If there's one guy who knows corn yields, it has to be Iowa's Francis Childs. He's won the National Corn Growers Association's yield contest six times and in 2002 posted the contest's highest yield ever at 442 bu.

For all his success, however, Childs says, “It's still a learning process for me.”

In 2002, he learned that, to keep pushing yields higher, he needed to narrow corn rows from 30” to 20”.

“I hadn't realized it, but I think we reached the point where yields were maxed out on 30”,” he says. His yield numbers prove the point. On average, his narrow-row corn outyielded conventional rows by 28 bu.

Childs has tinkered with all aspects of production to build his yields over the years. But his production philosophy starts with one basic premise. “You need to give every single plant the best opportunity you can to grow without restrictions that limit yield,” he says.

Twenty-inch rows appealed to Childs for several reasons. “With better plant spacing, each plant has a more equal chance to grow. With less crowding, plants will develop better root systems. And that's really important,” he says. “With 20” rows, each planter unit turns more slowly which gives you a more uniform crop.

Childs tweaked his fertilizer program as well and found additional yield boosts. His standard program is to put down 50 lbs of N in the fall, another 250 lbs pre-plant, 50 lbs of liquid tankmixed with herbicide before the corn comes up and another 50 lbs sidedressed.

In 2002, Childs experimented with foliar feeding as well and found significant yield increases. “In the contest plots, we had 4 lbs of fertilizer aerially applied the third week of August. We used a blend of 3-18-18 and 9-18-9, plus some trace minerals,” he says. “At harvest we saw a 20-bu advantage to the fields that received the foliar application.”

The foliar feeding results were even more dramatic in Childs' visitor plots. Corn there received two foliar applications of 3-18-18 (a low-salt, food-grade fertilizer.) The first went on when corn was 10” tall and the second when it was 24-36” tall.

“I don't have comparative data for the visitor plots, but 11 of the 14 hybrids yielded more than 500 bu,” he says. “And our biggest yield, 577 bu, came out of those plots.”

Weather scored a 10 for growing conditions in Manchester, IA. “It got hot ahead of pollination, but with high humidity and plenty of soil moisture, it really didn't hurt us. Then the weather cooled off at pollination,” he says.

Childs welcomed 45 days of cool temperatures. “That put on a lot of grain,” he says.

Childs is convinced that his biggest yield builders are well within any farmer's reach.

“This is still a learning process, and I keep looking back to figure out what direction we need to go,” he says.

“The biggest difference between where we are today and where we were a number of years ago is the amount of oxygen we have in our soils. Through the system we've developed, the soil is loosened, it has high organic matter and we've learned that night crawlers really are our friends,” he says. “What we have going out there in the fields is a really big digester.”

It all starts with the root zone, says Childs. “If you create a really healthy growing environment, it will give you a healthy root system. And when you've got a healthy root system, your yields will be high,” he says.