is a pretty bold word. When the guys at the shop tell me, "This will never work." I say, "Don’t tell me what won’t work. Tell me what you tried." There’s somebody, within the group of people that we’re able to surround ourselves with, that can figure this out.

A large crowd gathers at the Commodity Classic Main Stage to listen to three XtremeAg farmers
Photo credit: Successful Farming staff

SF: What practice or product did you test in 2022 that will be coming back?

KG: Calcium, more micronutrients, and more carbon to help balance the soil with the nitrogen that we have. We learned that we’re mineralizing a lot more N out of our soil than we thought was possible. We’re short on carbon and micronutrients to help with the balance in the plant.

CH: I’d say three years ago or so, I was of the mindset that when it came to in furrow products, I could make corn with it, but I couldn’t make money with it. Because when you’ve got a lot of money into fertility, that overpowers what you can make on another four of five bushels.

But in the last couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about the things we need in furrow. We’ve had a couple P solubilizers that have done real well. There are several things that we can put in that furrow. We’ve got some plant growth regulators (PGRs), some sugars, some humic and nutrient solubilizers. Those are going to be a standard practice for me. That’s coming from a few years ago, just my irrigated ground got in furrow, and now all my acres are in furrow.

KM: On our soybean program and all of our research plots, we’ve been doing in furrow and 2x2. We’ve done 2x2 religiously and on our high yield ground, we’ve added in furrow. Now, with what we’ve learned with building microbial activity, we’re taking these products and going standard with it. We’re not putting any fertility on the soybeans in furrow, but we’re adding all the other products in there and looking after the biology in the soil. It pays.

CH: In our thinner soils, we can’t fix the whole thing, but we can really concentrate on that root zone.

SF: If you had to trade climates with any of the other XtremeAg guys, who would it be and why?

KM, CH: Just for the growing season, we choose Kelly’s Iowa farm. But, just for the growing season. We want to go home in the winter.

KG: Chad flew into Omaha in February last year. I said, I’m at the cell phone lot, just text me and I’ll drive up. He waited until he got outside. It was 20 degrees outside. I said, "I’ll be there in two minutes." He said, "Well I’m going back inside. I can feel the cold through my jeans."

Then, we started driving north because we had to go to North Dakota with Lee Lubbers. We were going to speak. Every time the temperature dropped on the pickup monitor, he’d take a picture and text it to his wife, Marie. It got to zero. Chad said, "I ain’t never seen zero before." He texted Marie a picture and she called. She said, "Just put on all your clothes right now. I told you he was crazy."

When we got to North Dakota, we ate lunch with these fellas and we had to walk across the street. It’s 14 below. The one guy from North Dakota is going to go outside with no coat, just short sleeves. Chad looked at him and said, "You’re gonna die." Chad wanted to take everybody home with him because he couldn’t believe they live like that.

CH: I said, "Y’all know I got here. So, if I got here, y’all can get somewhere else. I appreciate that y’all are here, but you don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to."

KG: After we were done speaking, we stopped at a truck stop on the way back to our hotel in Bismark. Chad said, "Let’s get some beer." He went inside and wasn’t coming back out. I called him and said, "Where are you?" He said, "I’m in the beer cave warming up!"

SF: What practice are you most eager to try out this season or test on your farm?

KG: We have some different sugar products. We’re going to try pushing the fertility later. We’re really increasing the carbon and trying to balance the carbon- and N-ratio. More micronutrients balanced with the N. I’m excited about that.

CH: We’ve got some P products that we’re going to try in the late season. We’re focusing on late season and packing some punch in those kernels.

KM: Through our trials we’re seeing those trigger points in these crops. Those R5 applications in soybeans, and corn, we could really add a lot of test weight to the grain.

SF: Fertilizer prices have been volatile in recent years. Has that changed your plan for 2023?

KG: We just try to have a complete program that is balanced. We’ve tried to stay within the budget that we can and then hopefully we can market and there’s still some net dollars left at the end. Right now, I feel like we have the ability to make some money. We’re going to be heavier corn this year because of the way the markets are. We’ll just continue to round the bases and have a long term goal.

