It's hard to be disappointed with a 393.7 bu/acre corn yield. But if perennial corn yield winner Francis Childs had harvested his plot just eight rows over, his contest entry would have been above 400 bu. Still, his final yield easily gave him the highest mark in the 1999 National Corn Growers Association's Corn Yield Contest.

"I had estimated the yield at 350-360 bu, but Dave Gibb, my crop advisor, said he thought it would go 390-400 bu," says Childs, Manchester, IA. He should have listened to his advisor.

Childs figures that there are at least a couple dozen factors that help him build super yields.

"You can't leave any of them out," he says. "But the most important ones are deep tillage, high fertility, starter fertilizer, getting your planter set right and a racehorse hybrid."

He's quick to add, however, that there's one factor you can't control for high yield. "The weather has been very kind to us and the corn has responded."

Nearly ideal planting conditions in 1999 were followed by 29.7" of rain that "came at the right times." Heat units totaled 2,720 by Sept. 3. That's seven days earlier than the 2,710 heat units Childs recorded in 1998.

"We missed the heat at pollination and had ideal conditions at the V5 stage (8" tall, 25-30 days after emergence), when growing conditions determine how big around the ear will be, and at the V7 stage (12" tall, approximately 40 days after emergence), which determines how long the ear will be," says Childs. "We had a few days when the temperature reached the low 90s. But it never got close to 100 degrees."

Like most contest winners, he isn't shy about using fertilizer and seed. Combining fall plow-down, anhydrous ammonia, starter and layby applications, Childs put on a total fertilizer package of 400-180-120. Weed control included a PPI package of Dual II Magnum followed by split post applications of NorthStar.

The winning yield came from Pioneer 34G82. The final plant count was 44,000 - the highest he's ever tried. He had a yield average of 332 bu/acre with the same hybrid in 1998.

"It's a Bt hybrid, so you take corn borer out of the equation," says Pioneer agronomist Bill Long. "And it has the ability to flex with environmental conditions. It can put on more kernel rows and add length to the ear when the growing conditions are favorable. Francis was just one rain away from hitting 450 bu."

Long credits the soil tilth of Childs' fields for much of the high yield potential. "The fertility, organic matter and pH levels are constant down to 14"," he says. "Even when there's a little drouth stress, those soils get the most out of any moisture available."

Childs believes that how you plant separates high yields from the real bin-busters. "You only get to plant that crop once," he says. "You better know your planter and make sure you get it done right."

His planter is no technological marvel that gives him a competitive edge. He uses an eight-row 1985 IH 800 Early Riser planter set for 30" rows. He has modified it with trash whippers in front and fingers to firm the seed in the furrow.

"I plant at 2 mph to get the best stand possible. You have to make sure you get excellent seed-to-soil contact so every seed has a chance to come up."

Although he's finicky about planting, Childs doesn't just assume he did the job right.

"I do a lot of scouting to look for things that went wrong this year that I can correct next year," he says.

"I like to count off 100 plants and then look to see how many plants are missing or misplaced and how many small plants there are. Small plants indicate poor seed-to-soil contact. I figure each one of those factors can cost you up to 7 bu. That's more than 20 bu/acre if you don't do a good job."

In 1999, Childs meant to plant 42,000 seeds/acre but ended up with a stand of 44,000. He counted 1% of his plants misplaced in the row and 11/2% small plants. By comparison, in 1998 he had 2% misplaced and 4% small plants. Childs isn't making any predictions about 400-bu yields this year.

"At one time my goal was 300 bu. When I hit that my goal was 350 bu. But now I've quit putting a number on it," he says. "My goal is just to grow more, and 400 bu is certainly within sight. We have the hybrids with the capacity to do it. Part of the winning contest field had corn that averaged 402 bu. And we also had some 400-bu corn in one of our test plots."