It's no small feat to efficiently grow 429-bu. irrigated corn, especially when your watershed heads to the Chesapeake Bay. But Charles City, VA, corn-yield champ David Hula used stewardship and intensive management of his no-till ground to win the 2011 National Corn Growers Association yield contest.
"We have to be good stewards of our land and inputs, because we farm in the Chesapeake Bay area," says Hula, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and oats with his two brothers, Jeff and Johnny, and his retired father Stanley. The family has practiced continuous no-till, or what they call "never-till" since the mid-1980s to protect against soil and nutrient loss. They also use cover crops and crop rotation to improve soil health and minimize insect and disease pressure.
Along with soil and crop considerations, the family keeps a close eye on their production costs. "In our irrigated program for ordinary soils, the cost of production (not including rent) ran $2.31/bu. and the yields averaged 296 bu./acre last year," Hula says, who counts fixed and variable costs and all equipment, labor and input costs in his calculations. "On our high-yielding ground (which includes the contest field), the cost of production/bu. ran $2.52/bu., and the yields averaged 411 bu./acre."
Hula relies on a Valley center pivot, with an irrigation scheduling system, to help decide when and how much to irrigate. He also uses irrigation to cool down the corn when the weather turns too hot. However, he uses machinery, not irrigation, to apply nutrients and crop protection products.
With nitrogen (N) ranking near the top input cost required to raise corn while also being a volatile element that can be lost to the environment, Hula is careful in how much he applies and how he applies it. "We figure it takes 1 lb. of N/acre to produce 1 bu. of corn," says Hula. "On our contest field, we applied 386 lbs. of N/acre and achieved a 429 bu./acre yield, so we were very N efficient."
The Hulas start with a popup fertilizer (3-18-18) in the furrow with the seed at planting, using a 30-in.-row Kinze 3600 12-row planter. The planter is equipped with Dawn Curvetine closing wheels "that help fluff up the soil in the seedbed" and Keeton Seed Firmers. In addition to the popup fertilizer, they also apply starter fertilizer (66 lbs. N/acre, 33 lbs. phosphate/acre, plus sulfur, zinc and Boron) 3 in. to the side and 2 in. below the seed.
Nitrogen was applied twice to corn at the V5 and V9 growth stage with a high-clearance sprayer. On their contest field, which had been in rotation with wheat and double-crop soybeans, they also applied a late N application just prior to tasseling when the corn was 14 ft. tall.
"We couldn't get in the field with our sprayer, so we just walked down the corn rows with 2.5-gal. jugs and applied it over the roots," Hula says. "Next year, we plan to use drip-tape irrigation instead to apply N late in the season."
Growth stimulant products are also part of the input mix on the Hula's contest acres. Last year, they used Stoller's Bio-Forge ST (seed treatment) growth promoter, Biovante's Pentilex seed treatment (a phosphate-based growth stimulator product), and Biovante's BioGold product.
"BioGold is a highly concentrated liquid soil amendment that contains free-living soil microbes," he says. "It helps the soil to capture and release N. Both Pentilex and BioGold are promising products, and I have a high degree of confidence in them. For Bio-Forge, I still want to evaluate it more before we put it on all our acreage."
For the contest field, he planted a 120-day Pioneer P2088HR hybrid, with Herculex 1 Insect Protection. The seed came with a Poncho 1250 insecticide treatment (for billbug and grub control), and he also used Syngenta's Dynasty seed treatment fungicide with it.
Hula planted the field in mid-April, dropping between 45,000 and 46,000 seeds/acre. While sidedressing, he scouts for weed and insect control needs. The field's herbicide program consisted of Roundup and metribuzin (Sencor) for a late-winter burndown, Trizmet as a pre-emergence herbicide and Halex GT as a postemergence product.
On his contest acres, he sprayed foliar fungicides three times (at V4, V7 and brown silk), rather than just twice. "We had an environment for diseases to be present, so we decided to be proactive, and it paid off. We used Headline at V4 and V7 and Headline AMP at brown silk. We also tank-mixed insecticides with the fungicide application to control various corn worms, stink bugs and Japanese beetles."
Hula harvested his contest field close to the population that he'd planted it, "right at 44,000 plants/acre," he says. "The goal now for the future is to at least duplicate or exceed another 400-bu./acre corn yield and to do that profitably."