David Hula never forgets the day Francis Chiles called his name. Seated on a bus at Commodity Classic, Hula turned as Chiles, a legendary Iowa farmer, sat down across the aisle: “I was in awe,” Hula describes. “I was a nobody, but Francis started sharing farming advice with me. If he hadn’t shared like that, I’m not certain where I’d be today.”
Hula is taking his farming knowledge on the road, teaming with Randy Dowdy in the Next Level yield program. At farm camps across the Midwest and beyond, the pair of record-yield growers are conducting intense learning sessions with a minimum of 50 farmers per camp, meeting four times a year—two full days each time. The program centers on shared field data and exchange of information within the group. Established Next Level groups operate in Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, South Dakota, and North Dakota with several more regions on tap. (Hefty Seed hosts multiple camps. Aurora Cooperative and M & W each host an individual camp.)
“You can be an island if you want to, but the truth is you need other farmer’s info and other farmers need yours,” Dowdy contends. “I want to help break the mold of secrecy in agriculture. I want to monetize it and develop something that forces people to feel OK about openly sharing information with other farmers. That’s where Next Level comes in.”
A software application connects all growers within a Next Level group and records all management decisions and field data in real-time. “This is not for next-year farmers; this is for guys who want to learn live. We don’t all farm the same way, plant at the same time or use the same hybrid, but if we have each other’s info as it happens, the learning effect is powerful,” Dowdy says.
Depending on region, growers meet November or December, January or February, June and August. According to Dowdy and Hula, the concentrated sessions cover farming pillar to post, from soil fertility to combine activity. “I’m going to present the nuts and bolts of what I do in the field,” Hula explains.
“David and I share everything from our farms, not just certain pieces of information,” Dowdy echoes. “We are an open book with growers.”
“I can help somebody get past whatever stumbling blocks they have to higher yield,” Hula continues. “There are gonna be growers who think this can’t help. Well, corn is corn whether it’s in Virginia or Minnesota or Georgia or Kansas. It requires x amounts to grow, and there are ways to overcome limiting factors. My success is strongly tied to just having an open mind, and that’s the kind of growers I’m looking for.”
Indeed, Hula (Charles City, Va.), 55, is a unique grower, repeatedly raising the bar on corn yields, and churning out 542 bpa yield in the 2017 NCGA contest. In tandem, Dowdy (Brooks County, Ga.), 45, carries a reputation for stellar yields, reaching 171 bpa soybeans in 2016, as well as 521 bpa corn in 2016, along with a 369.84 bpa whole-farm average.
“The Next Level program all ties back to yield. If one guy in the group puts on a quart of boron and gets a 10 parts by million increase, everyone in the group is going to see what he did and the effect,” Dowdy notes.
“There are a ton of field products that don’t move the needle and there are bunches that are fantastic. The books get opened in real-time and we all learn exactly how the application, amounts and yield are tied together,” he says.
Farmer-members have the option of remaining anonymous within a group, but the data is accessible by all members. In addition, all groups vote on whether to share data with other regional camps. (All Next Level groups have voted to openly share data within the program.) Regardless of farm size, all growers pay the same fee for a three-year commitment. (Farm sizes within the program swing from 300 acres to 20,000 acres.)
Jeff Hodel grows corn and soybeans in Roanoke, Ill., on 6,000-plus acres, and is finishing his first year in the Princeton, Ill., Next Level group. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather spend my time learning to improve my farm. Show me another group where I can learn details from guys that have grown 400 and 500 bu. corn. This is no casual endeavor; it’s a truly intense learning environment and you’d better be ready, but I couldn’t be more excited to be involved.”
Terry Wellmann farms on roughly 1,000 acres outside Hanska, Minn., in Brown County, and is part of the Next Level program in Baltic, S.D. The Baltic camp includes producers from the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska: “We’ve all got regional similarities and some key things in common: We’re eager to learn from each other and willing to share real information.”
"Despite the weather challenges of the season I saw some extremely positive and exciting yield results from the increased management and effort put into the crop,” Wellman continues. “Instead of wondering how my crop was doing I knew how it was doing and was able to take corrective actions on a weekly basis based on quantifiable data."
In central Ohio, Mark James, 55, grows corn and soybeans on 1,500 acres, and he has participated in the Ohio Next Level camp for approximately one year. “This has opened my eyes to how micronutrients and macronutrients work together. It’s also forced me to do much more scouting in my fields during the growing season than I’ve ever done before. In the last year in this camp, I’ve probably learned as much as I have in the previous 35 years of farming.”
Hula touts the open dialogue of Next Level and the reliance on concrete data to improve yield: “I’m the biggest cheerleader of other guys with high yields because I want to ask what they did to get those big numbers.”
“We focus on the why’s and examine every practice on the farm; no stone unturned,” Dowdy adds. “We walk their fields together. Some guys learn in the classroom and some learn in the field, but David and I are laying out the intimate details of how we’ve gotten high yields. It’s a blunt education.”
For more information on the farm camps, see Next Level.
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