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“For life to exist as we know it today, we need clean water, clean air and healthy soil.”

— Marion Calmer, No-Till Innovator and Calmer Corn Heads Founder, Alpha, Ill.

In this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators podcast, brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, listen back to one of the most popular episodes of the No-Till Farmer podcast from our archives featuring no-till innovator Marion Calmer. 

Marion talks about his experience using test plots to determine what works — and what doesn’t — on his no-till operation, as well as the results from the many years of on-farm research he’s conducted on his farm in Alpha, Ill., including evaluating populations, row spacing, fertility and residue management, and how that information has provided him a $150-per-acre return on investment.

Plus, be sure to register for the 2023 National Strip-Tillage Conference, which will take place this August in Bloomington-Normal, Ill., and will feature a presentation from Calmer about one of his latest on-farm studies examining nutrient stratification in no-till fields — and how strip-till could solve the problem. Visit for details.

If you are interested in more no-till history, you’ll find great stories like these and many more in the newly released 448-page second edition of From Maverick to Mainstream: A History of No-Till Farming that includes 32 more pages than the first edition. Order your copy here.







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No-Till Influencers & Innovators podcast series is brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, the original thiosulfate liquid fertilizer.

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Keep your nitrogen where it is most effective, in the soil, and available for plant uptake with liquid thiosulfate fertilizers by Crop Vitality. Recent studies have shown, Thio-Sul and KTS inhibit nitrogen losses to the atmosphere and waterways while providing essential nutrients including sulfur so your crops have what they need when they need it most. Visit Crop Vitality dot com for a deeper dive into nitrification inhibition and the benefits of all Crop Vitality's fertilizers.


Full Transcript

Mackane Vogel:

Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast, brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, the original thiosulfate liquid fertilizer. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor of No-Till Farmer. For this episode of the podcast, we are revisiting one of the most popular episodes of the No-Till Farmer Podcast from our archives, featuring No-Till innovator Marion Calmer. Marion talks about his experience using test plots to determine what works and what doesn't on his no-till operation in Alpha, Illinois, and how that information has provided him with a $150 per acre return on investment.

Marion Calmer:

All right, I'm here today to talk about improving your chances of raising profitable corn and no-tilled soybeans. I'm a farmer. Been growing corn and beans for 41 years. Have been doing on-farm research for 31 years. I don't receive any money from anybody. I do all this on my own and I enjoy sharing it with you. And then last but not least, 20 years ago I started working with corn heads, built the first 15-inch corn head, the first 12-inch corn head, the first chopping stock rolls and so on and so forth. So, that's a little bit of the information about myself.

This is where I'm from, Alpha, Illinois, and we have silty loam soils. They're dark in color and they're poorly drained, but very productive. Now, I need to tell you that there's something very unique about Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. They're the only three states in the union that have this in common, and that is the fact that from these three I states, all of their governors, their political careers have allowed them to move to a new location. The governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, his political career is allowing him to move to Washington DC and he'll be our next vice president. The governor from Iowa, his political career is allowing him to move to Beijing, China, where he'll be our next ambassador. And the governor of Illinois, his political career's allowed him to move to Colorado where he is now a inmate at prison out there.

I've been doing on-farm research for many, many years. This is 1992, pictured here with my neighbor and my buddy and my late father, and we're looking at row spacings in soybeans. So, this gives you some kind of an idea of how I perform all of these tests at my farm, but I like this statement on the left. I hope you'll remember it because it's really important. We all run a business, and we can't improve on things that we don't measure or research. So, that was what drove me to do all the on-farm research at my farm. Now, whether it applies to you folks, I really don't know. I'm going to show you what happens. I'm going to show you the yield. I'm going to show you the economics at my farm. Maybe you'll take enough interest that you'll go home and try some of this at your own farm.

This is my screen on my auto-steer in the planter tractor. We have the technology today to make on-farm research very easy, very simple. And you can tell in this picture right here we're actually comparing 15-inch corn against 30-inch corn. And so we've got the planter set up so all the yellow strips here, we're planting 15-inch rows, and then we'll switch the planter over to 30s and it will come back and we'll fill it in. So, we'll put the 30s in between. So when I get done, I'll have 15s, 30s, 15, 30. You can do this at home. If you want to check populations on beans, just go into where it says implement width. Change the swath. If you're pulling a 40-foot planter, change it to 42 feet. It'll leave tram lines for you. Plant down the field at 150,000 and when you turn on the end rows, set it for 75,000.

