Farm Progress

Southeast corn growers share key details on how they achieve high yields

Corn producers from Alabama and Georgia recently discussed a few of their key production practices at the Alabama Corn/Wheat Short Course.Technology only gets a grower so far. From soil sampling, to burndown, to planting, to aggressive weed and water management to timely everything, good growers have to earn high corn yields. 

Paul L. Hollis

February 3, 2014

11 Min Read
<p>CORN PRODUCERS SHARED some of their key production practices during the Alabama Corn/Wheat Short Course, held in central Alabama in mid-December. Shown are, left to right, Randy Dowdy of southwest Georgia, Jared Darnell of north Alabama, and Thomas Kirkland of southeast Alabama.</p>

While remarkable advances have been made in corn genetics, the fact remains that it doesn’t grow by itself, and good growers are required for good yields.

That was the point of a grower panel held during the recent Alabama Corn/Wheat Short Course in Shorter — for successful corn producers to share a few of their production practices and keys to success.

“In recent years, I’ve seen yields of grain crops in the Southeast increase more than I ever thought they would,” said Auburn University Extension Agronomist Charlie Burmester, who moderated the panel.

“Here in Alabama, even with a lot of our dryland acres, some of our farmers have been successful with corn yields, and I know some farmers in Georgia have done the same.

“They have access to more irrigation in Georgia than we do in Alabama, and they’ve really been able to push their yields to remarkable levels,” said Burmester.

The idea of the panel, he said, is to discuss practices that farmers are actually doing to produce high corn yields. “We do that a lot — just sitting around the coffee shop and discussing these things — so just think of this meeting hall as one big coffee shop,” he said.

Jared Darnell farms with his brother and father in north Alabama’s Tennessee Valley, growing cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat.

“We double-crop soybeans behind wheat, which is as much double-cropping as we can do that far north,” says Darnell. “We’re about 10 percent irrigated, planting mostly no-till along with some minimum-tillage using the Great Plains Turbo Till.

“We’ve been planting no-till for about 10 years. We try to stay on a three-year rotation with cotton, corn and wheat/soybeans. We use a lot of poultry litter, and that has been a key to high yields for the past seven or eight years.”

North Alabama grower utilizes poultry litter

Darnell has worked out agreements with local poultry growers who provide the litter he needs.

“Once we’ve established a relationship, whenever they clean out their houses, you take it whether you need it or not. We pay from $25 to $30 per ton, but that’s not spraying, it’s just dumping,” he says.

He soil-samples every year and limes whenever he needs it.

“We put out 2 tons of poultry litter in the spring using the Turbo-Till. When the soil temperature gets to about 50 degrees F. and the weather forecast looks pretty favorable for about two weeks, we’ll start planting, usually about March 10, though we have planted earlier.”

For a burndown, he uses Roundup, LeadOff, and sometimes 2,4-D or dicamba. Then, behind the planter, he’ll put out one-third of his 32-percent N-sol, Gramaxone and atrazine in a band on the row.

“We’ll spray over-the-top when corn is about 8 to 10 inches tall with Roundup and Capreno. Then we apply about 140 units of N-sol.

“Once you’ve been putting on chicken litter for about 10 years, you’ve always got a nitrogen source there, though it’s hard to say exactly how much. You’ll probably have to use more N-sol in the first two to three years of applying chicken litter.”

If it’s a good crop, sometimes he’ll apply a fungicide when the corn tassels.

Then, he’ll start harvesting corn at 22 to 23 percent moisture — whatever he thinks he can manage with his grain bin facilities.

“In 2012, our dryland corn yields were 65 bushels per acre and this past year they were 205 bushels per acre. We do the same thing every year, and then it’s up to the Good Lord from there.”

Darnell’s plant population on dryland acreage is about 28,500. On irrigated, he goes up to about 32,000. He does some variable-rate planting, going down to about 24,000 on the hills and 30,000 in the bottomland.

“We’re still planting 38-inch row corn which means we have to go very slowly with the planter.

