Corn Yield Record Shattered By Farmer’s 459.51 Dryland Bushels
After a roller coaster season of dips and loops, Russell Hedrick was a final bend away from the bin buster of his life—a record-smashing 459.51 bushels per acre of dryland corn.
As Hedrick steered a combine into the rows of a 14’ canopy and began slamming ears into the header, he abruptly stopped the machine, alarmed by the hum of high yield music. “I’ve picked 300-bushel corn I the past, but this was a sound I’d never heard in my life,” he exclaims. “The header was processing so many ears that the PTO shafts were bouncing and I could feel the vibrations inside the cab. I could feel’em.”
In 2022, Hedrick averaged a stout 268 bushel per acre (bpa) dryland corn across his no till operation, including a particularly promising 40 acres that averaged a screaming 368 bpa—bookended by a contest spot that tallied a stunning 459.51 bpa.
By strict numbers, Hedrick planted the booming crop in April 2022, but in practicality, he seeded the goal of 400-plus bu. corn five years ago: “It’s not about nutrient amounts—it’s about placement and balance,” Hedrick emphasizes. “We use half the fertilizer of what many other guys use, but we still push yields without tossing the kitchen sink at the crop.”
Gentle hills make up most of Hedrick’s topography, and his Catawba County ground, just outside Hickory, is classic foothill country in western North Carolina, nestled between the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont Plateau.
From the get-go in 2022, things couldn’t have started much worse for Hedrick.
In early April, with planter prep complete, he took advantage of a timing lag and climbed atop a combine for a maintenance check. A misstep; a slip on a ladder rung; a loss of grip; and a blind tumble 8’ down to shop concrete. Hedrick, 37, stumbled out of the 2022 crop gate with a dislocated hip and no sensation in his right leg—knee to toes.
On with the show. From planting to burndown, Hedrick chewed a mouthful of rocks, finally submitting to a medical visit two months after the accident. “My hip ended up being an inch-and-a-half out of place. I knew I was hurt bad all along, but I also knew I had to get going on a crop in case I was hurt even worse than I figured,” he recalls.
Planting began in mid-April, with Hedrick punching 500 acres of corn during a stretch of semi-dry, ideal weather that contributed to the most evenly emerged crop he’d ever seen. And nowhere was the picket fence more evident than a 40-acre farm transformed—an ugly duckling turned sleek swan.
Hedrick began his farming career on the same 40 in 2012. It was suspect acreage at purchase, registering 1.7% in organic matter, and subject to consistent ponding and occasional flooding. For a decade, Hedrick pushed cover crops and compost on the ground, raising the organic levels by February 2022 to 8.2% on 0-6”, and 6.5% on 6-12”. “It’s so well aggregated now,” Hedrick describes. “The water issues are gone and the soil changed from high-iron clay to dark-black chocolate cake. No doubt, that 40 is the best piece of farmland in our operation.”
Big Makes Big
AgVenture 9916—116-day corn—was the hybrid of choice on the 40 acres, at a rate of 45,900 plants per acre on 30” rows, with a spacing of roughly 4” per plant. “Between our soil structure, our planter, and the AV9916 hybrid, it was harmony because 99% of that corn came up in the same 24-hour period.”
Seed size weighs heavy for Hedrick. He requests seed bags be at least 55 lb., and ideally seeks 60 lb.-plus. “The bigger the seed, the more energy that corn plant has,” Hedrick notes. “That corn plant runs off energy from inside the seed for the first few days until it gets a root system established. Big makes big.”
Hedrick’s planting depth is relatively deep—3” to 3.5”. “Most guys think that is crazy,” he says. “Granted, if you have tight ground and it crusts off, you will suffer, but our soil is so well aggregated that we can plant deep.”
Pace is critical in planting, Hedrick insists. “Slowing down is huge. Sometimes, as farmers, all of us forget how important it is to get a crop planted in the right way. Going slow is hard if you’re on big acres, but paying attention to planter speed and seed singulation and seed planting depth is a big, big deal. We’ve changed seed depth on about every farm after we find out the precise depth needed for that specific ground.”
