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Brothers take non-GMO approach to top corn yield contestBrothers take non-GMO approach to top corn yield contest

Georgia brothers' farming path settled on a non-GMO crop rotation, and the yields and the bottom line haven’t suffered.

Brad Haire

February 4, 2022

5 Min Read
Georgia farmers James, right, and Jonathan Hitchcock transitioned out of growing cotton into growing high-yield grain.Brad Haire

James and Jonathan Hitchcock try things, taking calculated chances, or maybe even a gamble. It runs in their blood. The brothers’ farming path has settled on a non-GMO crop rotation, and the yields and the bottom line haven’t suffered.

“Growing non-GMO really isn’t easier or more difficult to grow than GMO seed,” James said. “It’s the same principle as going for more yield, you need to pay attention to the details and be timely with what you are doing. … We just can’t rely on Roundup for our weed control programs.”

In the last few years, the brothers have transitioned out of growing cotton into growing more grain. James and Jonathan now work 2,600 acres, or about 980 acres of yellow corn and 199 acres of white corn with the rest in soybeans, peanuts and winter wheat. Taking the cotton out of the peanut rotation with soybeans can be tricky, but peanut and soybean yields haven’t suffered. They now have fields five years straight in corn and counting.

Though they farm in partnership, brotherly competition remains stout. Their names appear as top yielders in several categories for Georgia in the National Corn Growers Association National Yield Contest for the 2021 crop. Most notably, Jonathan hit the top yield for the No-till Irrigated category, which was also the highest overall Georgia submitted yield, with a 324.95-bushel average on a Dekalb variety. James came in second in that category with 306.15-bushel average with a Dekalb variety. They both are the top two yielders in the Strip Irrigated category and the Conventional Irrigated category.

(Perennial yield heavy-hitter David Hula topped the 2021 NCGA contest again with a 602.1694 bushels per acre average, the second time the Charles City, Va., grower topped the contest with over 600 bushels per acre.)

Same treatment

Every acre of corn on the Hitchcock farm receives the same treatment. They don’t shoot to produce small plots to jack yields for contests. (The NCGA contest has many rules, one being a yield submission must be a 10-acre minimum of one variety.)

Like many corn growers in the Southeast, the brothers had their best yields and production in 2021. The yellow corn averaged 271 bushels and the white corn averaged 210 bushels per acre. According to USDA final estimates, Georgia growers hit a 182-bushel statewide average in 2021, a new record.


Hitchcocks have nothing against GMO seed, but they have exclusively grown non-GMO corn and soybean varieties for the last several years. All peanut varieties commercially grown are non-GMO.

Over the last five years, the brothers have honed the operation to produce higher per-acre yields across the farm, but early on it wasn’t assured they’d have a farm or land. But we’ll circle back to that in a bit.

A few years back, a local agribusinessman started buying and marketing non-GMO grains. He recently built a mill to handle the increasing demand for non-GMO grains, purchasing from the Hitchcocks and other regional growers. The non-GMO market comes with a premium price, they said, one worth growing for and economically sustainable for the Hitchcocks when corn prices tanked over the last five to six years.

They don’t hold back on fertility to get the yields they want, but they also don’t want to throw fertilizer into a no-economic-return hole. They soil sample each year on 2.5-acre grids, but Jonathan said they’d like to get down to even smaller samples, maybe each acre. Based on soil tests, they variable rate the lime and potash to get up to levels they want, and they’d like to see a 300-bushel average on the yellow corn.

They apply two-tons of chicken litter and apply at-plant, in-furrow fertilizer mixes with 2x2 placement. They tissue sample every other week and fertigate nitrogen at least four times during the season, along with additional micronutrients based on the tissue samples.

Virtually all fields are center pivot irrigated. They use soil moisture sensors to schedule irrigation events, making sure the corn gets the water and cooler soils needed to produce the results they want.

At planting, they also apply one pound of sugar — regular cane sugar — with an additional pound per acre several more times during the season. It’s not to boost the plants. The idea, James said, is to feed and bulk up the microbial activity in the soil. They’re sticking with it.

They plant on 30-inch rows and shoot for uniform, picket-fence stands of between 34,000 plants to 36,000 plants per acre.

For weeds, they start clean and use a residual and atrazine program to get the crop to full canopy. “That old chemistry still works, again if you stay on top of the weeds and stay timely,” James said. When escapes happen, they hand-weed to keep the weeds out and the seed bank down.

At tassel, the corn gets a shot of fungicide.

Regaining the farm

About 14 years ago, the brothers started farming in partnership with their father, Waylan, in Washington County, Ga., about 130 miles southeast of Atlanta. Due to some tough weather, gambles and financial hurdles, Waylan had to sell off most of the operation in 2002, which included a couple thousand acres and equipment.

Even with the family farm’s setback, Jonathan and James still wanted fulltime farming to be their future. In 2008, Waylan and sons started to cobble the operation back together, including re-buying some of the old farm’s good-dirt fields.

James is now 42, Jonathan is 39, and the operation continues to grow. Over the last decade, they’ve invested in about 300,000-bushel grain storage, including a grain dryer. They harvest corn at 20% to 25%. “When harvesting at that moisture or a little higher, we can limit what they call the ‘phantom yield loss’ (associated with lower field moisture), and the combine handles the crop better. We pick up that extra yield, and for us it’s worth the drying time and expense,” Jonathan said.

They like to know what’s going on with each acre, overlaying and analyzing yield data with field fertility and soil maps. “We rely on data a lot and try to use it the best we can to get a return on investment, but we also know the land we’re working, what it can do and what it needs,” James said.

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