On-farm variety trials, technology and rotation play crucial roles in Steve Skelton’s efforts to improve corn production on his Shaw, Mississippi, grain and cotton operation.
He farms with his wife, best friend and partner, Janet.
They made their “best ever” corn crop last year. They added cotton this year for the first time since the 1990s.
Skelton raised his first corn crop in 1994 and has learned a lot about varieties, tillage and fertility. He recently incorporated Climate FieldView technology to collect and analyze data to improve efficiency.
He says a critical first step in corn production is picking the right hybrid for a specific field. His soils range from sandy to heavy, so he selects hybrids to match.
“A lot of fields start off on the sandy side but about half or three quarters of the way across, turn to mixed or heavy ground.”
He says DEKALB 7027 likes class one sandy cotton ground, and DEKALB 6744 is better on heavy buckshot soils.
He gets a good look at what works best every year through Mississippi State University variety trials. “I am a cooperator with MSU and have variety trials here every year,” he says. “That gives me on-farm research to guide me."
“I like university trials because they plant everybody’s stuff. If I see something I like, I try it on a limited basis and compare with what I usually plant.”
Trials help him improve yields, especially with variable soils. “With 80% sand and 20% heavy soil, hybrid selection is important. The 6744 is more consistent — maybe not the best on sandier ground, but it does not fall off as much on heavier land. FieldView, a data management program he’s used for the last three years, shows the differences.”
He uses Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) maps to create prescriptions in FieldView as a basis for seeding.
High moisture harvest
One hybrid is a 120-day corn, and the other is closer to 116. “I like one better on buckshot and one on sand. “
Skelton says managing hybrids with different maturity ratings, chosen because of soil type variations, are not more difficult to manage. He harvests at 24% moisture and brings moisture down with an on-farm dryer.
“All the harvested corn is blended together, so maturity rating isn’t a factor. Harvesting at higher moisture also improves yield.”
He writes custom seeding prescriptions as well as determines nutrient, moisture and other input requirements through FieldView.
He uses Precision Planting gadgets and technology on his John Deere planter. “They’ve switched hybrids on the go in the Midwest for a long time."
An mSet planter gadget allows him to switch hybrids and seeding rates on the go. “I am one of the first in Mississippi to use mSet,” Skelton says.
He’s monitoring fertility, too.
“I am a big proponent of chicken litter for phosphorus and potassium,” he says. He credits Mississippi State agronomist Larry Odum for help with chicken litter applications. “He has been a great help, guiding me through chicken litter applications.
“I’m trying to figure out how to utilize nitrogen better. I’m still working it out.”
He uses FieldView yield data and yield maps to identify problems. “I can tell from my easy chair if the problem was drainage or something else. I can drive through the worst spots virtually with my iPad and find what the problem is and determine how to fix it."
He laser grades most of his fields. After he addresses drainage, he can focus on fertility. “The two dovetail. FieldView makes it clear. A lightbulb comes on when I’m driving harvest equipment,” he says. “That’s when I learn what I did right and what I did wrong all year. It all starts with drainage.
“Drainage and fertility are the two most important things in farming I have any control over,” he says.
“The first thing to consider in fertility is pH and then N, P and K. If you don’t get that right, everything else you do is wasted time and money.”
Until this year, Skelton planted corn and soybeans. “Cotton is now in the loop. Last year we had soybeans and were 50/50 corn/soybeans since late '90s. Rotation is a basic, fundamental principle in improving yields.”
He’s also looking at tillage and cover crops. “I feel like God opened my eyes to soil health, so I am looking at ways to explore that and reduce costs. I have a lot of things to consider. Let’s see how it does in three to five years."
He’s moving toward reduced tillage and trying some no-till. “I’ll see where it leads us. A network of roots in the soil all the time improves soil health. Cover crop vegetation will protect the soil surface from rainfall, and as the cover crop roots die, we can plant a cash crop and create another root system. I hope the need for deep tillage goes away.”
He says adding a cover crop is “next on the horizon. Cover crops aid soil health, so that’s something I’ll try in the next few years. I just bought a cover crop planter.”
He’s taking a hard look at moisture management, too.
“NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) has preached water management with surge irrigation for years,” Skelton says. He recommends producers check local NRCS offices to see the research available. “Go online and look.
“I am experimenting with ways to reduce wastewater and the amount of time we irrigate,” Skelton says. “MSU irrigation specialist Drew Gholson is helping me put more water in the soil and saving money.
“A lot of pieces fit into the puzzle, and I am exploring the way God wants me to farm. I’m drawing on wisdom I’ve learned all my life and adding technology to prove it. We’re getting explanations. Farming with fewer inputs with low commodity prices is a key to survival. We need to look at profit and not yield.”
Skelton is a bit cautious about prospects for the 2020 corn crop, a tough year. “It’s been a nightmare, the hardest I’ve been through. We could plant for 12 hours and then it would rain; we could plant again and get more rain. I’m usually harvesting by early August, and I was still irrigating. By the end of August, I was still waiting to harvest corn.”
He remains hopeful. “I have learned not to judge a corn crop. High nighttime temperatures got us during pollination. But it looks to be an average crop, a fairly good one, I think.”