The auto-steer will take you right back, and when the beans come up out of the ground, there'll be a two, three foot tram line in between. And then when it comes harvest time, the yield monitor's right in the cab. It'll give you the length of row. It'll give you the moisture and it'll give you the approximate weight. And if you got a green cart, you get to the end of the field, you just weigh it on a green cart. It's really easy. We don't even get out of the cab anymore and we do two to 300 research plots a year. Auto-steer, on-farm research, walk in the park. Okay. So, here's what I'm going to talk about today, these agronomic tips. We're going to talk about soybean populations. My farm, 50, 75,000 at planting time is all I need at my farm. Row spacings all the way from a drill all the way out to 40-inch rows. At my farm, 15-inch rows work really well for me. They're about four bushel better than 30s.

Dry fertilizer. Gosh, I get a lot of text messages. I get a lot of emails. I get a lot of comments at trade shows. At my farm, I have been looking at the economic advantage of adding phosphorus and potassium over the last 30 years. We've spread it and moldboarded it, chisel plowed it, disked it, [inaudible 00:05:46] it. We've done starter fertilizer studies and of course now we just spread it over the top of no-till. Over the last 35 years at my farm, there has only been one year that I made money. I'll take you through the information. Nitrogen rates. This is textbook. We all had it at college and we're going to show you there's a phenomenal yield advantage to adding nitrogen, and the return on investment is phenomenal. How many of you went to college? Maybe took some of these classes on law of diminishing return, nitrogen, those kind of things? So, believe it or not, I actually did go to school. I went to a junior college and I was in ag production, so they taught me how to grow corn, soybeans, and pigs.

And I minored in foosball, water-skiing, and beer drinking. Anybody take those classes when they went to college? Okay. Anybody get an A in beer drinking? Oh, yeah. Okay. All right. Corn populations. Dealer comes out, say, "Hey, you need to plant thick." I've been doing the research at my farm. 28,000 is maximum profitability. Maximum yield comes at 32, 34, 35. Maximum profitability comes at 28 at my farm. Corn row spacings. In the beginning they used to be 44 inches apart. When I started as a kid with dad, we were 40-inch rows. Hill dropping, went to 38s, 36s, 30s, and I'm on 15s. Solid seeded corn in my opinion is the future.

No-till versus one pass. I used to be a conventional tiller. Now I'm no-tiller. I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt, I make more money no-tilling than I ever would with conventional tillage. Residue management. I mentioned in the program that a good residue management program is the basis for any successful no-till system. We're going to show you how important it is and we're also going to convert it to yield. University of Illinois just did a study on the importance of managing corn residue in a corn-on-corn cropping system, and they showed a 10 bushel advantage by chopping the residue the previous fall.

New machinery purchases. We're in pretty tough economic times. We're going to talk about return on investment. All right, here we go. Soybean populations. A bag of seed, I don't know. Does 60 bucks buy you a bag of seed anymore? So, here we are. Here's the data. It's in your little handbook, but I'm going to take you across. On the bottom right here we're looking at different populations. We're looking at six years worth of data, from 2010 to 2015. The green bars planted at 50,000, the blue bars at 75, the yellow bars is at 100. The next bar is at 125. The brown bar is 150, 175, and finally the red bar at 200,000. So, we start low populations and we just keep getting higher. At Marion's Calmer farm, does population have any effect on yield?



Marion Calmer:

No. And I've been looking at this for 20-some years. So, six years, four replications. We're looking at 24 plots side by side from 50,000 to 200,000. Now, let's talk money. 50,000, believe it or not, is now the most profitable population, and I don't quite have the guts to plant it at 50,000 yet. I'm going to be honest about it.


What do you plant?

Marion Calmer:

I'm at 75, and that's as low as the planter goes. Otherwise, I'd go on down to 50. Now, somebody asked me what happens below 50, and it starts to get ugly. The yield will start to drop pretty fast below 50. So, anyway, I'm at 75 and really from a dollar's point of view, at $60 a bag 25,000 seeds cost me about 10 bucks. So, to go from green to blue here cost me about 10 bucks. And now these are all rounded, so it could be 68.7 and 69.2, whatever. All right. So, now we go up to 100,000. I spent another 10 bucks, so I lost $20 an acre by planting at 100,000. 125, I lost 30 bucks. At 150,000, I lost 40 bucks. 175, I lost 50 bucks and at 200,000 the long term data would indicate I'm getting a one bushel increase, so I'm still going to lose $50 an acre.

Gentleman here in the front row before we started said they accidentally planted some low population beans. They weren't any different than the beans that you planted at the normal population. So, I've had several people come up to me at trade shows, call me on the phone, send me text messages, and I can tell you the information, the feedback that I'm getting from the American farmers across the country are telling me the same thing that I learned at my farm. There's little to no yield advantage to increasing soybean populations, but there's certainly a huge economic loss. Now, what else is happening in this scenario here? As populations increase, the threat for white mold goes up, and we also have the risk of lodging as population goes up.


