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Tennessee brothers looking to repeat in National Corn Yield Contest

THE RHEA BROTHERS Matt and Scott credit Jeff Via center Extension staff chairman for Fayette County Tenn with helping them increase the dryland corn yield in a portion of their field to 339 bushels per acre
<p>THE RHEA BROTHERS, Matt and Scott, credit Jeff Via, center, Extension staff chairman for Fayette County, Tenn., with helping them increase the dryland corn yield in a portion of their field to 339 bushels per acre.</p> <p> </p>
&ldquo;We&rsquo;re always looking for ways to improve,&rdquo; says Matt Rhea. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re always trying to better our best.&rdquo;

When Scott and Matt Rhea harvested 334.95 bushels of corn per acre on a dryland field in 2012, they thought it would take an exceptional year for them to be able to top that. Well, welcome to 2014.

This year, the brothers produced an average of 339 bushels of corn per acre in the same field. They’re waiting now to hear if their entry will once again be the top yield in the Class A Non-Irrigated category of the National Corn Growers Association’s National Corn Yield contest.

“There are so many variables when it comes to growing corn,” says Scott, who along with brother, Matt, farms 5,500 acres of row crops around Somerville in west Tennessee. “We weren’t sure we could pull it all together again, but the weather this year was ideal.”

The brothers did not equal the 2012-record corn yield last year, in part, because the high-yielding field was in cotton. They try to rotate most of their fields at least annually. It’s part of the intensive management system they use to keep yields and profits up on the farm that has now been in their family for five generations.

If you’ve ever driven on U.S. Highway 64 east of Somerville, you have probably seen the white, columned antebellum home that sits on the south side of the highway, opposite the big white barn with the words “Woodburn Farm, Somerville, Tennessee” across the front. The home was built in 1850.

The home was remodeled when Scott was 13. Some of the memorabilia now lives in the office the brothers use for the farming operation. Scott and Matt’s father, Rube, and mother, Margaret Ann, live in the home.

High management

It takes a lot of management for their operation, which also includes taking care of 220 cows. The farm starts around Somerville in Fayette County and extends 17 miles, down into the edge of north Mississippi. The farm includes hills and land in the Wolf and Loosahatchie River bottoms. The Loosahatchie River soils are considered some of the best in the region.

“It can be challenging,” says Scott, referring to the need to move equipment over such distances. “We usually work with the county sheriff’s office to move everything because the equipment keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

Scott and Matt started planting their 2014 corn crop on April 6 and finished April 20. Like most farmers in the region, they were interrupted by spring rains. But the underground tile they’ve laid on their heaviest ground and other drainage work they’ve done over the years paid off.

“The underground tiles really helped,” said Matt. “We got a lot of rain last year, but we never got bogged down. We have found if we can get our crops in and get them up, most of our fields will do well.”

They planted three DEKALB hybrids – DKC 61-89, DKC 64-69 and DKC 66-97. The 64-69 hybrid produced the winning entry in the NCGA Class A Non-Irrigated category in 2012. This year, they seeded the DKC 66-97 on their contest field. They work closely with Joe Roberts, the Asgrow/DEKALB district sales manager for their area, on putting the right hybrid on each field.

There’s a lot of good-natured kidding back and forth between Roberts and the brothers. But the Rheas give him much of the credit for helping select the right hybrids. He also convinced them to enter the NCGA National Corn Yield Contest in 2012.

Minimum tillage

The brothers use minimum tillage on the hill land they farm, and bed up most of their bottom land prior to planting. Then, they use a Phillips Harrow to take care of any rough spots in their no-till fields prior to planting.

“My brother and I are very hands on,” said Scott. “We do the planting, we run the sprayer and we’re on the combine or the picker. One of the benefits is that we see where work is needed in each field. We’re also very strict on planter maintenance to make sure we get uniform seed spacing and proper seed depth.”

They’ve been experimenting with plant populations on their corn. The DKC 64-69 was planted with a goal of 36,000 seed per acre in the field that produced the Class A Non-Irrigated top yield in 2012.

