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'Process' plays key role in top corn yields

Ron Smith dfp-ronsmith-reeds.jpg
Eric and Madison (Maddy) Reed took top honors for dryland corn production for Tennessee and Alabama in the NCGA yield contest.
Eric Reed and his daughter, Madison, won 2019 National Corn Growers Association dryland corn yield contests.

It's the process.

No silver bullets, no added nutrients and no magic potions go into corn plots Eric Reed and his daughter, Madison, harvested to win the 2019 National Corn Growers Association dryland corn yield contests for Tennessee and Alabama.

Madison (Maddy), 17, earned top honors in Tennessee with 328 bushels per acre. Eric won in Alabama with 316.

Reed farms corn, cotton, and soybeans in Lincoln County, Tenn., and Madison County, Ala.

He says a big part of the process is to "control the controllables and manage the manageables. We can't control the weather; Mother Nature holds the trump card, but we will work with it and manage around it.

"We don't do anything different with the contest plots than we do for the other fields," Reed says. "We're not just entering to win; we take what we learn and apply it to our management system."

He collects data and puts it to use in subsequent seasons. "I like to follow the data I collect from my own farm," he says.

Reed says 2019 overall corn production from his Tennessee and Alabama farms averaged 248 bushels per acre. "We had almost perfect growing conditions."

Right hybrid

Picking the right hybrid, he says, is a crucial part of the process. "We have to select the right hybrid for the right dirt," he says.

Winning variety was Dekalb 6744, planted on about 10 percent of the acreage. "The rest was in AgriGold," Reed says.

"We try a few new ones every year, usually on a few acres to see how they work. We look for hybrids that are recommended for our territory."

He plans to plant a few more acres in Dekalb 6744 this spring.

Mistakes are costly

He says part of his process means avoiding self-inflicted wounds. "We can't afford to make mistakes. Our mistakes don't cost $5,000 or $10,000. They're more like $50,000 or $60,000 errors. We don't make them often."

He says limiting soil compaction, for instance, is an important part of the process. Spray rig tracks make a difference in compaction and yield.

"We don't spray corn with the rows but run 90 degrees across them. In a 260-bushel field, we lose some 6.8 bushels for every set of tracks we make."

Knowing crop nutrient demand plays a crucial role, too. Reed takes soil samples routinely but doesn't stop there.

"Every Monday morning, regardless of the weather, I pull tissue samples."

He starts when corn reaches the V-10 stage and samples every week until the black layer forms. "I get sample results back by Wednesday, make a plan of action on Thursday and go to the field on Friday to correct problems, if necessary."

He says collecting tissue samples takes about four hours.

"I do it myself; I don't hire anyone to do it for me. I follow that same process with cotton and soybeans."

He doesn't sample every acre but tries to find representative fields that provide "the best data that pertains to the whole farm."

Ron Smith dfp-ronsmith-eric.jpg

Eric Reed produces cotton, corn and soybeans in Tennessee and Alabama. He says top yields depend on a "process."

Chicken litter

He applies no dry fertilizer. "I use chicken litter and liquid fertilizer," he says. "We have about 10 chicken houses within a 5-mile radius of our farm headquarters."

Chicken litter aids his system in other ways, too. "Soil health is a factor," Reed says. "Chicken litter adds organic matter." He says cover crops are on the list of practices he wants to try to add even more organic matter.

Strip-tillage is another option. He's already 100 percent no-till but might consider dry fertilizer with a strip-till unit if he can get consistent depth and spacing.

Maddy is part of the process. "She pulled her entry this year," Reed says. "She helped the technician measure off the plot in July. She did the math."

Contest rules require a 1.35-acre plot for harvest. Entrants pick a specific farm in June. Maddy's was a 15-acre field.

"We knew it was going to be good," Reed says. Turned out to be better than expected. Average across the entire field, 348 bushels per acre, bested the contest plot.

Maddy spends a lot of time in the crop. A junior at Lincoln County High School, she gets a "green card excuse" on days she takes off early to work on the farm. "The school encourages us to do things like this outside of class," she says.

"She runs the roller picker at harvest," Reed says. "She takes an interest in the farm."

The farm includes 1,000 acres of cotton, 370 acres of corn and 50 acres of soybeans. Reed also won the Tennessee dryland soybean yield with 89.15 bushels per acre.

Lessons learned

He says he always learns something from each crop to carry over to the next. "If you can figure out the science behind what you've done, you can repeat it," he says.

He says lessons learned from 2019 include planter speed. "We have high-speed planters, but speed can be detrimental.

"We bought a used planter and customized it," he says. "I spent two weeks on a plot behind the shop checking it out before planting the crop."

He's also changing row spacings. "We've been planting cotton on 40-inch rows and corn and beans on 30-inches." It's an efficiency and an economy move. "Planters are so expensive we can't afford two $250,000 planters and two operators running them. I'll plant all crops on 30-inch rows."

He may change other practices. "I always keep one foot out of the box," he says. "Farmers are creatures of habit and tend to do things the way we've always done them. That's how we end up in a rut."

He likes to try new things, but "on a small acreage."

He hopes to beat this year's production goals. "Last year we set three goals: (1) Win the Tennessee and Alabama corn yield contest; (2) win the Tennessee soybean yield contest; and (3) Make five-bale cotton."

He checked off all three boxes. "We didn't have a lot of five-bale cotton, but we made a bit more than five in one plot."

Last year is in the books, Reed says, a good one for cotton, corn and soybeans. He reached the goals he set by following his process. And with 2020 planting seasons approaching, that process begins again.

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