What about weeds?

Marion Calmer:

Weeds. I got that asked earlier. Between 100,000 and 200,000, there's no difference in weed control at all. At 75,000, I might see one or two water hemp on a 1000 foot run at 40 foot wide, and then I might see two or three over here. There's a little bit, and that's at 30 mile an hour in the pickup truck when I go by. So, you can see these plots. At harvest time or when they start to dry down, I can drive by in the pickup truck and I can tell you where these plots are at every year without even getting out in the field, because they start to go down and the sudden death kicks in and the disease pressure over here. In my opinion, white mold is a population problem and it has nothing to do with row spacings, my humble opinion from Western Illinois. You know what the other great thing about planting at 50 or 75,000, is that I can have the hired man help me load the planter first thing in the morning, and hell I plant all day long and never stop to reload.

Now, I do have to warn you though, when you plant at 50,000, the stems get really big. In fact, they're huge. They're like little hedge trees, and we started breaking sickle sections on the combine, and so one year to harvest the beans on the 50,000 plot, we actually had to cut them off with a chainsaw to get them. All right. Well, maybe I'm lying a little bit. Now, there are some differences though when it comes time to harvest. Lower populations also lower pod height, so we're a lot lower to the ground here than we would be. At 150,000 they pod about right here. At 75,000 they pod here. Now, you'll also notice that they're pretty bushy. And at 75,000 in 15-inch rows, that means I've got a bean every six inches down through the field.

So, at low populations, I don't care what variety it is, they're a bush bean. And if you plant them at 200,000, they're an upright bean. They just stand straight up and down. All right, let's move on to row spacings and soybeans. Should we drill them? And I used to drill them years ago. I used to grow seed for Harry Stein at 200,000. I've been in 15-inch rows. We've been in 30-inch rows. We've been 40-inch rows. Where should we go for row spacings? All right, here's our row spacing study. Four years, four replications. We're looking at 16 replications. These are at least 20 foot, if not 40 foot wide in there, 1000 feet long. 30-inch rows is the red bar. 15-inch rows is the green bar. At my farm over the long haul, I'm going to tell you that I believe there's about a four bushel advantage to growing beans in 15-inch rows.

How about if I move on down here? Let's drill them. The data that I had from 15, 20 years ago would indicate there's about a one or two bushel advantage to drilling beans. So, if our optimum economic population is between 50 and 75,000, at 60,000 that's 10 by 10. And I like growing narrow row corn, but I'm going to tell you that if I had to start all over... I'm near the end of my career. I've been on the speaking circuit since I was in my late 30s. I'm at the end of my career and I'm finally starting to get smart about how to grow corn and beans profitably. If I had to start all over again and I was 21, I'd be 20-inch corn and 10-inch beans, if I knew then what I know today. 10 by 10 is 60,000 on soybeans. All right, I'm going to step into even more trouble here. We're going to start to talk about soil fertility. We're going to talk about applying dry phosphorus and potassium. We've all gone to school. We've all heard about maintenance. We've all heard about using soil tests.

We've heard about buildup. And then I put this other thing up there that's called return on investment. A few years ago my corn was seven bucks, and the fertilizer guy said, "Marion, you had some great corn." He said, "We're going to need to put 100 dollars an acre on." I said, "You know what? That's just fine and dandy." I said, "All I need from you is just a simple piece of paper that guarantees me that if I spend 100 dollars, that you're going to guarantee me I'm going to get $110 worth of grain." He said, "Oh, no." He said, "We're not going to guarantee anything. You're on your own." I turned to him and I said, "Well, if you're not going to guarantee me and you're not that confident that I'm going to get 110 bucks back, why should I spend the 100 bucks with you?"

And he was speechless, and I'm not his favorite customer either. All right. So, when we're making this decision on how much phosphorus and how much potassium and everything else, we have lots of tools to help us, grid soil testing, everything. This one right here for me is number one. If I don't have a return on investment, it stops right there. I'm not going to bother to screw around with anything else. If I'm getting a return on investment, then I'll start to adjust based on the soil tests or I'll adjust on maintenance or how much should be build up or whatever. But I got to have this one first right there. I used to raise pigs. You spend 110 bucks to grow a pig that sold for 100 bucks and try to make it up in volume. It didn't make any sense.

Okay. So, all of this work I've done myself. I spread 60 feet and then I leave 60 feet and then I spread 60 feet and I leave 60 feet. I always do it myself. I always go up and get the cart, and we use a single spinner because my plots are 60 foot wide and a single spinner does 50 feet. So, I don't have to worry about too much overlap. I watch them put the stuff in the cart. I watch them set the crank in the back. I drive the tractor. You're wondering, how do I guide that tractor if I'm on 15-inch beans or drilled beans and you don't have any rows to go by? The guidance system that I use on this old tractor, I used a swag method, a super wildass guess when I go down through the field. So, I've got flags in both ends. With, without, with, without.

