Virginia grower tops the national no-till yield contest with early-season attention to details.
Successfully farming under the watchful eye of millions of urbanites and the a host of state and federal regulatory agencies around the politically and environmentally-sensitive Chesapeake Bay is one thing, but knocking out award-winning corn yields in a "zero-till" operation on the outskirts of historic Williamsburg and Richmond, Va., is quite another.
Dave Hula, Charles City, Va., did just that in 2013 in a part of Virginia that usually sees dryland corn yields of about 150 bu. per acre.
Dave’s no-till, irrigated Pioneer contest corn yielded 454.9 bu. in the 2013 corn yield contest conducted by the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).
"It was a good year for corn in eastern Virginia with a lot of dryland yields over 200 bu. per acre," explains crop consultant Jimmy Ward, a sales representative with Crop Production Services, Aylett, Va. "But the yields the Dave produced were products of a lot of little management things," he explained, noting he has worked closely with Hula for 13 years, and calls him a student of corn.
In all, Hula says he farms about 2,000 acres of corn in a 4,000-acre no-till corn/wheat/bean rotation that usually yields three crops in two years.
"We have some acres that are in continuous corn, but the rotation moves throughout our operation over a number of seasons," he says. In addition, he produces and conditions seed wheat and soybeans as part of his operation.
As a side-benefit, Hula farms close enough to the James River to be able to irrigate through several center-pivot sprinklers as needed, but he’s adamant about not disturbing the soil with tillage, and spends considerable time with his crops providing for them and bringing them through the critical planting-to-seedling stage to ensure consistently high yields.
"Dave says ‘Corn can’t have a bad day,’" explains Ward, who notes Hula uses the staves in a barrel approach to farming. "If you have a wooden barrel, all the staves have to be the same height, or the contents of the barrel run out," he explains. "In Dave’s case, the contents are yield, so he wants all his staves – fertility, weed, pest and disease control, moisture and soil health – all to be capable of supporting top yields." To do that, Ward says Hula spends much more time in the field than the average producer.
"The attention to details make a difference," Ward explains. "Tissue sampling is one of his favorite tools, and he does it weekly – where many producers may use it only once before side-dressing corn at the V5 or V6 stage. Dave knows what his plants need on nearly a daily basis because he’s willing to pay attention to those details," he adds.
Hula’s High-Yield RX
Hula says you can’t have high yields without consistent stands, and that includes taking every precaution to protect your seed and its yield potential at every turn.
"We realize when we open a bag of seed its potential yield is vulnerable to compromise at every turn," Hula explains.
To mitigate any compromise, he does everything he can to stack the deck in the seed’s favor.
"We pay particular attention to getting a uniform emergence (shooting for all the corn in the field to emerge consistently within 12 to 24 hours). We over-treat the seed by adding additional fungicides to combat disease potentials we have in our no-till environment.
"We also add a Pentilix fertilizer product and seed exciter to stimulate root development, because we’ve seen enhanced germination by doing this," he explains.
Because his area has problems with wireworms and grubs, and sometimes billbugs (despite his robust crop rotation schedule), Hula says his seed treatment also includes Poncho 1250 insecticide.
University and commercial research has shown the insecticide (active ingredient clothianidin, a neonicotinoid) seed treatment good for additional yield bumps, in addition to those found with fungicide treatments.
At planting, the Virginian wants to make sure his corn has sufficient fertility to get it through the V7 stage, so he uses an in-furrow fertilizer solution that includes several biological products"and humic acid. "We also band 65 lbs. of nitrogen and 33 lbs. of phosphate about 3" from the furrow and down about 2" so the corn can get into it as soon as possible.
"I also add some sugar to the mix," he laughs. "I like a little sweet stuff and I figure the plant does too."
He explains the sugar’s high carbon content is aimed at feeding soil microorganisms and providing additional carbon for the corn. The mix is usually about 50 lbs. of sugar to 1,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer solution.
Ward says Hula seeks to leverage the microbial activity in his fields at every turn. "The microbes in the soil are key to mineralizing nutrients bound up in the soil. Since, with zero-till management, we aren’t incorporating anything, other than knifing in some nutrients, keeping soil organisms thriving is essential," he explains.
Virginia Tech Extension grain crops specialist Wade Thomason says Hula makes his decisions based on years of observation of corn growth on his farm, and while traditional research methods are just now enabling researchers to take a "roll call" of which microbes are present in a given soil sample, the effects of microbial activity are difficult to assign to any individual organism or population of organisms, and those populations can vary tremendously within a field and from farm to farm. So understanding which products may be helpful under which circumstances is difficult.
"Dave does some things that no one else is doing, that don’t have traditional research evidence backing them up," Thomason explains. "But you cannot argue he has put together a really strong program by the looks of his yields. One thing for certain is Dave is working to prevent his crops from running into any of the usual limiting factors, and from that standpoint, he can try new things that show him yield increases or better plant vigor. "
Thomason says the past several years have seen a number of growers in the Mid-Atlantic region using humic acid and other biological preparations. "They report good things, and wouldn’t be spending the money if they didn’t see a benefit," he says. "And these are benefits that traditional ‘university research’ doesn’t necessarily showcase.
"A grower may use this kind of input and see a 1 bu. increase. Experimentally, I’ll never be able to parse that out with traditional field trials. But, if you have data where comparative trials were conducted 500 times and 80% of the time there’s that extra bushel, I’m more confident in how to approach the recommendation and use that information.
The agronomist says he thinks the confounding issue lies in the fact soil microbial activity and plant health are a part of a much larger symbiotic relationship within the soil, its structure, carbon content and environmental conditions.
"Things get even further complicated for a researcher when you realize the microbes are ‘cross trained’ and even with varying populations of individual microbes, the job at the root zone still is accomplished," he explains.
Hula’s convinced the microbes are part of his farm labor force, and is willing to go above and beyond meeting the traditional nutrient needs of corn to leverage that workforce.
It’s tough to argue with him when you look at his 2013 yield award, particularly when you realize his brother, Johnny, who uses similar no-till management in nearby fields, took second place in the category with 421.2 bushels per acres, and his son, Craig, also of Charles City, placed first with a Dekalb entry the no-till dryland category at 332.7 bushels. All three men are using the same playbook.