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Yield leaders talk strategy at Commodity Classic event

Be a student of the crop, walk your fields, and run on-farm trials. 

An all-star cast of high-yield farmers had plenty of advice for growers at the 2020 Commodity Classic Wednesday, but the secret to high yields boils down to excellent agronomic skills. These farmers know what they’re talking about:
  • David Hula of Charles City, Virginia, has the world corn yield record, at 616 bushels per acre 
  • Randy Dowdy, Valdosta, Georgia, has the world soybean yield record, at 190 bushels per acre
  • Jena and Levi Ochsner, Sutton, Nebraska, 251 bushels of corn per acre
  • Cory Atley, Cedarville, Ohio, 279.2 bushels of corn per acre

Be a student of the crop

Dowdy, a first-generation farmer who grows corn, soybeans, and peanuts in Georgia and Florida, is known for his bin-busting soybean yields. When he began experiencing success, he learned a lesson from corn yield leader David Hula. 

“One of the cool things David challenged me on was that anybody can do it once, now duplicate it. Replicate what you’ve done,” Dowdy says. “To do that, you have to understand the crop. You have to have data to understand where the yield is captured and where it’s lost.”

That requires on-farm testing, Atley says. 

“We’re constantly trying out different products and different ways of thinking to raise more crops. You can’t stay idle,” he explains. “We need practices that pay and the best way to find that out is on your own soil.”

Any given year, Atley and his family try 30 products and 20 different hybrids. “We farm 8,000 acres and try to have as many different trials as we can to learn from,” he says. 

Hula stresses the importance of uniform emergence. “When the corn comes up uniformly, which is our goal, it enhances the entire crop. And we make sure the inputs we apply influence 100% of that crop, rather than just the percentage that came up uniformly,” he says. 

Hula has been a long-term no-tiller, but the last few years has used a Soil Warrior strip-till rig prior to planting, with which he applies fertilizer. He’s experimenting with biological products, too. 

“We’re really good at identifying things above ground. But below ground is more intriguing. You can have stuff in the soil and it may never show up in a tissue test,” Hula says. For years, he’s been working to understand how the soil works to improve nutrient efficiency. “We’re starting to see the benefits and dividends from that.”  

Levi Ochsner admits he doesn’t have new, flashy equipment. But he continues to try new things. Last fall, he chiseled ground, spreading dry fertilizer afterward. The dry pellets, he reasons, went into the chisel furrows, which were up to a foot deep. He followed that up with a vertical-tillage rig – all in an effort to get fertilizer into the soil profile. “I do the best I can with the equipment I have,” he says. 

Four strategies for 2020

The secret to pushing yield is to not stop learning. Here’s a strategy each farmer will deploy in 2020.

  • Plant soybeans early, and reduce population. Atley plants soybeans in April and he’d bump to March if weather allowed. Soybeans enjoy early stress, he says. The Ohio farmer also has reduced planting population over time, from 100,000 seeds per acre, then to 80,000 seeds, then 60,000 seeds. “This year the bottom was 35,000 seeds,” he says. “We have yet to find the bottom of the barrel of beans.”  
  • Use two different corn hybrids. “I spend a lot of time preseason talking to my representatives to find hybrids that have same maturity but different flowering dates, to see how that would express in a different environment,” Hula says. “It’s all about mitigating risk.” 
  • Tissue sample corn. The Ochsners grid sample, and use variable-rate fertility applications. He doesn’t want to put phosphorous in a spot that doesn’t need it, for example. “It’s all about putting the nutrients where they need to be,” Levi says. “And we tissue sample to see how it’s getting into the plant. Those kind of go hand in hand.” 
  • Keep weeds at bay. “Last year, I spent about $60 per acre on hand labor in peanuts alone,” says Dowdy. “We’re the epicenter of Roundup-resistant pigweeds. For us it’s serious, and in all the crops that we grow. We use multiple modes of action – pre’s, multiple preemerges, postemerge, and hand labor.” 

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