All right, here's the data. There are a lot of numbers on the screen. I'll try to make it as simple as possible. We started in 2009. This is in the same location. This information's in your little book on your chair. From 2009 we're just going to go corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, all the way down to 2016. Back then, we were buying 100 dollars. We'd spread 100 dollars the previous fall, and then we'd grow corn. So, in '08 we spent 100 bucks, and then for beans, 50. 100, 50, 100 dollars, 50, 100 dollars, 50. All right, here's the yield gain in this column. The first year we actually took a little yield hit by putting fertilizer on, but we got 1.8 bushels of beans. The next year we got 16.6 bushels of corn. Then we got 3.7 bushels of beans, 10 bushels of corn, six bushels of beans, seven bushels of corn.

And this year we took a little yield hit where we put the fertilizer on. And grain prices, we're using five and ten. Here we use 12. Five and 10, $4 for corn, $10 for beans. But here's ag econ. What did it cost, what did I get, and how much money did I make? In '09, I lost $102 an acre. 2010, I lost $30 an acre. 2011, I lost $17 an acre. 2012, I lost six bucks an acre. 2013 I made 49, and 2014, I made 14 bucks an acre, the one and only year I've ever made money by applying phosphorus and potassium. 2015, I lost 72 bucks an acre. 2016, I lost $73 an acre. Sorry for you that are in the back, but it's in your booklet. The cumulative loss over an eight-year period, I've lost $337 an acre over an eight-year period at my farm. On a thousand acres, that's $337,000 that I gave to my fertilizer dealer that I got nothing back.

Mackane Vogel:

We'll come back to the episode in a moment, but first I'd like to thank our sponsor, Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul for supporting today's podcast. It's as important as ever to ensure you're getting the most out of your fertilizer. Recent studies from Auburn University and Crop Vitality show when paired with a UAN solution, thiosulfate fertilizers slow down the process that causes you to lose your nitrogen into the atmosphere and groundwater. Visit to explore the studies on nitrification inhibition. Check out the ebook, Nitrogen and the Thiosulfate Factor, and learn more about Crop Vitality's thiosulfate fertilizers. That's And now, let's get back to the conversation.

Marion Calmer:

So, here's another thought for you. So, we walk into our fertilizer dealer and we assume that we can hand him 100,000 dollars after harvest is over and say, "Spread P&K on my farm." And I've done it, and we think that's okay. Let me ask you this question. You took that money bag, you walked through the front door of your local bank and you walked up to your banker and you put that 100,000 dollars down on his desk, said, "You know what? Take care of this for me for one year and I'll come back and if there's only 40,000 left, I'm fine with that." How many of you would give your banker 100,000 and be happy with getting 40,000 back? We'd be smoking hot, wouldn't we?

But that's what I'm telling you here at my farm when I'm buying P&K, I can't prove that I'm making any money. So, why in the hell would I bother to put it on? I'm okay if you go home and spend 100 and get $120 worth of grain. I'm fine, but I'm certainly not going to give them 100 bucks and come back with half of that in grain. All right, I'm going to keep going here. Here's another one for you. We heard one of the gentlemen this morning say that crops, I wrote it down, naturally produce nutrients. We have a family farm that I grew up on running back here chasing pigs and cows, and we used to go camping and we had a lake and all sorts of fun. And look at these oak trees. Beautiful. One of God's greatest creations, oak trees. 150 years old, maybe a bur oak gets to 200 years old. God's been growing oak trees since the beginning of time.

How many dollars of fertilizer has God put on his oak trees? None. How many crops of acorns has this tree grown? 150. How many crops of leaves did this tree grow? 150. The squirrels and the deer come along here and the raccoons and whoever, and they eat the acorns and the leaves blow away. But you can take soil tests out here by this oak tree, and it's not that much different than it is over in this area. The native prairie ground that our ancestors plowed under, it had fertilizer in it. Where did it come from? God didn't just dump it on there a million years ago. It's been produced by plants over time. All right. Next question is, "What happens to my phosphorus tests and my potassium tests when Marion mines the soil?"

All right, here's where there's been no phosphorus and potassium applied for eight consecutive years. I'm at 18 pounds per acre. University of Illinois would like to see this say 50 pounds per acre. For those of you that are parts per million, that would be nine parts per million. On the red bar over here, we've been applying P&K for the last eight years, an accumulative value of P&K of $600, and I have a phosphorus test of 21. There's not that much difference. I thought it would be a lot more than that. Because this $600 should have had some maintenance and buildup in it. So, here's an example of a plant that's starving from phosphorus. Now, is there plenty of phosphorus in the soil? It could be. It's just the plant's not sucking it out of the ground. But purple leaves. So, let your crop tell you if you're really having a nutrient problem. All right, let's talk about potassium. No P or K applied in the past consecutive eight years. Cropped it every year. 230 pounds per acre.