“We sample our litter when it’s dry. I usually want to make sure I’m getting about a 50-50-40 per ton. We thought our phosphorus levels might go too high with chicken litter, but we haven’t seen that.

“We don’t lime at all anymore, and that’s one benefit I didn’t expect. We grid-sample on every 10 acres.”

Darnell has 210,000 bushels of grain-storing capacity, farming a total of about 5,000 acres. “We’ll get the crop out of the field and store some to get a basis.

“Having storage also allows us to harvest at a higher moisture rate. I can dry 24 percent corn down to 15 for about 10 to 12 cents per bushel, including gas and electricity. We’ve had our system for four years now.”

Check current corn futures prices

Darnell says he has become more involved in wheat production in the past five years.

“We do some light tillage in the fall to distribute the residue from corn and cotton. On 7.5-inch rows, you’re shooting for 24 seed per foot, which is about 1.5 million seed per acre.

“We apply 2 tons of poultry litter before we plant, and then about a month after planting, when wheat is about 2 inches tall, we’ll put out 7.5 gallons of N-sol and 7.5 gallons of water along with three-fourths ounce of Harmony.”

In the spring, when the weather begins warming up, Darnell puts out 20 to 25 gallons of N-sol, and then he’s finished with nitrogen.

“When the wheat puts out a flag leaf, we’ll put out a fungicide. We’ll spray three or four times, really managing wheat. Our crop consultant actually checks wheat more than he does cotton, so we don’t take off during the winter.

“We do a tissue analysis prior to the spring application of nitrogen, and we adjust accordingly. We’re regularly making 85 to 100-bushel wheat.”

He applies Prosaro fungicide, mainly for head scab. But some years he has to make two fungicide applications, one early at flag leaf and then the next when the head is developing.

Kirkland irrigates his entire corn crop

Thomas Kirkland farms in southeast Alabama, near Headland, growing about 1,400 acres of row crops, including cotton, corn and peanuts.

“We have about 300 acres of irrigation, watering all our corn crop. We usually grow about 200 to 250 acres of corn at any one time.

“Most of my water sources are creeks and streams, and we’re pumping out of a river in one location.

“On one 170-acre farm that’s leased we have a 12-inch irrigation well powered by an electric motor pumping 1,000 gallons per minute,” says Kirkland.

He normally has his mind made up by December about which corn varieties he’ll be planting the next year.

“We look at variety trials from Alabama, Georgia and Florida and try to select one that will stand up and has a good root system. Of course we look primarily at yield, because that’s what makes us money.”

Kirkland takes a 2.5-acre grid, site-specific soil sample and fertilizes accordingly. He pulls his soil samples at 8 inches.

He has done nematode sampling in the past, but it didn’t show a need to treat.

“In January, we spread about 3 tons of poultry litter per acre, and we disk that in. We haven’t had a problem with lodging. Much of that goes back to the genetics of the corn plant herself. We try to plant our corn about 2 inches deep, and that works best for us.”

When determining when to plant, he looks at the soil temperature posted by the Wiregrass Experiment Station in Headland and monitors it daily from their website.

“We try to be finished planting corn by the end of March. We plant strip-till and subsoil in the row with a Paratill. We shoot for a plant population of about 32,000. We put a pint of Dual behind the planter when we plant.

“We have had problems with nutsedge and Palmer amaranth resistant pigweed. As soon as we have a stand, we’ll go in with Roundup and the maximum rate of atrazine.

“Morningglory is also a problem in our fields. We put out about 250 units of ammonium nitrate and about 40 units of potash. That’s based on soil samples and the availability of nutrients from the poultry litter.

We monitor our soil moisture with tensiometers or water resistance blocks. We try to keep the moisture at field capacity until the black layer forms, and then we combine at about 25-percent moisture.”

Georgia grower has best and worst crop in one year

Randy Dowdy farms about 25 miles north of the Florida line, growing corn, peanuts, soybeans and wheat, with price dictating what he grows.

