The bar on corn yields has been raised. In 2004, growers harvested the largest corn crop on record, with average yields reaching 160 bu./acre, according to the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).

Yields were even higher among entrants of NCGA's Corn Yield Contest. All but one of the 27 national winners surpassed the 250-bu./acre mark. Six even crested the 300-bu./acre mark.

Near-perfect weather and advancements in production technology are credited for last year's high yields. “It could be said that the reason we keep increasing yields every year is because these growers are so innovative and keep trying new things to push those yields higher,” says Max Starbuck, NCGA director of economic and livestock analysis.

No matter what size yield you had last year, you can learn from the practices of last year's contenders. Farm Industry News interviewed five of them to learn about the inputs they bought to achieve their winning yields.

FRANCIS CHILDS could be described as “the king of corn.” He won the Iowa Masters contest 15 times and set a new world record in corn yields three times. His current record is 442 bu./acre, which he set in 2002. In his eight years of entering the NCGA contest, he has won it seven times.

Childs gets 16 to 20 phone calls a day from farmers wanting to know his secret. The question he's asked most frequently is, What is the one thing I can do to improve my yield? His response: Be willing to change.

“That stops 95% of them right there,” he says. “Whatever they are doing, they just keep right on doing it and expect things to change. But they won't if they just keep doing the same thing year after year.”

He says a prime example is a farmer who continues to plant the same hybrid even though new hybrids with better genetics are available. “A farmer will say, ‘Well I really like that corn,’” Childs says. “But I say if there is a new variety that is 10 or 12 bu. better, why plant the old one? Not just because you like it. Economics says plant this new one. But it is hard to get guys to do that.”

During his talks across the country, Childs hands out pamphlets with a checklist of practices growers can adopt to increase yields. He says one of the most important actions is to make sure you have a deep root system. “Most people never ever see their roots,” he says. “They are just worried about a 9-ft. corn pant and a nice ear. But you have to do something to get that.”

Developing a deep root system “fools” the corn plant into putting on a big ear and a tall stalk, he explains. “The diameter of an ear is determined when the corn plant is only about a foot tall, and length is determined when it is about knee high,” Childs says. “Most people miss that completely. And if you miss that, you've lost the race right there.”

He says all fields have a natural hardpan that can be 16 or 17 in. deep. He describes it as having a layer of blacktop across your land, making it hard for roots to break through and for water to penetrate.

To break through that natural hardpan, Childs uses a Brillion Zone Builder every 10 to 12 years. To further loosen the soil, he uses a high-residue plow equipped with a mini moldboard every fall. He ends up with a loose soil profile that is about 4 ft. compared to 6 to 7 in. on many other farms.

“All of the farmers around here have oxygen in the field,” he says. “The problem is they don't have it in the ground.” Loose soil carries more oxygen and provides an environment where earthworms want to live.

Another mistake Childs sees is cutting corners, especially at planting. He says it is important to make sure your planter is working right and that you do a good job. “You don't get two chances to plant,” he says.

It takes Childs longer to plant than his neighbors, because in addition to planting the seed, he's applying a host of other products to improve yields. “I'm planting for bushels,” he says. “My neighbor is planting for acres.”

Finally, he says it is important for growers to learn from their mistakes. “If you see a mistake, look at why it didn't work and get it corrected,” he says. “And if a product isn't working, it's usually because you didn't use it right.”

FRANCIS CHILDS MANCHESTER, IA

1st in AA nonirrigated conventional tillage class Yield: 331 bu./acre

INPUTS

328 units of 28% liquid nitrogen

Guardian nitrogen stabilizer

Humic Concentrate by AgriEnergy

Dual preemergent herbicide Pioneer 35Y65

Amplify D/L seed treatment by Conklin Company

3-18-18 pop-up fertilizer by Conklin

4-10-10 starter assist by AgriGrowth

Conklin trace mineral package

24 units each of phosphorous and potash

Capture insecticide by FMC

Conklin spray adjuvants

NorthStar postemergent herbicide

Four-shank Brillion zone builder

Stafford high-capacity plow equipped with Weiss mini moldboard

Wil-Rich field cultivator

Case IH 1200 vacuum disc planter

Case IH combine

FIRST-TIME NCGA winner Mark Dempsey describes 2004 as the year he did everything wrong and it turned out right. Case in point: He didn't do his regular fall tillage. “I usually apply nitrogen in the fall to help break down the previous year's corn stalks,” says Dempsey, whose winning acres were fourth-year continuous corn. “Then I run the disk over the ground followed by a mini moldboard plow.”

But last year the ground was so wet after harvest that he couldn't drive out on the fields. So he waited until spring to do any tillage. He worked the ground using a 490 International disk. After disking he knifed in anhydrous ammonia with a DMI anhydrous toolbar. Then he made another pass with a field cultivator to level the ground. “So the only tillage was with an old disk and a 1970s International field cultivator,” he says.