University of Illinois'd like to see this at 350. $600 worth of P&K. I'm not sure how much was potassium. We're at 266. So, we are getting a little bump in soil tests, but not a lot. P&K are giving me a yield advantage, but not a lot. P&K are giving me a cosmetic advantage, but not a lot. But at the end of the day, the return on investment of P&K at my farm is nonexistent. And in fact, it puts me in a negative situation and I'm not going to do it until I figure out what's wrong. And correct me if I'm wrong here. If you have burnt or yellow edges on your corn leaves, that's a potassium deficiency. Did I get that one right, Alan? And if the center of the corn plant is yellow, that's more telling you that you have a nitrogen deficiency.

All right. I'm going to keep moving on. We'll ask questions when I get to the end. Here's another one that we saw. I went to college. My college buddies and I, we were out crop scouting. One afternoon we'd finished planting and we were crop scouting, not only our crops but some of the neighbors. So, my college buddies, this was back in the late '70s, and we ran across this one out here in the field. It's got a silver leaf right there on the corn plant. I don't know if you guys crop scouted like this when you were in college. You take a little cooler beer with you in the pickup truck. So, we were having a few beers. My buddy was standing there drinking a beer. He says, "Marion," he said, "I took soils." He said, "I'm looking at that silver leaf." And he says, "I can tell you that right there, that's an aluminum deficiency."

I said, "Wonderful, Dennis." He said, "You know how you make that aluminum deficiency go away?" He said, "You drink this beer and then you leave the empty can lay right by the plant." And he said, "That'll solve the aluminum deficiency." Now, you've got to use Coors Light because it has the biggest supplying power of aluminum of any of the cans on the market. So, anyway, this is what we call aluminum [inaudible 00:28:07]. Now, I like to stay one step ahead of my neighbors. So, when I'm planting, I know where I'm going to have aluminum deficiencies in my field. So, this one day I was planting a field that I knew had a lot of aluminum deficiencies. So, when I got in the tractor that morning, I took with a cooler of beer.

And so as I'm planting, I could see a spot that's going to have aluminum deficiencies. And so I'd quickly open the beer and I'd drink it. Then I'd pop open the window and then I'd throw the empty can out. So, I'm one step ahead of the neighbor fixing those. And this field had a lot of aluminum deficiencies. In fact, I emptied that cooler of beer before lunch. I came back four weeks later after the crop came up out of the ground and I had a new problem, and it's this one right there. You can kind of see. How many of you have aluminum deficiencies at home? Okay. Auto-steer is a great feature now. We don't see this much at my farm anymore. Okay. Nitrogen. I want to get through them all and then we'll go back. In our part of the country we fall apply nitrogen. We just want to make sure that if we're on some hillsides, we don't want to de-elevate the trench.

So, when the soil's exploding, make sure that you keep it captured, throw it back on top of the trench so that it doesn't wash over the winter. Make sure that the cart doesn't drive down the tracks because it'll wash. So, the only problem I have with fall applied N is making sure that we don't get any erosion. Other than that, we add a little N serve out there and we're good to go. So, that's one of the ways we apply in the fall. We can also put some on in the spring. I've done this as well. We use a burn down plus a residual in my 15-inch corn. It's a one pass program. We used to shoot some nitrogen on as 28 over the top. That can be just fine.

And also you can side-dress 15-inch or 20-inch corn with the SUPERU. You can spread it in the cart. You can see the corn rows are running north and south. We're spreading east and west with the SUPERU, and you can just keep adding nitrogen and you can get up to 300 pounds per acre. So, now we're going to give you some relativity at my farm about the return on investment of nitrogen. And you just heard about the return on investment that I'm getting from P&K. All three of them are fertilizers. One of them makes me a ton of money. The other one loses money at my farm. So, here's the yield response to nitrogen. Zero pounds of N is the green bar at 120. That's corn soybean rotation. That's about what I'm going to grow in my farm. With 60 pounds of added N, we've all seen this, this is textbook example of adding N, increasing yield, we went to 165. The purple bar we're at 100 pounds, went to 179.

The orange bar at 140 takes us to 186. And had I put on 180 pounds of N, maybe we could have gotten a little more. I don't know. I didn't go really high enough. I did this with 28% at planting time. I had a readout right on the dash, gallons per acre, so I was able to nail it on every replication. Getting a yield response to nitrogen. Now, the next chart is going to convert this to economics. Here's zero pounds, $0 on the left side. Here's our first data point right here. Now we're going to move over here to putting on 60 pounds of N. We're going to come right up here. 60 pounds of N added 45 bushels of corn. And at five bucks, that's worth $225 worth of green.

