Pictured Above: CLEAN AND HEALTHY. Precise herbicide application and timing keeps Doug Langley’s Shelbyville, Ky., fields free of weeds and fungicides help produce a clean, healthy No. 1 grade non-GMO corn for distillers.
I look forward to someday sitting on my porch drinking a glass of bourbon made from corn and rye grown on my farm and smoking a cigar made entirely from tobacco I produced. To get there, I need to deliver near-perfect grains and leaves in an area that not so long ago was considered unfit for row crops.
Growing up in the rolling hills between Louisville and Lexington, Ky., my farm experience was tobacco and livestock. If you touched a plow to the hills and swales they would erode immediately. As a result, most of the area was beef cattle and dairies with 5-15 acres on the best ridgetop devoted to high-value tobacco production.
The land on those hills was of temptingly good quality, though, so no-till was quickly adopted by many in the region early in the game. No-till opened up 60% more arable acres on our farm. I raise crops in areas my grandfather and father would never have dreamed possible.
We’re still transitioning land from pasture to row-crop production. I have a new farm this year that’s been in cattle for decades. I’m confident I can crop it and leave it in better shape as it’s currently eroding due to grazing practices.
Check The Specs...
NAME: Doug Langley
FARM: Langley Farms
LOCATION: Shelbyville, Ky.
YEARS NO-TILLING: 40
ACRES: 14,000 acres
CROPS: Corn, soybeans, tobacco and wheat
This first year we’ll spray out the grasses and no-till corn directly into the pasture. We’ll need to evaluate how compacted the soils are from hoof traffic. If there are areas where there was high traffic that need a little attention, we’ll use our John Deere deep ripper to go down to 18 inches and fracture the soil without disturbing the surface.
The beauty is the grass waterways are already in place — all we have to do is leave them there as we seed our new field.
No-till got us in the door with row cropping in this region, but the challenges of a rolling landscape continue to demand creative thinking. Precision technologies have certainly helped, both in dealing with the topography and producing pristine crops for a demanding client — distillers.
The hilly limestone landscape that makes cropping a challenge filters the perfect mineral-rich water for making bourbon. This creates a convenient and lucrative value-added, end-user market for my crops. I have to work for it, though. Distillers demand high-quality, No. 1 grade non-GMO corn that is clean of weed seeds and chaff and delivered weekly. I’ve built from one relationship to now supplying 5 distillers.
Getting my crop to your relaxing Saturday night requires:
- A top-notch weed control program
- A high level of crop health.
- Reduced chaff in the seed from well-managed harvest, rotations and crop residue
- A large amount of on-farm storage, seed cleaning ability and trucking
No-till, non-GMO and demanding clients make weed control an equally difficult and critical part of our success. Having our own sprayers has been a necessity as we want to be as precise and timely in our operations as possible. We run a Deere R4038 self-propelled sprayer and a Hagie. The Hagie STS12 is also used for high-clearance fungicide applications.
MARKETING MAJOR. Doug Langley applies creativity, precision and persistence in marketing the grain to distilleries, which purchase corn 7 days a week.
We’ve learned to be very timely with herbicide applications. While most people talk about the need to hit weeds while they’re still young, with a residual herbicide it also pays to not be too early.
Residual control will last 30-60 days, depending on the product. I want to spray as close to planting as possible, but never after. My hard rule is residual herbicide has to be down prior to planting. If we delayed that step, planted corn and got a rain event before spraying we could have corn and weeds coming up. With Johnsongrass being one of our primary weed concerns, we’d be almost entirely without options if we couldn’t get into the field to apply an herbicide until after V4 when herbicides are virtually nonexistent for non-GMO corn.
In corn, we make a second pass just prior to V4 with an additional residual herbicide to get the crop to canopy.
Carefully and diligently controlling weeds in our other crops helps keep the corn clean, too. Our soybeans are GMO — Roundup Ready, Liberty or Xtendflex. This gives us the opportunity to knock back the harder-to-control weeds, such as Johnsongrass. Having a diversity of weed control options in those rotation years helps keep the weed challenges in check.
- Timing residual herbicides as close to planting as possible helps ensure weed control through crop canopy.
- Preventive fungicide applications yield 15 bushels more on average in corn.
- Programs such as John Deere Operations Center and Conservis help pinpoint cost per acre for better decision making.
Our hills combined with no-till used to make spraying a real challenge. You wouldn’t leave any tracks to follow and foam markers would drift. Now our sprayers are equipped with GPS and auto-steer, BoomTrac Pro boom leveling control, ExactApply turn compensation and Capstan PinPoint individual nozzle shutoffs. Together, these features allow us to be more effective and efficient with our chemical usage.
The PinPoint system took us down from controlling 15-foot sections to controlling every 15 inches of our boom with individual nozzle control. It’s made a big difference. We’re not double applying and causing crop damage, we use less chemical and do a better job of spraying.
Health and Yield
Fungicides are a given in our system. We can’t have disease such as ear rot when the corn is going to distillers. That was challenging early on. There’s little need for aerial application in our area, so it was difficult to get an airplane or helicopter in when needed. This resulted in purchasing a high clearance Hagie sprayer so we could do our own late-season applications.
Even without the high-value, demanding market we’ve found fungicides to be effective. We treat 100% of our corn acres every year and see on average a 15-bushel yield improvement besides the overall health and ultimate quality of the grain.