He also didn't apply the recommended rate of nitrogen. “My toolbar messed up when I was putting anhydrous on, so I didn't get as much nitrogen on as I wanted to,” Dempsey explains. “And as wet as we were last summer, it was hard to get sidedressing done, so I didn't get that done. But it turned out to be enough.”

Dempsey ended up using only .71 lbs. of nitrogen/bu. (or 230 units) to produce 320 bu. of corn compared to the University of Illinois' recommended rate of 1.2 lbs. of nitrogen/bu. of corn that you intend to grow. “So I was highly efficient on my use of nitrogen,” he says.

He says nitrogen has been one of his limiting factors in the last three to four years. “That is probably the number-one area I've been working on is trying to get the nitrogen rate right,” he says. The challenge, he says, has to do with the soil bacteria breaking down the old corn stalks, which makes it difficult to estimate the amount of nitrogen available to the plant.

Dempsey also has been experimenting with different population rates, tillage methods and input products since 1996. In those years he has learned that using insecticide is very important on corn-on-corn acres. In addition, high seeding rates, the right amount of nitrogen, frequent scouting and proper management are keys to growing a big crop.

“Three-hundred-bushel corn is possible,” he says. “It is just a combination of all the management techniques you use. And if one thing doesn't work, then learn a little more and try something different the next year that might help you along.”

MARK DEMPSEY DEMPSEY FARMS FOWLER, IL

2nd in AA nonirrigated conventional tillage class Yield: 320 bu./acre

INPUTS

200 units of anhydrous

Garst 8424 seed

30 units of nitrogen

4.4 lbs./acre of Force insecticide

Bicep postemergent herbicide

Distinct postemergent herbicide

DMI anhydrous toolbar

International 490 disk

International 45 field cultivator

Case IH 900 planter

Homemade self-propelled sprayer with 90-ft. boom

Case IH 1660 combine

JEFF MEZERA started entering the NCGA contest just four years ago, when he switched to 20-in. rows. All four years he has placed in different classes. Last year he placed third in the nonirrigated class.

Mezera says planting in 20-in. rows is a big factor in achieving high yields. “Since I went to 20-in. rows, I just started upping populations to find the magic number,” he says.

He planted 37,000 plants/acre the first year of the contest. The second year he planted 10% of acres at 41,000, which proved to be his best corn. From there he bumped it up to 47,000. And last year he went with 51,000.

“A well-placed, high-population stand is the secret,” Mezera says. At such high populations, he religiously drives 4 mph to get the best seed placement.

Mezera says another key factor in his winning yields is high fertility. “Our yield goal was around 350 bu.,” he says. “So we put on 350 units of N shooting for 1 bu. per unit of N.”

All of the nitrogen was applied in the spring. He knifed in 200 units of anhydrous ammonia before planting and then leveled the ground with a Glencoe field finisher. At planting, he injected 10 gal. of 28% nitrogen 2 in. below the soil and 2 in. to the side in the furrow. The balance of nitrogen was sprayed on top after planting along with a tankmix of atrazine, Hornet and Dual herbicides.

“Then we watched it grow,” he says. “We never went out again until harvest.”

Mezera, who also feeds cattle and has a dairy operation, uses manure to supplement soil fertility. “All my winning fields have seen a lot of cow manure over the years that were high in phosphorus and potassium,” he says.

When applying manure, he is careful about minimizing compaction. He stays off the fields when they are wet. And he uses a deep ripper in the fall to break up any compaction.

“We never do manure application unless the ground is frozen,” he says. “And in the spring, we wait for ideal conditions before we enter a field.”

JEFF MEZERA MEZERA FARMS BAGLEY, WI

3rd in nonirrigated conventional tillage Yield: 296 bu./acre

INPUTS

Unverferth deep ripper

Cattle manure

200 units of anhydrous ammonia

150 units of 28% nitrogen

Anhydrous toolbar

Glencoe field finisher

Pioneer 34N42 treated with Poncho

Atrazine, Hornet and Dual tankmix with 28% nitrogen

John Deere 9500 conventional combine

Pull-type sprayer

John Deere 1780 vacuum planter

BLANE ANTHONY has won many times before in this category. This year, he says, nature played a big part in his winning yields. “I was able to plant early and had an ideal growing season,” Anthony says. His planting date was April 7, which is a week earlier than he normally plants.

Of the inputs applied, he says seed played the biggest role. “It is important to pick the right hybrid for the right field,” he says. “Certain hybrids adapt to higher populations much better than others.”

The hybrid he planted was Pioneer 33R78, designed for high population and yield potential and a wide range of environments. “It has good standability and it really yields well,” he says. He used 30-in. row spacing and a seeding rate of 30,000 seeds/acre.

As part of his ridge-till regime, he planted the seed into ridges built on former bean acres using a John Deere vacuum planter. He says his vacuum planter is crucial to good seed placement and spacing.