University guidelines, Hedrick contends, are a general baseline. “University seed depth recommendations are no different than general fertilizer recommendations—just a starting point that you have to tailor. We plant corn 1” to 1.5” deeper than other farmers around us, because we’re making sure we add extra nodal roots to get extra nutrients and water. That’s a driver for our success…and it sure kicked in for 2022.”
Big Corn in the Cards
Whether moisture or sunshine, nature applied a bounty for Hedrick’s rows in 2022, and he provided all other needs. Pest pressure was low, a benefit he partially attributes to sugar use and a high brix reading. “Overall, we made several passes in-season to spoon-feed precise nutrients based on soil tissue samples. Nothing beyond what was needed. Again, no kitchen sink.”
From approximately July 5 to black layer, Hedrick was blessed with rain every day, or at least every other day. The sun popped at 6:15 a.m. over the corn, warmed into the mid-80s, and delivered optimal growing conditions. By 6-7 p.m., ¼” to ¾” of rain was on the ground, followed by night temperatures in the 70s. Hedrick did note kickoff of gray leaf spot and southern rust, but not at levels of consequence.
Weed pressure was kept on a tight leash. “At burndown, we use a residual program. We also had our cover crop residue and when we came back over the top, at about V4-V5, we put out Callisto. When that corn hit 14’ tall, you could walk 20’ in at noon and it was like being in 9 p.m. darkness. There was just no real weed pressure thanks to the residual and the covers.”
With crosshairs set on 400-plus bushel corn, Hedrick planned on 280 lb. of nitrogen, but ended at 310 lb., along with 140 lb. of phosphorus, 40 lb. of potassium, and 100 lb. of sulfur. “We also did boron, zinc and micros from WinBiologics with a drone to keep things balanced. Some people hear 310 pounds of nitrogen and think that’s high, but in my area, there are plenty of guys applying 250 pounds of nitrogen and getting only a third of what we yielded.”
“University standards across the country generally suggest 1.25 units of nitrogen to grow a bushel of corn, but we only applied 55% of needed nitrogen,” Hedrick notes. “What we got from our cover crop test and a Haney test showed us we already had the nutrients in the ground and we didn’t need to apply as much.”
By the end of August, Hedrick noted every plant with at least one ear, and 25% of the field had a second ear, and 10-15% of the field had a viable third ear. (Hedrick’s soybeans also boomed, averaging 82 bpa in 2022.)
Fingers crossed, Hedrick suspected big corn was in the cards.
Tightening the Crosshairs
In 2017, Richard Linton, then dean of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (currently president of Kansas State University), challenged Carolina growers to shoot for 400-bushel corn. Linton’s call-to-action caught Hedrick’s ear. “We started a five-year journey to with a goal of 425 bushels. We began laying out plots, really breaking down what we needed and removing as much chance as possible.”
“Basically, we try to use as little inputs as possible and maximize output. We build the ground and increase nutrient cycling and water-holding capacity. That’s how we push our yields harder and further without blindly throwing money at the crop.”
“For example, we pulled a cover crop nutrient analysis on the 40-acre farm and ran it at Regen Ag Lab, and that told us our NPK and our micronutrients within the cover. We also pulled a Haney test from 0-6” and 6-12”, and that is one of the biggest things I’ve talked about the most with farmers: Stop relying on a 0-4” or 0-6” soil sample. There is so much more going on in the ground deeper than 6”. We had a ton of nutrient availability from the system we’ve built and the cover crop residue, as well as the crop residue breakdown over 10 years.”
Nutrient placement is a major focus for Hedrick. He no longer broadcasts phosphorus, and rapidly is moving away from broadcasting potassium. “We precision apply in bands. I hear some guys say they can farm without fertilizer and chemicals, and I’m not knocking that on their operations, but here we’re generally using half of what most guys use on the farm.”
“We rely on our ground and the living organisms within to balance our budget,” he adds. “We spend $10-20 per acre on some microelements, and they pay off tremendously in our grain yield and quality.”
Open the Record Books
By Sept. 1, a corn bounty was in plain evidence. Jay Lane, a friend and farming brother in arms from eastern North Carolina, visited Hedrick’s operation, and the pair picked random ears weighing over 1 lb. “We started doing kernel counts and realized there was seriously high potential yield, but the big mystery was whether we’d be able to count second and third ears. We started stand counts and found 410-420 in several places and found one area over 475 that wasn’t even in the contest (Corn Growers Association of North Carolina) plot.”