“We have tried 41,000 seed per acre on some of our hybrids,” said Scott. “But they didn’t all respond, and, in fact, the higher plant population may have hurt yields. But we used 41,000 on the DKC 66-97 hybrid field in 2014, and it produced.”

Scott admits the brothers “did a little extra” to the contest field. “We like to learn new stuff every year and then try to max out what we’re doing.”

They start with 200 units of nitrogen, 115 units of phosphorus and 150 units of potash prior to planting. To that mix of fertilizers, they added five pounds of zinc, 10 pounds of sulfur and 1 pound of boron.

At planting, they applied five gallons of 10-34-0 with 3.2 ounces of Avail and 1 pint of Zinc Plus in-furrow as a starter fertilizer.

Coke-can high

The field was side-dressed with 200 units of ammonium nitrate when the corn reached seven inches tall. “We like to hit it when it’s between five and seven inches or about coke can height,” says Scott.

The ammonium nitrate is applied with a spreader truck. “We would like to be able to knife in anhydrous, but we don’t have the manpower to do it,” says Scott, who adds that he is interested in trying pre-tassel applications of nitrogen, but did not do so in 2014.

As they do with hybrid selection and plant populations, the brothers manage their fertilizer applications on a field-by-field basis. “We know which fields will respond and which won’t,” he notes. “On our heavier ground, we will increase the rate to 300 units of nitrogen or a mix of 300 units of nitrogen, 100 units of P and 110 units of K.

“On some of our marginal soils, we will back off on the rates to 180 units of nitrogen, 60 units of phosphorus and 70 to 90 units of potassium because we know the yield potential just isn’t there.”

In March, the brothers burn down with a quart of Roundup PowerMax, eight ounces of Banvil (dicamba) and two ounces of Valor. At planting, they apply a quart of atrazine and follow with another quart of atrazine and 5.8 ounces of Halex GT at post-emergence. That usually gets them to layby on corn.

They apply one-half ounce of Lambda cyhalothrin at planting to help control cutworms and other early-season insect pests. They have not applied any fungicides in their corn in recent years.

Cotton herbicides

They follow a similar approach with cotton. They have planted both Roundup Ready and Liberty Link varieties. They generally apply 12 ounces of Caparol, 12 ounces of Cotoran and 24 ounces of Warrant at planting and follow that with Roundup and Warrant postemergence.

“Rotation of the two crops helps a lot in our efforts to keep herbicide-resistant weeds under control,” says Matt. “We can mix chemistries between the two crops and provide different modes of action to keep the pigweed down.”

Insects were relatively light in their cotton in 2014. They sprayed for plant bugs twice and once for stink bugs. They did not have to treat for bollworms or tobacco budworms in their Bollgard II cotton. They also did not apply fungicides.

Cotton yields were in the 2-bale to 3-bale range or about what they average in a normal year, Scott says.

The brothers did not plant any early soybeans in 2014. The soybeans – Maturity Group 5s – went in in mid-May. They do not double-crop soybeans and wheat. “Wheat just doesn’t fit our production system,” says Matt.

Working together

Over the years, the brothers have learned to work together well. “We each have our own strengths,” says Scott, who turns to Matt when a question comes up about herbicide rates in the high-yielding corn plots. “We both wanted to farm from a young age, and we’ve grown up together in farming.”

They also give a lot of credit to input suppliers like Joe Roberts and to their county Extension agent, Jeff Via. “Jeff is at the top of his game. You can tell he cares. We can’t tell him thank you enough.

“We were trying to get the contest field harvested before the next big storm,” says Scott. “It was Sunday morning when we called Jeff and asked him if he could come check the yield. He just said ‘Let me change out of my church clothes, and I’ll be right there.’ That’s the way people pull together in this community.”

As October turned to November, the brothers were waiting for the National Corn Growers Association’s deadline (Nov. 21) to pass so they could learn where their yield placed in the National Corn Yield Contest.

No matter where they place, they like the experience of striving for higher yields. “We like to talk to Jeff and to local farmers and get bits and pieces of information on what works for them and put it together on our farm,” says Scott. “We learn something every day.”

“We’re always looking for ways to improve,” says Matt. “We’re always trying to better our best.”

For more information on the NCGA National Corn Yield Contest visit

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