I spent $36 for the nitrogen. We subtract that out for a net profit of 189, or an increase in my profit potential by $189 an acre. Ladies and gentlemen, if I did my math correctly, that is a 525% return on investment. How many of you said that you went in last week and the banker offered you a 525% return on your money? It just doesn't happen. Of everything that we buy in agriculture, in my humble opinion, nitrogen is the one that has the biggest bang for the buck. So, if you're thinking about throttling back next year on inputs, in my opinion this would not be one of them. I can do a lot of things wrong and still make a ton of money by buying nitrogen. I just don't want to contaminate the water. All right, next data point. 100 pounds of N increased my yield by 59 bushels an acre.

There's nothing else I have ever done in agriculture that can jump yield by 59 bushels. $295 worth of green. The nitrogen costs 60 bucks. I had an additional increase in my profit potential of $235 or a 392% return on investment. And the last data point is 140 pounds of N in a corn soybean rotation, a yield gain of 65 bushels, $325, end cost was 84 and an increase in margin by 241 or 287%. Nitrogen is extremely powerful and it is extremely profitable. In my humble opinion, nitrogen is underpriced. Phosphorus and potassium are way overpriced. Solid seeded corn, 15 by 15, is 28,000. 12 by 12 is 43,000, or 10 by 10 for soybeans at 60,000. Solid seeded corn. Corn is a grass or a legume?


A grass.

Marion Calmer:

Corn is a grass. How many of you have a yard at home around your house? You know where I'm going, don't you? How many of you have that, your front yard, in rows, 30-inch rows the grass around your house? All right. How many of you have cows and have a pasture? How many of the grass that's in the pastures, is it in 30-inch rows? No. You have a hayfield. Anybody have their hay fields in 30-inch rows? In my opinion, corn is a grass and it is abnormal to put it in a row. If corn is a grass, we should treat it like one and I believe it should be solid seeded. And when you look at them side by side, this is 45-inch row corn on this side. This is 15-inch row corn over here. I used to grow corn in that row spacing when I was a kid. And if I'm going to have cover crops, it's pretty easy for me to get those, fly them on and get them down in between.

One of the issues that I have with 15-inch corn with cover crops, I just can't hardly get it to the ground unless I fly it on with a helicopter to agitate and get it to drop on down. So, there's an upside and a downside. We can talk about 20-inch rows, but here's some tips. Solid seeded corn will maximize yield, weed control, erosion control and the production of organic matter. Solid seeded corn, maximum yield, maximum weed, maximum erosion and maximum. The way to grow organic matter is continuous grasses. At my farm, 30-inch rows at 196, 15-inch rows, and this is 16 replications, an eight bushel advantage or about $40 an acre. I'm not the only one that's excited about narrow rows. This is Randy Dowdy from Georgia. Visited with him on the phone. Went to 15-inch corn. We went down there.

Of course, Randy's at high populations, the high nutrient levels, and his corn blew down during one of the hurricane's high winds. And so we went down, put on the down corn poly. And he went back to the field. It went a little bit better. And he called me on the phone and I tell you, this man was almost in tears. He says, "Marion," he says, "I'm pretty sure I've got the world record for 2016 in corn." But he says, "I can't get it." And he said, "Can you help me?" And I said, "We will." So, we turned the guys around. We put a reel on the truck and sent them back down there and they put the corn reel on and he went to the field and he was able to drag it up. And sure enough, he was exactly right. This year he won no-till strip-till irrigated corn category at 521 bushels to the acre in 15-inch rows.

The cute thing was my hired man rode with him in the combine. He called me on the cell phone. He says, "Marion." I said, "What?" "His yield monitor must be wrong." I said, "Why?" "It says 492 bushel to the acre." And the hired men just couldn't believe it. And so they got to see it grow and they got to watch him harvest it. So, anyway, he also owns the national soybean one at 171.8. If you get a chance, he's on the speaking circuit. I'm trying to get the no-till people to add him to our program because he is no-till strip-till. Hopefully maybe we can get him here next year to talk at the conference. This is Harry Stein. He's big on high populations 12-inch rows, and Harry has now gone to twin row 20s, so he's at 60,000. The yield checking that we did on the Stein number here, 30,000 at 238, 35,000 at 242.