On Oct. 21 (a week later than harvest target date due to rain issues), Hedrick rolled into the field with corn at an approximate 17%-18% moisture level. “It was stressful as hell because I knew what this could be, but I couldn’t let my excitement get the best of me.”
At 15’ into the contest plot, Hedrick stopped the combine, unsettled by a peculiar reverberation in the cab. “When you harvest around 55,000 in a single acre, I’m here to tell you, there is something incredible going on. The corn header was processing so much material that I could feel the vibrations.”
One hundred feet into the plot, he stopped again, concerned by the sound of an odd metallic ping. “It sounded like somebody was hitting a drum with a ball-peen hammer. At first, I wasn’t sure what the hell was happening, but I realized it was the same sound I’ve heard from big, big soybeans. There were so many ears going into the feeder house that when it hit maximum volume, it was lifting the feeder house drum and bouncing back down—producing a ping.”
What digits were flashing on Hedrick’s yield monitor?
“I was seeing numbers upwards of 518 bushels at one part of the field, but that is irrelevant because they judge by weight, but it still produces a feeling in your stomach like a roller coaster. My stomach was spinning.”
Hedrick kept his emotions bottled until the plot was officially measured and flagged—returning a first estimate of 450 bpa. “I truly got excited,” he exclaims. “As a farmer, I’ve been improving the ground for 10 years, especially the last five years (the overall 40 acres averaged 368 bpa), studying how corn plants grow, and hoping for weather to cooperate. It doesn’t matter how hard you work—all the links across the season have to line up.”
Officially, on 1.33 acres, Hedrick’s corn tallied a yield of 459.51. Welcome to the record books.
At seminars, conferences, and field days, as co-owner of Soil Regen, Hedrick is peppered with concerns on a litany of ag topics from curious growers, but in the past year, the top inquiries are distilled into a central question: How can farmers grow solid yields with diminished nutrients?
“I’m not trying to dog on anyone, but I answer straight,” Hedrick says. “I’ve got farming friends and mentors who have been doing these practices for 30 years on belief and faith, but not as much scientific backing. Many universities and even some private labs that run soil samples are using analysis systems that have been in place for 60 years. By comparison, there’s not a single company in the S&P 500 or Nasdaq that has not updated its operating procedure in 60 years. There is now so much more information and technology available for farmers on how our soils interact with nutrients, and how much is available to a crop.”
Extracting untapped fertility hidden within farmland is a major plank in Hedrick’s farming platform. Most growers, he contends, are “blown away” when learning of the nutrient load available in the rows. “You’ve just got to figure out how to make that load plant-available, and that’s where biologicals and stimulants can come into play.”
As a partner in Soil Regen, Liz Haney echoes Hedrick’s perspective. “A lot of farmers don’t realize they have more organic nitrogen available in their soil than they may think,” she says. “Most farmers focus on nitrate nitrogen, which is what most soil tests show you, but plants prefer to uptake organic nitrogen and they utilize it more efficiently. We do a lot of soil testing geared toward profitability to make farmers realize the amount of organic nitrogen available.”
“As farmers improve the biological function in soil by using good regenerative practices, nutrient cycling is improved at the same time,” Haney adds. “It’s sometimes hard for a farmer to trust the biological function in soil, because it’s opposite of what we’ve been taught. I encourage farmers to tune in because we’ve got so many cool trials for next year and we’re going to keep helping farmers build and grow.”
After remarkable success in 2022, Hedrick is not looking backward. The North Carolina grower is hungry for continued improvement, according to Haney. “I’ve never met someone so driven as Russell to keep getting better,” she adds. “That’s just his nature.”
Despite stellar yields in 2022, Hedrick doesn’t hang his hat on bushel numbers: “I want to tell farmers that even if you can only cut back in the right way a little on fertilizer, the profitability side goes up. High yields are awesome, but if profit and improved ROI don’t come with those yields, then we’re spinning our wheels.”
To read more stories from Chris Bennett (firstname.lastname@example.org, 662-592-1106) see:
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