Fungicides are applied as a preventive maintenance, but our crop scout also keeps a close eye out for disease that may necessitate additional applications.
Soybeans also get a fungicide treatment at R3. We feel we see a yield advantage, though it’s a little harder to attribute a specific number to it as we also strive to plant earlier and have started foliar feeding. For the foliar we put on 1 quart per acre of 4-0-21 right as the soybeans are flowering and starting to fill pods. In fields where we use all three practices yields are up consistently 10 bushels. Our soybeans now average about 55 bushels per acre.
BIN OR BUST. Distilleries pay top dollar, but want corn delivered every week year round. To accommodate the constant demand, Doug Langley maintains 1.4 million bushels of on-farm storage.
Early soybeans are planted in 30-inch rows mostly just to make better use of our available equipment. We have two Deere 1790 16/31-row 15-inch planters used to plant soybeans and two Deere 1795 12-row split 24 planters that we use to plant soybeans on 15-inch rows as we get later in the season. We also have two Deere 1775 24-row 30-inch planters for corn and early soybean planting.
It's OK to do 30-inch rows early as there’s plenty of time for the crop to canopy, but we definitely don’t want to be planting that wide later in the season, especially double cropping after wheat in late June. We grow about 800 acres of wheat each year and are starting to grow cereal rye for potential sale to distillers.
Hitting high value markets means taking on a little more than the average farmer. Our distiller customers want clean, premium corn delivered every week. As a result, I have around 1.4 million bushels of on-farm storage — roughly the size of a small elevator in central Illinois — and an on-farm cleaning system. They want their product year-round, so I’m still delivering them last year’s crop the day I head out to harvest the current year’s crop. With five distiller customers, I’m delivering corn 7 days per week.
Marketing is a lot more involved. Distilleries often will purchase in advance. I have to cover myself by hedging to the Chicago board of trade. Or, if I want to sell and they’re not ready to purchase, I’ll take that position. It’s a little different than putting in a forward contract to the grain elevator.
“We have to find what’s economically correct, not just what pushes yield…”
On-farm storage also comes in handy when the markets aren’t quite right for my other crops. I reserve about 100,000 bushels of storage for soybeans and I took advantage of it in 2020. Instead of going straight to market I was able to store them and hold off for a better price. It proved very beneficial.
There’s a lot of moving parts on our farm and technology is helping in that aspect, too. We farm with the help of 14 employees including about 8 machine operators. They’re spread out over 14,000 acres and are doing everything from field work to delivering to distilleries.
I’ve found the John Deere Operations Center to be a valuable tool in many ways. With our irregular fields it isn’t uncommon to think you’re done seeding or spraying when in fact you’ve missed a corner as you pieced out the job. When fields are spread out over a whole county like ours are, that creates a real headache when you’ve already moved the machinery miles away.
With Operations Center, the guy in the field just pulls it up on his phone or on the machine and looks over the map to make sure everything is covered before they leave. It’s saved us more than once.
It’s also great for monitoring equipment. When we have a new operator, I can see in real time what he’s looking at. He can get on the phone with me and I can walk him through the issue while we both look at the same screen. Or, more often than not, it’s me calling one of my sons or another employee to be walked through an issue!
Our agronomist makes use of the technology to work more efficiently, too. We employ an independent off-site agronomist. It’s highly beneficial for me to have a guy who’s only job is scouting crops and not worrying about all the other aspects of farm operation.
Operations Center records everything each machine does. He can sit in his office and know without calling me what day a field was planted, when it was sprayed and with what, and even the weather conditions. He can see real-time information, so he knows before he goes out what he should see. If there’s anything we need to change he lets us know.
We’re also using Conservis farm management software. It helps us keep a running inventory on seed, chemicals and more that we can access in real time. It integrates with Operations Center and is helping us track our costs very, very closely. A decade ago, we were doing great if we were able to identify within $100 what our per acre costs were. Now we know to the dollar or even penny what we have in each acre. That helps us be even more profitable.
I firmly believe you can spend your way into a tizzy trying to get the highest yield. You may get extra yield, but if that last bushel costs $20, it’s not worth it. We have to find what’s economically correct, not just what pushes yield.
To help determine economics specific to our farm we do a lot of test plots. With the sprayer, we simply leave out a pass or two in the fields. Then, Operations Center allows us to pull up the field maps to show where we treated and where we didn’t or applied a different rate and we can put that right up against our yield maps to see the results.
Tools of the Trade
The extreme nature of our terrain does impact our equipment decisions. We use two 12-row Deere 1775 split row planters and two 15-row 1790 Deere planters to seed corn and some of the soybean acres. We do not use row cleaners. Because of the hills, it’s impossible to not farm straight up and down the hill at some point. You can follow the contour of a hill for 500 feet then you’re dropping down and going straight downhill. When we used row cleaners we would get washing right down the rows.
Instead, we use just a wavy coulter with a double disc opener and a closing wheel on back. We don’t put anything down with a knife. Anhydrous is applied using a Deere 2510H single-disc nutrient applicator. Any sort of shank or knife hits rocks and tears up the soil too much on the hills.
For the last 6 years we’ve done variable rate seeding according to soil type and have individual row shutoff. Between the two technologies we’ve seen an increase in yield on the better ground and some seed savings. The shutoffs help prevent overlap.
Our goal right now is to maximize productivity and efficiency while protecting the soil. If we don’t take care of the soil, it will all be washed away or used up before the next generation can take over. That doesn’t do me or my family any good.