“I try to double-crop wheat and beans, but it’s tough because we have a wheat basis of about a negative $1 or $1.50. This past year, I had 300 acres of peanuts and almost 500 acres of corn. We don’t grow any cotton,” he says.

Dowdy’s corn harvest typically depends on when he plants. In 2012, he was finished with planting corn by the third week in March, and he harvested corn by the third week in July.

“When we got the land ready, we planted soybeans after corn, from Aug. 1 to Aug. 3. As soon as the corn was out of the way, we planted, and we averaged 45 bushels per acre,” he says.

It all depends on when the corn can be harvested, says Dowdy.

“For 2013, the corn didn’t come off until the end of August, and we planted iron clay peas into about half of the acreage. But we were very limited this past year. I’ve thought about planting grain sorghum late but haven’t tried it yet. We need a short-season grain sorghum to be able to do it.”

He sprays atrazine in a burndown treatment for corn, with 2, 4-D and Roundup, coming back with Roundup and atrazine for a pre-emergence.

“Then we come back with Roundup and atrazine again if we have any escapes. We’re putting out only 1 to 1.5 pints to 1 quart each time, but it has been very effective on our pigweed control.”

Dowdy plants 36-inch twin rows. This past year I experimented with 30-inch rows. The 36-inch twin rows are 12 inches apart. We’ll do a lot of side-by-side testing to see how the 30-inch rows perform for us.”

He has been farming since 2006, and had to learn how to contour farm on his land. “We’ve got some very poor soils and rolling terrain, with probably 50 to 60-feet elevation changes. I strip-till out of necessity on some of my land, and we can get away with conventional-tillage in other fields. I don’t have a preference one way or the other, and I don’t see much difference from a yield standpoint.”

Dowdy pulls soil samples in the fall because he wants to know what he has immediately after the crop is finished.

“I’ll do it again in the spring. It costs me $5 to $6 to pull a soil sample and get it analyzed, and that’s my last chance to correct it before I plant.

“Typically, I’ll pull soil samples in 2.5 to 5-acre grids in the summer just ahead of the double-cropping if we have the opportunity. Then, I’ll pull a sample again just before I plant because that’s my last chance to make corrections.

“I like to experiment with poultry litter, but we don’t have a reliable source. It’s $45 to $47 per ton spread on the field. With dry fertilizer I have a guaranteed analysis and uniformity.”

Dowdy has a goal of what he wants his phosphorus and potash levels to be.

“We will variable-rate, taking into account if we’re going to fertigate or plow it in, and we’ll spread a little P and K.

“I’m planting with a twin-row planter, and I’ve got a 2 by 2 applicator, 2 inches to the side and 2 inches below the seed. If I’m planting 2 inches deep, I’m placing fertilizer 4 inches deep. We have potash, phosphorus and minor elements in that 2 by 2, and we plant slowly.”

Uniformity is a key, he says, and he wants plants to come up in 12 to 24 hours.

“Consistent seed depth and knowing our soil temperatures is important, and we monitor the weather two to three weeks before we plant. I want that soil temperature to be 56 degrees F. at 2 inches deep. You’re stuck for the rest of the year with what you do at planting, so don’t get in a hurry.”

He applies an insecticide in-furrow and Poncho 1250 seed treatment as insurance. He’ll also have some fungicide on his seed, something he considers a minor investment considering the protection it provides.

His plant populations range from 36,000 to 42,000 or 44,000 per acre.

“This past year, with our weather conditions, I picked some of my best corn ever and some of my worst corn ever. In the future, I’ll have more diversity in my plant population. We’ll try to spread our risks there and also spread it across relative maturities.”

Dowdy encourages other farmers to conduct their own variety trials on their farms.

“Plant eight or 10 hybrids and know what will work best with your tillage practices and on your farm. I fertigiate because I want to constantly feed my crop. But we need to know more about micronutrients as it relates to yield, and I think that’s one of our largest yield-limiting factors.”


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About the Author(s)

Paul L. Hollis

Auburn University College of Agriculture

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