Corn Under Construction

December 7, 2012 06:19 PM
Corn Under Construction

These farmers are building higher yield averages

Always building something is a good way to describe the Launstein family. While farming is their first love, construction might be a close second.

Throughout the years, Dale Launstein, his brother, John, and their father, Ray, have tackled projects small and large, from remodeling Dale’s 1916 farmhouse to constructing the buildings for their new 10,000-head wean-to-finish hog operation. Now, the family is laying the foundation for corn yields they expect will eventually average 300 bu. per acre across their 3,000-acre farm near the small burg of Holland in northeast Iowa.

The Systems Approach to
corn production adds yield in
5 bu. to 10 bu. per acre

Though it’s a reach, the Launsteins believe the goal is within their grasp. "We’ve already hit 300 bu. an acre in various fields; we just need to do it on more acres more consistently," Dale explains.

Headed higher. This year, the Launsteins averaged 199 bu. of dryland corn in a continuous corn rotation. That was a measurable notch above 2011, despite the drought and high temperatures this year’s crop endured. "It was about 8 bu. or so better than we saw across the farm in 2011," Dale reports.

He attributes the family’s high corn yields to micromanaging the crop during the growing season, particularly its nitrogen availability. Management zones set up in 2½-acre increments help the Launsteins analyze and refine their fertility program.

"We keep the plant’s lunchbox full at all times so it never goes hungry," adds Nick Griffieon, the Launsteins’ agronomist. "That helps us push those yields."

High yields don’t just happen, according to Fred Below, a University of Illinois professor of crop physiology. "You must plan for them," he says.

Below crisscrosses the country each year, talking with farmers about how to manage corn for high yields. There is a sense of urgency in Below’s presentations, and for good reason.

In the next 37 years, by 2050, the world will increase from its current population of 7 billion to 9 billion. That’s nearly four times the 2.6 billion people who lived on the planet in 1950. To meet the increased demand for food, Below says, farmers will need to produce 70% more than they do now. That means, on average, that each U.S. corn grower will need to grow 300 bu. of corn per acre, double the current national yield average.

A number of agribusiness firms are committing resources to help farmers achieve that objective. One, the Mosaic Company, launched an endeavor this year called Pursuit of 300: The Road to Higher Yields. The program connects farmers, retailers, agronomists and university researchers, who share best management practices for obtaining higher yields, notes Kevin Kimm, senior director of marketing for Mosaic. The company’s strategy is to help each farmer-participant intensely manage 100 acres, boosting corn yields that can be transferred to full-farm practices. Launstein is one of six farmer participants in this introductory year.

A 300-bu. average yield is not out of the question, Below says, considering that a bag of premium quality seed corn today has the potential to produce 600 bu. per acre.

Just last year, Randy Dowdy did better than half that number. He averaged 330 bu. of irrigated corn per acre on soils he describes as mediocre—with organic matter of less than 1% and a cation exchange (CEC) of 8 or less, which is poor (CEC is a measurement of how well soils hold onto nutrients). While most farmers would be delighted with those yields, Dowdy believes that he can do better.

"That’s like getting a 50 out of 100 on a test in school, which would be an F," Dowdy says with a laugh. "I feel like I’ve left 300 bu. of corn on the table, and I want all 600."

Even so, Dowdy’s consistent high yields have made him a repeat state and national winner in the National Corn Growers Association’s annual yield contest.

pD11 Corn Under Construction 3

Randy Dowdy says timely management practices provide a vital, and often underestimated, contribution to high corn yields.

"I’m not just trying to win yield contests but to be as efficient as possible and get the best return on investment I can," says Dowdy, who farms in southern Georgia near Valdosta.

An interesting point about Dowdy’s bin-busting yields is that he is a farming newcomer. He started growing corn, all irrigated, only six years ago after buying some land no one else wanted to farm and that he describes as "so eroded you could hide a truck in the washes."

Faced with that handicap, Dowdy decided early on to focus his attention on two things: corn plant physiology (how corn grows and develops) and best management practices that would support corn development at each growth stage. Dowdy believes those two factors, along with his faith, formed a solid foundation for his success.

"That and the fact that I’m real competitive with myself," he says with a chuckle.

The plucky Southerner adds: "It’s not the land, it’s the system of growing corn you use that helps you obtain high yields."

Echoing Dowdy’s tactic, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie regularly encourages his farmer-clients to adopt the Systems Approach to corn production.

"You’ll see higher yields—in 5 bu. to 10 bu. incremental steps—using this approach," Ferrie says.