High fertility was also key to his high yields, he adds. But before applying any fertilizer, he does grid soil sampling to determine the nutrient needs of each area of a field. “I believe that really pays, because there is a lot of variability in the field,” he says. “And you have no way of knowing that unless you do grid sampling.”

Anthony knifed in 160 lbs./acre of anhydrous ammonia in the fall, followed by a mixture of dry fertilizer, which he applied at variable rates. “We put on phosphorous, potash, lime or whatever else the soil test called for at the exact rate it required,” he says.

At planting he applied 6 gal. of 10-34-0 starter fertilizer along with Lorsban insecticide in the furrow. When the corn was about 3 ft. tall, he sidedressed 80 lbs. of 28-0-0 liquid nitrogen.

For weed control, he applied Dow's FulTime preemerge herbicide for grass control the day after planting. After the corn emerged, he followed up with Callisto herbicide for broadleaf control.

Throughout the growing season, Anthony scouts the fields at least once a week. In the fall he harvests the crop using a Case International 2366 combine.

His recommendations for other farmers are to do a lot of research and pick the right hybrids for the right fields. “A lot of fields have different conditions,” he says. “There is just a lot of variability out there. And one hybrid doesn't fit them all. Seed selection is very important.”

BLANE ANTHONY TALMAGE, NE

1st in A ridge-till nonirrigated Yield: 287 bu./acre

INPUTS

160 lbs./acre of anhydrous ammonia

34-0-0, 11-52-0, and 0-0-60 dry fertilizer

Pioneer 33R78 seed

6 gal. of 10-34-0 starter fertilizer

Lorsban insecticide

Dow's FulTime preemerge herbicide

Callisto postemergent herbicide

80 lbs. of 28-0-0 liquid nitrogen

John Deere 1760 vacuum planter

RoGator 664 self-propelled sprayer

Case IH 2366 combine

ROBERT LITTLE has won in both the conventional and no-till categories. He credits good growing conditions and intensive management for last year's winning yields. “I pay attention to small details,” he explains. “I believe enough small details add up to a better result.”

For example, Little, who is a certified agronomist, frequently scouts fields for problems. Between planting and harvest, he looks at the crop at least twice a week and sometimes daily.

He gives the same attention to his selection and use of inputs. “With any of your inputs, you can do a good job or bad job,” he says. “And all of them can work if you use and apply them correctly.”

Little's process begins with choosing the right seed. “Seed is number one,” he says. “That is where it all starts.” Little plants and sells Pioneer seed and believes its performance is superior to that of other brands. “And I think the contest bears that out,” he says. Of the 27 national winners, 25 used Pioneer seed.

However, he adds that other brands can be made to perform just about as well if used correctly. “If you do a poor job of planting a Pioneer product, you might not do as good a job with Pioneer as you would with another brand that is properly spaced,” he says.

Little planted Pioneer hybrid 33N09 using a John Deere 7200 planter. The planter was equipped with Rawson disc coulters and Yetter residue managers to be able to plant in last year's soybean stubble. Little replaced the original planter units with Precision Planting seed meters to improve seed drop.

To ensure proper seed spacing, Little has his planter meters tested by Precision Planting's MeterMax unit. The MeterMax is designed to improve accuracy of seed placement. “Avoiding skips, doubles and triples is very important to high yields,” Little says. “And it also is important in managing your inputs because your seed is spread over a lot of acres and you can really cut costs by planting it right.”

When selecting herbicides, Little looks for brands that are safe on the crop. Last year he used a preemergent tankmix of atrazine, Cinch and Balance Pro. If weed pressures warrant, he also applies postemergent herbicides before the sixth-leaf stage to avoid damaging the crop.

At harvest Little uses a Case IH 2366 combine. He believes its rotary technology maintains the quality of the crop better than a conventional combine does. However, as with other inputs, he says a farmer can make either technology work if he uses it correctly. He says that, in the case of combines, proper combine adjustment is the key to making a good crop.

“A person has to take time to try to make the equipment work the way it should,” he stresses. “So it is important that you have a comfort level with whatever brand you are using.”

Paying attention to those types of details will ultimately make farmers successful, Little adds. “Profit margins are smaller than in the past, so we have a smaller margin for error,” he says. “And I'm convinced that the further we go, the more critical it is going to be to do the best job you can with the inputs that you buy.”

ROBERT LITTLE HEBRON, IN

3rd in AA no-till/strip-till nonirrigated Yield: 271 bu./acre

INPUTS

John Deere 7200 planter

Rawson disc coulters

Yetter residue managers

Precision Planting seed meters

Pioneer 33N09 seed

8-18-6-6S starter fertilizer Tankmix of atrazine, Cinch and Balance Pro preemerge herbicides

200 units of anhydrous ammonia nitrogen

Case IH 2366 combine