And these two, it's kind of a wash in economics. But then after that, our yield started to drop off and I really didn't make a whole lot of money. And I can actually tell you, you can throw away a little over 100 dollars an acre in seed and get nothing back. So, I'm fine with that as long as you get some kind of a return on investment. You can plant them as thick as you want. But this particular study, I lost 25 bucks an acre there. I lost 50 bucks an acre, and at 50,000 I lost $95 an acre. And by planting corn at 55,000, I lost $130 an acre. So, I'm fine with whatever population you want to plant as long as there's a return on investment. Remember that at $320 a bag, every thousand kernels is another $4, which means that's got to have almost over a bushel and a half to get a return on investment.

Every time you jump population, I'm going to need a bushel and a half to cover it. What's the other downside to high populations? Down corn. Harry Stein, we had four of our 30-row 12-inch corn heads and he was in a 200 acre field. They set the auto-steer and just went diagonally, got along great. We had a farmer in central Illinois, twin rows, and he took the 12-inch head and got along fine. I've had different places where we've had the corn fall over and there's just no fun in harvesting down corn at all. How many have you ever harvested downed corn?



Marion Calmer:

There we go. Got something we can agree on. Okay. So, the problem is that the corn fell down. The solution is to get it to stand back up. So, the way that I get my corn to stand back up before I harvest it, I go out and I spray it with a little bit of Viagra right there. And you can see I sprayed this corn plant right here. That baby stood right back up just like that. Now it costs about $12,000 an acre to spray Viagra out there in the field. Now you got to remember though, if the cornstalk stays erect for more than four hours, you need to call your agronomists. So, all right, let's talk about no-till. Try to wrap it up here.

I like spring-loaded row cleaners if you can get them on your planter. These are the Terra-Tine. They work like a wheel rake. I'm going to move straw but no soil. I do not like moving soil with a row cleaner. Coulters. I'm running this one too deep. And the downside to coulters is that it loosens this area up and I can actually cause more damage and more problems. So, we've kind of gone away from using coulters when we're no-tilling corn and the bean stubble. We're still running row cleaners. Here's the data. This has been 10, 15 years ago. It was a dry summer no-tilling and we bought all the attachments possible, put them on the planter, 246. It's 4 replications. Went past it with a field cultivator. Not much difference at 2-47. And the blue chart is true no-till with just some spaders at 248. At my farm, there's really not much yield response to tillage.

There's not much yield response to planter attachments. And I'm using a planter that leads with one disc so I don't get a lot of sidewalk compaction. This was the prettiest looking corn in the field, and this was the ugliest looking corn at the field. Someday, I'm hoping people will come to the National No-Till Conference and they will be talking about true no-till where they just part the soil, drop the seed. This here, we've all done this and it's fine, but I think that we can have days where we plant on the end rows on a hillside and after a three-inch rain, it'll cut a gully right down where we planted the corn. This one was deep enough that it did sprout, but the soil reproduces itself at the rate of one sheet of paper per year.

So, it's going to take hundreds of years to replace that soil. We want to pass it on to the next generation so that they can produce food and they can have a lifestyle. For life to exist as we know it today we need clean water, we need clean air, and we need soil. 100 years from now, what will it take to support life? Clean air, clean water, and soil. 1 million years from now what will it take to support life? Clean air, clean water, and soil. Soil has to last for the rest of time. And it's an honor to be at a group like this that cares about the soil the way you guys do. All right, continuous corn yield penalty. We all like to grow continuous corn. Years ago we used to leave at stand. This guy did pretty good.

He planted it in the row middle where the least amount of residue is at. But there's nitrogen in this corn stock. There's phosphorus, there's potassium, and it's not doing me any good. And the worst thing is that it messes with the carbon nitrogen ratio to the point of where, when this corn gets taller, it'll start to struggle for nitrogen. I was coming to this conference 15 years ago and I told Frank, "I've gone to 15-inch rows, I've gone to higher populations and I'm growing residue faster than I could get it to decompose." Anybody ever been there in a no-till environment? You got more residue than you know what to do. So, I went home and worked on a stock roll that would turn the corn stock into confetti.

But we also found out not only could we make it an inch and a quarter long, but we could shear it so that we could open up the pith so that the earth worms, the microbes, and all of the organisms could help accelerate decomposition and turn this back into plant food for the next year. All right, I've got a short little video from Dr. Below. How many ever heard Dr. Below from the University of Illinois? Love him. He's almost as funny as I am, and he's going to... And then they went home and did some research and then I'm going to show you the results. So, this is going to be his video before they did the research.

Fred Below:

Fred Below. I'm a professor of plant physiology in the crop physiology laboratory at the University of Illinois. We're talking about crop residue. Boy, it's both your best friend and it can be your worst nightmare. It's your best friend because it is what gives you soil organic matter. It's your worst nightmare if it's not managed. Sitting here in an example of managed residue and the unmanaged residue. Look at the mat that is on the ground here compared to where this residue has been sized. By sizing the residue it decomposes faster, especially important for corn residue and especially important if you're growing continuous corn or if you're in conservation tillage, when not only are we covering the soil with this residue, but we have to put it in contact with the soil surface so that it degrades. It's all about the size of the particle.

