Attention to detail pumps up yields in a poor year
The 2011 growing season didn’t dish out much in the way of corn yield bragging rights. So it’s not surprising that Charlie Cobb didn’t trust the yield monitor or his weigh wagon when they started indicating that one of his irrigated fields was nudging the 300-bu. mark.
"I headed to town and had the weigh wagon checked to make sure the scales were calibrated properly," says Cobb, who farms near Montgomery City, Mo. When the final kernel was counted this past fall, his irrigated corn acreage averaged 260 bu. per acre, with some areas reaching
300 bu. Missouri’s average yield for corn is projected to be 115 bu. per acre for 2011.
"We had a wet spring and that field didn’t get planted until June 5," Cobb recalls. "When you plant at that time of year, Mother Nature can cut you short," he adds. "Mostly you’re just hoping the field matures before frost."
Cobb has plenty of perspective from surrounding fields to draw upon. He experienced yield lows of 42 bu. and 50 bu. per acre in nonirrigated fields less than 1⁄2 mile away. In his 300-bu. field, the corners missed by the center irrigation pivot yielded 120 bu. per acre.
Timing is everything. Irrigation isn’t common in central Missouri. Cobb draws the water to run his 11 center pivots from lakes located on his property.
"There are people who have irrigation, and then there are irrigators," he says. "Our Mexico silt loam soils have a clay pan beneath that allows them to hold only about 2" of water. I irrigate when the ground will hold water. If you wait until the crop needs it, it is too late."
Cobb says his crop pollinated during high heat, but his top-yielding field saw cooler night temperatures than some of his other fields.
"I never let the field dry out. I water when I can put 1⁄2" of water on and it won’t run off," he adds.
Watering longer into the season also helped his crop deliver the kernel size and depth that contributed to better yields.
"Good yields in a bad production year have dangled a carrot in front of me. I want to do this on every acre, every year," he says. With that in mind, he called his input suppliers together to draft a plan for 2012.
Common tools. Genetics, a strong trait protection package, crop rotation, rainfall patterns and irrigation management are all part of the formula that resulted in Cobb’s yields, notes Randy Rodgers of Service and Supply Coop, New Florence, Mo.
"Management is the key word," Rodgers says. "Charlie is using the tools his crop needs to maximize plant performance, and they are available to everyone. He plans for success and doesn’t simply leave it up to Mother Nature."
Cobb admits he’s not the first, and often might be one of the last, farmers to go to the field in the spring. Soil con-ditions must be right to give the plant the advantage. His current farm size of 2,900 acres allows him the opportunity to care for each acre.
High-yield formula. "I don’t like to give up anything," Cobb says. "We’ve grid sampled the entire farm multiple times. All fertilizer is applied variable-rate. The amount of nitrogen we use depends on the season and the results of tissue testing."
Generally, that means putting out about 200 lb. of anhydrous in the spring at planting. He will sidedress 40 lb. of urea at V3 to V5 and put another 50 units of nitrogen through the pivot prior to tassel.
"I want most of the nitrogen on prior to V5—that’s when most of the yield is being determined with the number of kernel rows on each ear," Cobb says. Next year, sulfur and zinc are going into the prescription.
He sees keeping the plant healthy and happy as a synchronized dance of giving the plant what it needs, when it’s needed. Seed treatment (Cruiser Extreme 250) was used to guard against early season insects and fungal diseases. The crop received an application of Quadris fungicide at V5 and a second application of Quilt Xcel at the R1 stage. He also applied Warrior insecticide at planting with his early herbicide program.
Waterhemp has been troublesome in the area, but Cobb finds it easy to control by rotating crops, rotating herbicide modes of action and using residuals in a pre-emergence program. "The most critical thing is to make sure that weeds don’t get away from you," he says. Owning a sprayer helps keep sprays timely.
Attention to traits. Traits factor into hybrid selection, but not at the expense of genetics. A flex ear and good stalk strength top Cobb’s selection list. "I’ve had corn go down in the past. I’ll take a little less yield for better stalk strength," he says.
Earworm is his biggest insect threat. Although he spreads his risk over a half dozen hybrids from a variety of companies, his 300-bu. yields came on fields planted to NK 68B-3111 containing Agrisure Viptera, which produces a vegetative protein to protect against a range of lepidopteran corn pests. "Holding on to those tips really helps yield and protects quality," he says.
The important thing to understand about traits is that they help protect plant performance and yield from being lost, says Matt Hollingshead, customer marketing specialist with Syngenta Seeds.
Most farmers have access to a host of genetics, but Hollingshead and Rodgers agree that Cobb’s yield increases are related to improved stress tolerance and close attention to detail.
"When Charlie plants 33,000 plants per acre, his stand will be pretty darn close to exactly what he planted," Rodgers says. "He sweats the details."
Cobb uses a variable-rate controller to change plant populations between irrigated portions of the field and dryland corners, and he says he’s already identified one habit that he must change this spring:
"This year, my yield maps indicated that one dryland area that should have been planted at 27,000 plants per acre was mistakenly planted at the irrigated rate of 33,000 plants per acre. It took me a while to realize that error happened because I was distracted by a phone call while planting. The phone will stay in my pocket next year. It’s surprising how little things like that add up."