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Corn champion challenges other farmers to become students of the crop

corn crop
STUDENT OF THE CROP: What can you learn from corn at this stage? Randy Dowdy pulls tissue samples weekly during the season to see what the crop is telling him.
NCGA corn yield contest winner shares thoughts about pushing for higher yields.

If you were drawing up a description of who could grow the most corn per acre in the country and where that person would grow it, the last scenario you would likely select is that which describes Randy Dowdy. He hasn’t grown corn all of his life. His soils aren’t naturally productive.

In fact, Dowdy, Valdosta, Ga., has only grown corn since 2008. His soils aren’t black and high in organic matter. Growing corn only miles from the Florida line, his soils are low in organic matter — usually less than 1%. They’re typically low in cation-exchange capacity, averaging a CEC of 4 to 7.

So how does he do it? He gives the plants what they need, starting with water through irrigation.

Dowdy recently visited AgriGold’s parent company, AgReliant Genetics, in Westfield to be officially recognized as the 2016 champion in the National Corn Growers Association yield contest. His winning yield was 521 bushels per acre, using an AgriGold hybrid.

Here are excerpts from Dowdy’s thoughts on how to begin if you’re serious about growing high corn yields.

General approach. “You must be a student of the crop,” Dowdy emphasizes. “Learn to listen to what plants are telling you.”

Early establishment. It’s not just a matter of getting picket-fence stands, where stalks are uniformly placed, Dowdy notes. “The most important thing is getting the crop to emerge uniformly,” he says. "That’s what we look for when we’re identifying fields with the highest yield potential.” Ideally, Dowdy likes the entire stand to emerge within 24 hours. “Those things make a big difference when it comes down to return on investment,” he adds.

Early-season challenges. Just because Dowdy raised 521 bushels per acre in a 10-acre weighed plot doesn’t mean the crop didn’t have challenges. His area received 21 inches of rain during a three-week period early in the season. Fortunately, some fields were better-suited to withstanding this kind of stress than others.

Tissue sampling. As soon as 350 growing degree units accumulate, Dowdy begins pulling tissue samples. He pulls samples weekly throughout the rest of the season. “We go all the way through the R4 stage,” he says. Dowdy notes that’s how he determines what the crop needs in terms of foliar nutrients during the season. "It helps me know if I’m getting a return on investment in fertilizer,” he says. “It’s all about ROI.”

Soil fertility program. Dowdy bases how he fertilizes during the season largely on what type of stand he has in the field early in the year. “If we think we have a stand for 250-bushel corn, then we fertilize for 250-bushel corn,” he explains. “If it’s a good, uniform stand and we think it’s a 400-bushel-per-acre stand, then we fertilize for 400 bushels per acre. We make those adjustments after we see what kind of stand we have in the field.”

More on soil fertility. “It has to be about more than just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium,” Dowdy says. Other nutrients and micronutrients are also important. His goal is to determine what the limiting factor might be, and do what he can to make sure it doesn’t limit yield during the season.

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