CH: You know, when you get into the muddy part of it, and the efficiency part of fertilizer, it’s emotional. I can’t sit here and say it’s not. We’ve got to raise a family, we’ve got to pay for farm ground. We’ve got to pay employees. If you go out, you drop 5, 10, 12 families with you. It’s definitely emotional, but we try to keep that out of it. We try to make decisions based on agronomics and numbers, so stay with the program.

KM: This morning I got the opportunity to sit and talk with Dr. Ron Heiniger at North Carolina State University. He and I go way back. I’ve got tons of respect for him. We talked about the weather and what is going to happen in April, May, June, July, and August. Everybody is talking that July and August we’re going to be really, really hot. I said, "Okay, but what kind of precipitation are we going to have?" He says, "Well, we think we’re going to be okay with the precipitation, but I think we’ll have a really easy half of July. We’re going to have water." That tells me, we need to be planting as early as possible.

One advantage we’ve got in the Carolinas, and down in Alabama with Chad, is we’ve got double crop acres. It sounds like we’re going to have to hustle to get this crop planted, and we can’t have a wet spring. That’s going to hurt us. So we’re going to plan around it.

I said, "What about soybeans?" Dr. Heiniger said, "Well, I’m really scared about those because we’re going to be blooming during that hot period." But the double crop acres that Chad and I both have are planted later, so we may be able to catch the tail end of that.

Trying to manage the maturities and planting dates around the potential weather is probably going to be a bigger challenge for our area than it has been the last several years. 

SF: You all manage water differently, and you each have different situations to deal with. Can you help us understand how that factors into your management?

KG: We have drip irrigation from Netafim on about 5% of our acres. Those are our research acres because you know you’re going to have a crop. But on the dryland acres, I’ve really taken time, and a part of the budget, to focus on different stress mitigation products. I feel that when your whole budget is towards fertility, I estimate you’re wasting 25% of that because sometimes the crop doesn’t need more fertility. Sometimes it needs more plant health. Sometimes it needs the stress taken off of it.

There’s a handful of products, I would even group plant growth regulators (PGRs) in with that, that make the plant more efficient and take the stress off. We’ve seen big yield gains from that, and that’s how we try to manage moisture.

ADS lift station on Chad Henderson's Alabama farm
Photo credit: XtremeAg

CH: On our farm, we have about 16 pivots and irrigation systems. We pump out of anywhere from creeks and ditches, getting water from where we can. But, on the other side of things, we’re into tiling.

Everybody in the Corn Belt, their great grandaddy tiled, their granddaddy tiled. That’s not a thing in Alabama. We might put one tile line in and drain low fields right here, but there’s not a lot of pattern tiling. We’ve started to pattern tile. We’ve got two or three trials with ADS tiling. We’re working on that and lift stations. All of that is new to me, but we’re managing that and looking at some real good data. Everybody talks about corn and beans, but it's really looking good on the wheat. That winter wheat, you get those swells, and we’re keeping that aeration going, and getting the water off of it, and it's really looking nice. I’m really anxious to see how some of these trials work out. Everyone tells me it’s kind of like chicken litter, year two or three is when it really shines. Between irrigation and tiling, it's been a real game changer in these low fields that we’ve got.

KM: Irrigation is a small part of our operation. We wish it could be a lot more, and we’re working to get it there. We’ve got a Netafim drip irrigation system like Kelly has, and we’ve got Valley center pivots. We’re actually putting a brand new one up this week.

The stress mitigation products that Kelly is talking about, it starts in the planter. There are certain PGRs and other products that we’re putting in in furrow for vegetative, and build that root system, but then we’re going to switch to a different family of products and we’ll be using those in our foliar applications for the reproduction time.

The beauty of XtremeAg is we get to work with different companies, like ones that are really big in vegetables, and we learned how to lower that canopy temperature with certain products and mitigate that stress. I just told you about the heat we’re expecting this summer. Our river bottoms are what usually does well, except when a hurricane comes. The plant date scares me because we’re going to have to wait until around May 10 to plant that, so we’re going to hit that heat. So, we’re using all these products. A few of them we’ve only got one year of records with, so I may be going out on a limb using something I don’t have a good, proven track record with, but I feel like with the forecast that we’re looking at, we’ve really got to pay attention to this because it's a big deal to keep them from aborting those kernels and retaining that grain.

