Corn School: Want to Grow 500-Bushel Corn? Stop The Insanity

Randy Dowdy (file photo)

If farmers want to supersize their corn yields, they have to challenge conventional thinking and become students of the crop.

That was the main message National Corn Growers Association yield contest champion Randy Dowdy shared with hundreds of farmers at the 2016 SouthWest Agricultural Conference in Ridgetown, Ontario earlier this week.

In 2014, Dowdy set a world record when he harvested 503.7 bushels per acre on his Georgia farm competition plot. Not bad for a guy who only started farming in 2006. When he started, he had no preconceived notions, and no one telling him ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’

“The biggest problem with farmers is they’ve been doing it for a long time.…It’s hard to argue with a farmer who’s been successful, paid for farms, paid for kids’ college educations and paid for ground,” said Dowdy. He maintains, however, that even successful farmers can take corn performance and profitability to a new level if they think outside the box and challenge accepted practices. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Corn companies have developed hybrids with tremendous yield potential and Dowdy feels it’s up to farmers to better control the limiting factors that keep them from producing higher levels of that yield potential on their farm.

He admits that farmers can’t control the weather, but they can control planting, compaction, herbicide application timing, crop nutrition, and a host of other limiting factors.

Watch more Corn School episodes here!

Dowdy noted that a corn plant has high yield potential at emergence. He stresses that sufficient nutrient levels and even emergence are critical at this stage. “If you are going to grow 300-bushel corn, you have to make sure it has 300-bushel fertilizer available to the plant. Obviously, if you want higher yields it takes more fertilizer to achieve those bushels.”

Part of Dowdy’s nutrient strategy is to band fertilizer on both sides of the corn row to feed the entire corn root. When it comes to fertility, Dowdy believes farmers spend too much time fixated on N-P-K levels. He believes micronutrients are equally important. “It doesn’t matter how much nitrogen, phosphorous and potash you have if boron is the limiting factor.”

What’s the most important corn production factor farmers should focus on? Dowdy believes even emergence is indeed the silver bullet when it comes to corn production. “If you want to make 300-bushel corn, it starts with a 300-bushel stand. Strong populations are good, but what’s most important is that all the plants emerge at the same time.”

Dowdy uses a flag test to evaluate corn emergence and its impact on his farm. It’s a simple test he says every farmer can do. Here’s how it works:

  • In 30-inch rows, measure off 1/1,000th of an acre – 17.5 feet
  • Ensure you are in the field at the exact time when the spike is coming out of the ground for the very first time. Place a red flag beside every emerged plant “when the first ones start poking their head out of the ground.”
  • Return to the field 12 hours later and put a blue flag beside to the next group of emerging plants.
  • Return every 12 hours and use different coloured flags to mark the following waves of emerging plants until all plants are out of the ground.
  • Come back at harvest and harvest the plants corresponding to colour.

“When you start shucking back ears and you look at it, that will be your ‘aha’ moment,” says Dowdy. “Those smaller, later-emerging ears produce fewer kernels that weigh less and the yield impact can be 20% to 50% as 12 to 36 hours go by.”

Dowdy feels farmers can limit this variability by paying more attention to planting practices. This includes reducing planning speed, better seedbed preparation and seed-to-soil contact, ensuring consistent seeding depth, and planting into moisture.

It all comes down to preserving yield potential. That means farmers must do everything they can to alleviate crop stress, says Dowdy. He applies fungicides in-furrow, at V10 to V12 as well as post tassel. During hot Georgia summers irrigation also plays a key role. About 80 per cent of Dowdy’s acres are irrigated. Most of the acres are irrigated at night to not only optimize water usage, but to also relieve stress by cooling the plant.

 

Bernard Tobin

Bernard Tobin is Real Agriculture's Ontario Field Editor. AgBern was raised on a dairy farm near St. John's, Newfoundland. For the past two decades, he has specialized in agricultural communications. A Ryerson University journalism grad, he kicked off his career with a seven-year stint as Managing Editor and Field Editor for Farm and Country magazine. He has received six Canadian Farm Writers' Federation awards for journalism excellence. He's also worked for two of Canada's leading agricultural communications firms, providing public relations, branding and strategic marketing. Bern also works for Guelph-based Synthesis Agri-Food Network and talks the Real Dirt on Farming.

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