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Corn+Soybean Digest

On-farm experiments increase corn, soybean yields

On-farm experiments increase corn, soybean yields
Applied science and curiosity pays off for Watson Farms.

Would you believe that the corn ears from plants emerging on Day 1 would be 13% fatter than the corn ears from Day-2-emerged corn? That’s exactly what played out at Watson Farms, Villa Grove, Ill., last year on a test of a 40-ft. section of one row. You could say the Watsons’ corn stood the test of time.

That expression played out profitably when Jason Watson flagged newly emerged seedlings each day at noon according to day of emergence. The experiment’s results changed how his cousin Adam Watson equips his planter and when he plants at their Villa Grove, Ill., farm.

They hand-harvested the 40-foot-row experiment by day emerged, and arranged the ears on the shop floor accordingly. All Day-1-emerged corn ears had 18-row girths and were 34-37 kernels long. One ear was 20 rows around.

            All Day-2-emerged plants had 16-row ear girths and were 34-37 kernels long.

            All Day-3-emerged plants and later lacked any ears at all or were “weeds.”

            The Watsons didn’t plant last year until May 13, “and we’d had a week of 85 degrees, so the corn emerged in 4.5 days with extremely low stress,” Adam says.

The experiment changed Adam’s planter setup and opened his mind to later planting. He’s now much more keen on seed firmers and Air Force (on-the-go down-force planter adjuster), and saw a big difference between fields planted with that technology compared to the others.

This applied-science approach to new ideas means that Adam and Jason test new ideas to see what works in their fields. In the process, these third-generation cousins and their dads, Jeff and Jerry Watson, know where to focus for profits. For example, Adam has come to appreciate aerial imagery. Late-season Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) remote-sensing imagery revealed much more plant stress in one field than he’d anticipated. Adam’s still not sure what the source of the stress is, (possibly soil type?), but it stood out markedly compared to what he’d seen scouting conventionally.

So this year, they will expand the number of NDVI-imaged acres beyond the 200 acres done last summer. The $2 per acre cost is a great value for the value delivered, Adam says. “If I hadn’t seen the aerial view, I would not have realized how stressed those areas were from the ground. It was easy to see from overhead.”

Adam and Jason are trained on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) operation for a 2014 Watson Farms debut this season. “We’re tip-toeing into it to learn on a small scale how we can benefit from this,” he says. Adam’s keen on technology as long as it pencils out, having became a John Deere-certified technician before majoring in ag business.

As seed dealers, the Watsons are a 10-acre test site for 300 hybrids, testing the right environment for a hybrid. They use RTK guidance for repeatability and accuracy in trials and daily operations.

A pop-up fertilizer trial on 11 hybrids revealed a 3.5-bu. yield advantage. “You could see the pop-up advantage right up to the row; the corn was at least one leaf stage ahead, and greener,” Adam says. “Visually it looked more like a 10-bushel advantage.”

Another one of his test plots last year found a 25-bushel difference between white corn with fungicide and white corn without. (They grow white and yellow food-grade corn for Frito-Lay and seed beans.)

Adam shared his and Jason's on-farm experiments to a packed auditorium at the 2014 Commodity Classic educational session, "Yield Busters," sponsored by Stoller. He was not shy about admitting that he learned some of his best lessons from mistakes.


Mistakes as teacher

Some of Adam’s best lessons came from mistakes. “My ‘epic fail’ was waiting too long to sidedress in a record wet year,” he says. “The first year we had a Hagie Highboy sidedress rig was also the wettest spring I’d ever seen. Every time I had available to sidedress was also a time to spray, so I didn’t get to the sidedressing until July 4, when I finally flew it on in desperation. There was a 90-bushel difference between the preplant-only and the sidedressed corn on the 80-foot control strip,” he says. “It was a good lesson on the value of having a Plan B.”

Their normal program is 32% liquid N preplant by prescription, plus 50 pounds sidedress. The farm now owns two sidedress applicators to improve their odds.

Not everyone can accept mistakes as learning opportunities, Adam says. He has tremendous respect for his father and uncle’s willingness to tolerate farm experiments.

 “They realize we’re passionate about what we do and trust us to have our own ideas, too; to let me trip and stumble and learn along the way—not everyone has that luxury.”

That inborn curiosity seems fitting for an operation so close to DeKalb, Ill., where the same spirit of trial and error developed the first hybrid genetics generations ago.


ID-preserved crops

Watson Farms grows white and yellow food-grade corn for Frito-Lay and seed beans on their third-generation, 4,600-acre farm near Villa Grove, Ill. Besides the price premium, it’s been interesting to see the evolving focus on grower sustainability practices, Adam Watson says.

“Wal-Mart is Frito-Lay’s biggest customer, and Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiative translates back to us in the form of grower sustainability education and annual surveys that inventory our fertilizer and related input-use practices. It hasn’t changed the way we do things, but they track what goes into growing their base ingredients.”

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