Trophy yields and profit aren't always mutually exclusive. Even the three growers who topped 300 bu in last year's National Corn Growers Association National Corn Yield Contest figure their award-winning yields more than paid for input costs.
And, it's a good thing. In Plymouth, WA, Mark Millard's "contest plot" was the entire 1,200 acres he planted to irrigated field corn. The same holds true for Bruce McDaniel, Clayton, NM, who harvested his contest plot out of his 1,000 acres of irrigated corn.
There's too much soil variability for Francis Childs, Manchester, IA, to plant all his non-irrigated corn the same way. But on his better soils where he pulls out the stops for high yields, his 300+-bu crop covered his $650 an acre cost of production.
All three growers took some weather hits on their way to 300-bu yields. But thick stands of corn with roots set deep in moist soil packed with fertilizer were able to overcome adverse weather.
It takes more than just heavy applications of seed and fertilizer to grow 300-bu corn. Managing the crop from one harvest to the next puts these growers at the top of the charts.
"At harvest, we park grain carts on the edge of the field to avoid compaction. We also use flotation tires on the combine and radial tires at low pressure on our tractors," says Childs.
Under Iowa conditions, Childs figures he needs 12-14" of loose soil to grow big corn crops. He takes a different approach to tillage to get the conditions he wants.
"We use a minimoldboard plow that leaves more residue than a normal plow. It doesn't turn over as much," Childs says. "It does a better job of loosening the soil than a deep ripper."
All three plant around 40,000 seeds per acre. More important, says Millard, is making sure those seeds germinate and come up.
"There's a lot more to it than just setting your planter for 40,000 seeds/acre," he explains. "We're more careful at planting than we used to be. You have to make sure everything is adjusted correctly to have uniform spacing and depth. We use row cleaners for more uniform planting conditions and run at 3 1/2-4 mph in no-till conditions.
"We emphasize to our crew that we're not just driving a tractor," says Millard. "We're planting seeds rather than a corn crop."
He runs variety trials on at least eight hybrids each year at AgriNorthwest, where he is a unit manager.
"I'll try three to four of the standard Pioneer hybrids, three or four new numbers and maybe a couple of hybrids from competitors. By the time we're ready to try a new number in our fields, we already have two to three years' data on it."
As you might expect, these farmers don't spare the fertilizer when shooting for top yields. As Millard says, "It takes a lot of groceries." That meant applications of 350 lbs of N for the Washington farmer; 400 lbs for Childs and just under 250 lbs for McDaniel, plus a slug of nature's own fertilizer.
Farming next to feedlots gives New Mexico's McDaniel a ready source of manure for his fields. He applies up to 12 tons/acre. In addition, he makes five separate applications of fertilizer as he spoon-feeds his crop toward the top of the yield chart on deep, sandy soils.
"We put some ammonium sulfate on ahead of planting and then another 38 units of N as starter," he says. "We sidedress on another 30 units and then put some fertilizer on with the irrigation water." Separate applications of zinc and gypsum helped keep the fertilizer levels balanced in McDaniel's soils.
Adding liquid potassium chloride to his fertilizer program helped Millard boost yields. "We have low-organic-matter soils that will only release a certain amount of potassium. The corn uses twice what the soils will release," he says.
"The key to higher yields is to get your efficiency up in all areas of production. That means planting at the right speed, controlling weeds and getting water on at the right time," says McDaniel. "Timing is so critical when you're trying to get maximum yields."
Through the growing season, Iowa's Childs spends a lot of time checking his crop. Last year he checked his corn crop 68 times.
"I want to watch how the corn develops, check for disease and weed control. We do a lot of digging to see how the roots are doing," he says. "We know exactly what's happening. We may not be able to correct it for this year, but we can plan for next year."
Next year Childs will also bring narrow (20") rows to his production system.
"I thought I would have to go to narrow rows to hit 300 bu, but we got there without them," he says. "I think narrow rows will be the key to higher yields. We'll get better plant spacing and be able to use higher plant populations. Today's hybrids will stand a lot more population than people think they will. We'll also get better weed control with narrow rows."
And these farmers aren't looking for just contest-winning plot yields. They each expect their whole farm to yield like that.
"Last year we averaged 242 bu over our 1,000 acres. This year we want to hit 250 bu," says McDaniel. Adds Millard, "Our goal last year was 8 tons (286 bu) for the 1,200 corn acres and we ended up at 7.6 tons (271 bu)."