SF: Tell us about what it takes to build a team and culture on your farms that allows you to get away and travel to places like Commodity Classic.

KG: I think a good employee will make you more than a cheap employee will save you. I try to pay everybody a very competitive wage. I think historically, agriculture or farmers have not paid their employees what they could make in town. I want to compete with that.

We have a bonus system. We have health insurance. We have a retirement program. We have lunch catered into the shop every day. My goal every day is to have fun. I understand we’re going to go to work and it's not always great, but I want to have a good time and enjoy the people around me, have a positive attitude, and make sure everybody has enough money to live on.

Two men work on a John Deere planter in the shop on Kelly Garrett's Iowa farm
Photo credit: XtremeAg

CH: It’s not easy where we’re at in Alabama. We’re competing against Toyota. It’s so competitive there. It’s hard to do what Kelly does, but it works for him. Our thing is we try to pay our guys as much as possible, number one. 

Past the pay, what’s it really about? It’s respect. It’s about working with family. It’s about them knowing that when I hire somebody, I’m not hiring them to do a job I don’t want to do, I’m hiring them because I can’t do two jobs at once. It’s about letting them know, "Hey, I can’t make it without you." And just tell them when they’ve done a good job. It’s about being up front with people and loving on them when their family is down or when they have a child you’re celebrating with them. That’s what farming is about, that whole family atmosphere. We’re in this together. 

KM: For each one of us in XtremeAg, there’s no way we could do what we do with XtremeAg if it weren’t for the family and workers back home. We travel a lot. I think I was home in January for eight or nine days total.

My cousin takes care of all the ordering parts and servicing. I don’t question it. I might grumble a little bit when I get a bill there and I’m wondering if I’ve got to sell corn to cover the bill. Jim, he does all the soybean planting and keeps the equipment going. My daughter Danielle has got involved. She takes the ball and runs with everything on the employee side. Everybody works together. We’re blessed with good family and good workers.

We do have some H2A workers from South Africa. I have mixed emotions about that. I feel like we’re a training ground for them to go somewhere else. Our fields and traffic are a challenge. It’s tough farming where we’re at with a lot of people and traffic moving up and down the road. They’d rather go somewhere where they can spray 1,200 acres a day. If we spray 400, we’ve had a good day. We’ve got our challenges, but it doesn’t freeze and get 40 inches of snow, so it’s not too bad.

SF: People in our audience here look to you as mentors and leaders. Why don’t you tell us about people who have played that role for you?

KG: My dad, Gene, and my grandpa, Don, with the love they’ve had for the land and the farm. I’m the sixth generation where I live. That means a lot to me. My boys being the seventh is a big deal.

CH: I’m the same way. My dad is sitting here and my son, Jackson. It was my dad and granddad coming through the 80s. Y’all know about the 80s. It was them making it though those times that allowed me to be here today. I tell people all the time, I’m just fortunate to be up here and have that, what I call a crutch. They went through the hard times and got the farm to where I can go out there and I can have a hundred acres that I have no budget on that I can do testing on. Not everybody can do that. And I realize that, and I’m thankful for that. It’s them pushing the farm through those times to get to where we’re at. 

Now, it’s my job to take it another step further and do this testing and on-farm trials so we can do on a day to day basis to make the money we need to make. I’ve got to be as efficient as I can on the planter side of things and fixing things and growing the crop for Stuart and dad to sell the crop and market it. It’s all a team effort.

KM: My dad and uncles all farmed together when we were kids. They taught us the value and ethics of hard work. That’s a valuable asset in life.

My grandpa, he was a businessman. He didn’t farm, but he taught me how to make money and pursue different options.

My wife is one of the biggest supporters I’ve ever had. If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be doing this. We started at 30 acres and built it up.

When I was young, I realized I wasn’t that smart. If I didn’t know something, I found somebody really good at it. I surrounded myself with them. I got involved with the associations — wheat growers, soybean growers, corn growers — and did leadership positions. There’s so many mentors in my life, it’s just amazing. I’ve been so blessed. The smartest thing I realized was, there’s no "I" in this. We can do it, but I can’t do anything.

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