March 16, 2022
Managing high input costs means understanding your farm — where to push production and where not to, says Don Stall, who took first place in the National Corn Growers Association Yield Contest, harvesting 465.7 bushels on conventional irrigated land.
Stall will plant 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans this spring in Charlotte, Mich., on both dry and irrigated land with an eye on optimal yields. “That means recognizing your limiting factors,” he says. “We grade our ground from A to E, and then break it down further into zones or areas. From there, we define our yield goals. We have some ground that is never going to produce more than 165-bushel corn. So, we’re not going to try and push that. On ground where the potential is 500 bushels, we’re going for it, but with adjustments throughout the year as limiting factors come into play.”
Stall, a sixth-generation farmer who came back to the farm after six years in the Marines, variable-rate applies inputs based on 1-acre grid samples. “Our recipe is always different as we variable-rate our P, K and lime based on those tests,” he says.
He’s already at a point where he can produce a bushel of corn on 0.7 pounds of N. “That’s typically what we end up with, so I don't know how much we can really cut our inputs without hurting our yields,” Stall says.
All of his irrigated acres are managed the same at the beginning. “We do multiple passes of fertility during the growing season, and at V6 we tissue-test, which is crucial because that's right at the beginning of rapid growth and where nutrient uptake is going to be huge.”
Making sure those plants have plenty of food from V6 through to VT is a top concern. “Those plants are taking up 18, sometimes 20, 22 pounds of K every day, per acre,” Stall says. “So that's got to be available.”
He also uses five different growth regulators applied with starter fertilizer. Nitrogen applications are coupled with sulfur at a 10-to-1 ratio.
Guiding the whole fertility program for the future is eyes on the present. “I have three agronomists, and we're out there every week scouting fields,” Stall says. “We are the students, and the fields are the classroom. If your seed company agronomist calls and says he's coming out to take a look at your fields, go with him.”
Stall expects to make a good profit for the 2022 crop, even with the higher costs of inputs. “We prepaid, so we know most of what our input costs are going to be, which always helps,” he says. “Know your breakeven point, do a good job of marketing, and you can still lock in a profit.”
Reflecting on 2021
For his winning contest entry, he planted Pioneer P0720AM, a 107-day hybrid at 50,000 seeds per acre. “Typically, we figure we can harvest 100 bushels for every 10,000 plants, so we shoot for 500-bushel corn.”
A dry spring allowed Stall to plant in April, and he wrapped up planting season in record time.
The dryness continued through June. “We were almost 1988-style drought around the 20th of June, and then we started getting rain, and more rain — 9 inches in a week,” he says. “That hurt us, as well as the cloudy weather during rapid growth. We bounced back and forth between drought and flood, and back to drought and flood, and then harvest was a mud bath.”
On the Stall farm, the reproductive stage triggers a fungicide application on both irrigated and dry land since tar spot entered the scene a couple of years ago. For the 2021 crop, half the crop was treated at R1, the other half at R3.
“The R1 was the best performer,” Stall says. “We don't know if that's going to be the same case every year, but R1 kept the tar spot at bay a little bit longer.”
For years, Stall has done multiple passes of nitrogen applications with a high-clearance, row-crop sprayer and drops.
To pinpoint contest fields, he relies heavily on the V6 tissue tests. “We look at the numbers, but also look at other limiting factors, so the contest field moves around a little bit,” he says. “On the dryland corn side, it's typically two or three fields — our best ones that can hold water and nutrients.”
One of the most frequent questions Stall gets asked is, “That’s great, but are you making any money?” His response is a solid “yes.” In fact, they are his most profitable acres. “I know that's hard for some people to believe, but we’ll make over $1,500 per acre profit on our highly managed, irrigated contest plots,” he says.
“And we will make over $1,000 on the dryland plots — that's including our variable costs but not our fixed costs.”
Despite common misconception, he doesn’t throw everything he can get his hands on at the crop. “That’s just setting yourself up for disappointment — you'll have conflicts and you won't make any money,” he says. “Name of the game is profit.”
Stall recently had soil biological tests pulled that “blew the guys away that conduct them,” he says.
After reading the results, the testers summarized that Stall must have been no-tilling for many years and using cover crops extensively. “He went right down the list, and I'm like, we've never done any of those things,” he says. “He couldn't believe it because he'd never seen soil biological tests that good ever, in all the years he’s doing it. He credited our many years of intensive management to grow healthier crops.”
Typically, Stall will chisel plow or rip-till all soybean stubble in the fall, which didn’t happen this past wet fall. He hits his corn stubble with a turbo till, which is considered vertical tillage, before planting beans.
“We have heavy clay subsoil, so we hold water and nutrients and have to till, or it gets so hard it's just like a road,” he says.
Looking ahead, Stall admits to being an eternal optimist. “We all love planting season because our yield is never going to be higher than the day we put it in the ground,” he says.
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