Yield Factors

  1. Weather 70+ bu.
  2. Nitrogen 70 bu.
  3. Hybrid 50 bu.
  4. Previous crop 25 bu.
  5. Plant population 20 bu.
  6. Tillage 15 bu.
  7. Growth regulators 10 bu.

These seven factors (each assigned a rank
and value) are the essentials for outstanding
corn yields, says Fred Below, University
of Illinois professor of crop physiology.

Management matters. During the growing season, Dowdy says, he walks his corn fields three or four times a week to evaluate the crop and its progress. He also takes tissue samples every week to 10 days to determine whether the plants will benefit from additional nutrients. He has determined that his crop requires spoonfeeding of nitrogen and sulfur every seven to 10 days to fuel its growth. He accomplishes this via fertigation, using irrigation to apply fertilizer.

"If I find a nutrient deficiency, I address it," he reports. Launstein does likewise and, as a
result, anticipates making some changes
to his fertility program next spring.
"This past year, we put down anhydrous first, then weed and feed, and we still saw uneven emergence in the crop. We weren’t getting a healthy start in a uniform manner, and that’s how we knew we had a problem," he recalls.

For 2013, Launstein plans to put28% nitrogen on at planting and, like Dowdy, spoon-feed the crop  additional nutrients during the growing season, particularly between the V6 and V10 growth stages.

"The key to maximizing corn production is to be a step ahead of anything that contributes to plant stress," Dowdy contends.

He notes that plant stress can occur in various forms: plant population and spacing, compaction, lack of weed control, chemical stress, disease pressure, temperature, moisture stress and nutrient deficiencies.

"Any one of these stressors can and will reduce kernel and ear count, which is where yield is ultimately determined," Dowdy explains.

A bag of premium quality seed corn today has the potential to yield up to 600 bu. per acre

Below from Illinois provides overarching advice for farmers looking to boost their yields next season and minimize stress: "Plant more of the best biotech insect-protected hybrids or genetics, feed those plants with the proper balance of nutrients right from the beginning, and protect the crop throughout its life cycle from weeds, insects and disease."

One practice that Below says will both stress corn and help add yield is boosting plant populations. He believes farmers need to shoot for higher final plant stands than they probably are accustomed to—in the 40,000-plus range—if they want to reach consistently higher yield averages.

"This higher plant density will require additional fertility, likely both application technology and fertilizer technology, to supply the plants with the proper nutrition that they need when they need it," Below says.

Some of the ways Below says farmers can address this need is by using banded fertility and precision planting over the band, which is Launstein’s strategy. Below also encourages farmers to use what he describes as the advanced fertilizer sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc.

Launstein uses micronutrients and plants seed corn coated with zinc. He says zinc gives the crop a boost under stressful weather conditions, particularly corn grown for seed and corn grown in a corn–soybean rotation.

"On heavily manured fields, it doesn’t give as positive a result," he cautions.

Along with micronutrient use, Below is a proponent of foliar fungicide applications to prevent corn leaf diseases and help improve crop performance.

No cash required. Some investments that contribute to high corn yields cost only time. One of those investments for Launstein is planting corn at a slow speed, no more than 4.5 mph.

"If I see that planter box start hopping, we slow down," he says.

A slower planting process improves corn emergence and contributes to uniform stands.

Launstein says tillage practices can also play a factor in corn yields.

"If you have a tendency to work in wet conditions extremely early, you can cause yourself a lot of compaction issues," he notes.

Dowdy has seen similar issues in his twin-row system.

"The limiting factor in a twin-row system is proper subsoil fracture," he contends. "I feel you need to have the ability to subsoil under each row."

By improving subsoil fracture, both Dowdy and Launstein hope to reduce compaction, or horizontal layers, which impede corn root growth.

Timely management practices also contribute to yield gains.

"Every time you’re late, you pay a penalty; you cost yourself yield," Dowdy stresses. "Know what   the crop is doing or going to do next, and stay a step ahead of it."

Dowdy plants starting the first week of March and begins harvest about the third week of July, once corn reaches a moisture level of 25%. His goal is to complete harvest by the time the crop reaches 21% moisture. "One reason for that is that I always attempt to double-crop; this year, I grew soybeans behind my corn," he explains.

The second reason he harvests with high moisture is that he doesn’t want to take the chance that the mature crop will fall victim to strong winds or a harsh thunderstorm.

Dowdy explains his rationale as follows: "I try to mitigate my risks by spending a little money on propane and paying the penalty to dry it."

You can e-mail Rhonda Brooks at

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