No crop voodoo or mystery ingredients: Jim Nichols’ corn yields have jumped by an astounding 100 bu. per acre. Standing on the edge of his southwest Minnesota farmland, he points upward at a carbon secret: His corn crop comes from the sky.
In 2012, Nichols hit the brakes on traditionally-patterned row crop production. He switched 200 acres to six-row, alternating strips of corn and soybeans and focused fertilizer application on a 21-day July window. Harnessed to photosynthesis and nitrogen, Nichols rode a corn yield beast, culminating in a 292-bu. average.
“It’s not complicated. I’m using the power of carbon dioxide and pulling bushels from above,” Nichols, 71, explains. “I’m actually growing carbon. I farmed 30 years and never realized the true power of photosynthesis.”
Nichols’ yields are all the more remarkable considering the topography and location of his operation. Outside of Lake Benton, a mile from the South Dakota border, he farms along the Buffalo Ridge, where the glacial advance ended and deposited rocky clay across hilly ground. At 2,000' in elevation, Nichols’ farm is battered by cold winds and sits atop one of the highest points in Minnesota. By convention, his fields are far too short on heat units to be viable 300-bu. candidates. However, the self-effacing Nichols has always bucked convention, and the trajectory of his career is plain testament to innovation.
Raised on a farm, Nichols served a tour in Vietnam, returned home and bought his Buffalo Ridge land in 1972. He ran for state senate in 1976, and juggled politics and agriculture for five years. In 1983, Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed Nichols as state agriculture commissioner. During his tenure, Nichols had a direct hand in authoring the Conservation Reserve Program bill, steering Minnesota’s 1991 ethanol mandate and promoting wind turbine energy.
Ten years ago, Nichols walked away from fall fertilizer and fall tillage and watched as organic matter in his soil grew from 2% to 5% in less than five years. “I’d like 7%, but my ground just won’t allow it. But at 5%, I can hold water and fertilizer and prevent erosion,” he says.
Nichols works more than 600 acres, with 500 of it in corn and soybeans. The boost in organic matter became a springboard for further changes. Essentially “farming on top of the mountain,” Nichols’ ground craves heat. He began planting along a north-south orientation to catch the east-west sun. “Vertical leaves grab more sunlight. My only limiting factor is cold, and I have to use every photosynthetic advantage I can,” he explains.
Nichols’ perspective: Narrow rows lose sunlight. In addition to changing the orientation, Nichols started planting in six-row, alternating strips of corn and soybeans. The 15' strips are set on 30" rows, enabling his outer corn rows to bask in sunlight. His soybean yields remained consistent, but corn made a dramatic jump. “The outside two rows are always more than 300 bu., all due to the sun. The inner two rows are down in the 200s, closed off to sunlight,” Nichols says.
Sunlight played an integral role in the yield boost, but Nichols emphasizes a twin pillar of growth: fertilizer timing. Nichols began heeding the fertilizer advice of his daughter, Kris Nichols, an independent soil microbiologist in Pennsylvania. Kris emphasized corn’s nitrogen needs during July.
A corn plant is composed of 46% carbon. All carbon in a kernel of corn comes from carbon dioxide, Kris explains, but the plant needs to suck in 75% of nitrogen intake during an intense 21-day growth period, roughly in July. “Every cell in the plant has a carbon component,” she explains. “Photosynthesis transforms carbon into sugars to become building blocks. More photosynthesis means more carbon activity. It’s critical to have adequate nitrogen available at the right time to make proteins, which are crucial for photosynthesis.”
Nichols began threading the nitrogen needle with strict attention to the 21-day window. He had previously followed the farming maxim centered on 200 lb. nitrogen for 200-bu. corn. He maintained 200 lb. nitrogen, but upended the timing and application scheme. Nichols strip-tills, placing a liquid combo 4" below the seed composed of 100 lb. nitrogen, 80 lb. phosphate and 80 lb. potash. (He grows a longer-day corn with a flexible ear and plants 37,000 seeds per acre 2" deep in early May.) A few days later, Nichols adds 10-34-0 starter fertilizer at 7 gal. per acre to give the seed a good kick. Fertilization is paused until he returns July 1, with 100 lb. of additional liquid nitrogen.
“I come back with wide drop nozzles to get nitrogen down by the roots. I drive down soybean rows with corn at knee-high to waist-high, fertilizing 12 rows at a time,” he says. “I’ve seen a 25-bu. to 50-bu. increase just from the fertilizer timing. I only drive between the rows and never compact the ground where the plant grows.”
Prior to six-row strips, Nichols’ corn typically reached 16 rows at 40 to 45 kernels; 720 kernels per ear. He now shoots for 20 rows at 45 kernels; 900 kernels per ear. “At 16x40, that’s 26 million kernels per acre. At 20x45, that’s 33 million kernels per acre,” he explains. (In addition, Nichols’ test weight has risen from 54 lb. per bushel to 60 lb. per bushel following six-row strips.)
In 2017, Nichols anticipated more incremental yield increases until 100 mph winds pushed ear tips to the ground. His entire crop was flat, yet still yielded more than 200 bu. per acre. However, by creating a rush of volunteer corn, the winds ruined any chance for six-row strips this year. “If you want to do strips, you have to start out with blanket soybeans, and then plant your corn the following year. Good corn means starting with beans, and that’s what I’ll do so I can return to strips in 2019.”
Nichols harvests with a six-row head. He farms alone and dumps into a grain cart parked along a turnrow. No carts in the fields—no compaction.
“It can be hard for guys to find six-row heads for soybeans, and you’ve got to figure out some new management angles. But for someone looking to maximize yield, or farm a third less acreage and still get the same yield, these strips are yield producers and I’ll be happy to share my data with anybody. I’m doing this in wind and cold; if I was on flat black ground, things would be even better with a strip system.”
Seed Choices In Six-Row Corn
Jim Nichols’ seed choices are driven by three main factors: days to maturity, ear flex and vertical leaves to catch sunlight.
He plants 103-day corn, with a bit of 95-day corn in the balance. With strong yields, Nichols sees the value in drying longer-day corn, despite always chasing growing degree units. “In our cold, a lot of farmers plant short-day corn and haul it right to town, but shorter-day corn takes longer to make that big ear. Plus, I’ve got to keep an eye on test weight because I’m selling pounds, not bushels.”
Nichols adheres to a 37,000 seeding rate, but is moving toward varying population by row, as well as changing varieties within the six-row scheme. “I’m going to make population and variety switches, but I’m still learning what works best, and I don’t have enough data gathered yet.”
To learn more about the science behind six-row strips from the Nichols family, visit bit.ly/carbon-farming