The bigger the particle, the slower it's going to degrade. It's putting this residue in contact with the soil surface, which enhances its degradation. The quicker you can degrade this residue, the easier you're going to plant, the more uniform your crop's going to emerge, and the more likely you're going to get the benefits of that residue. Now, one of the big issues of residue is immobilization of nutrients, particularly nutrients like nitrogen. If you don't manage the residue, you'll have to apply more nitrogen. Anybody that's grown corn on corn knows that you have to use more nitrogen, and that's because of the residue. I think about planting in a mat of residue like this. You pull a piece of that residue into that planter trough and you're going to have less uniform emergence.

You only have one time to get that crop off to a good start, and if you could manage the residue, have less of it when you plant, that's going to pay a big impact on you getting the value of that seed. Think about high yield. The higher the yield, the more the residue. The higher the yield to achieve it, the more plants you're going to have to plant. So, as we increase plant populations and we increase yield, we're going to have more residue to manage. This is not an issue that will ultimately go away. It's a thing that you have to pay attention to to try and not have it hurt you, but achieve its full value. Again, it's your best friend if you manage it. It's your worst nightmare if you don't.

Marion Calmer:

Okay. So, we went down to University of Illinois. We set them up, corn head, make an OEM residue six inches or longer, another corn head with the BT Choppers. We want to pay tribute to Alison Vogel on doing the research. That's a handful of what was coming out of the BT Choppers. So, they do tillage on both sides. Number one, let's look at the soil. You can see with long residue, they still got some that hasn't decomposed. Over here where we went into confetti, it's pretty much all decomposed. Number two, we look at the photo and we look at the firing that's taking place. Over here, the residue, a lot of nitrogen tied up. We're starting to fire. But on this side, after tassel, when we're getting ready to shoot ears, you can see there's not quite as much fired out there. So, that tells you about the nitrogen.

But when it comes to yield right here, the large residue in continuous corn at 212, the smaller confetti residue from the BT Chopper at 222. So, their data would indicate that by chopping residue you can get a 10 bushel increase in your continuous corn. The piece of paper is right there, all of their information. Take it home and look at it. Also, I'm a little concerned if we're doing tillage and we want to plant corn the next year, if I bury residue two inches deep and this happens to be where I plant next year's corn, I could potentially lay a seed next to residue that was buried from the previous fall. I think strip-till's going to be the future for those of us that are no-tilling. A lot of upside on continuous corn. I still like to see the confetti in the root zone area and the strip be prepared the previous fall between the corn rows.

I've still got the stalks to stop it from blowing and drifting. I've still got a nice seed bed to grow corn. At my farm we also run half and half. I follow it with soybeans. So, here's OEM residue. Here's the small residue. We planted soybeans out there. This is not photoshopped. This happened to me at my farm. I no-tilled it. The heavy residue, the planter came out of the ground. We didn't get a good stand. We don't have good color. We don't have good height. You can see the smaller residue over here.

We've got a good stand. We've got good color. If you don't believe that nitrogen has an impact because of the size of the residue, look at this one. Let the soybean plant tell you if there's nitrogen in the ground. This one right here, not a lot of nodules right there. It was planted into the confetti. Because the nitrogen's in the soil the plant didn't make very much. On this side over here, there's a lot of nodules because there's not much nitrogen in the ground. You can simply pull the soybean plants out of the ground. Last but not least, what kind of yield advantage can I expect if I trade planter tractors?



Marion Calmer:

None. When corn was $7, what did I do?


[inaudible 00:50:29].

Marion Calmer:

I traded planter tractors. What kind of yield advantage did I get? Zero. But how about if we trade planters or upgrade? Yeah, maybe we can get a yield advantage from it and we can get a return on investment. I'm okay with buying machinery as long as I can get a return on investment. Last but not least, if you want to go out and buy your significant other a brand new sports car, is there a return on investment in buying your significant other a new sports car?




Marion Calmer:

You betcha. All right. You've been a great group. I want to tell you the economic benefits from my farm doing on-farm research is $150 an acre. I hope you'll go home. I hope you'll test some of these things, whether it be populations, spacings, fertilizer, nitrogen population. You can do it at your own farm. But at the end of the day, I want to see you make some extra money. Thank you all very much for coming and listening. I'm going to hang around. If you want to see the girls for more information, that's great. You've been a wonderful group. Thank you very much.

Mackane Vogel:

That's it for this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast. Thanks to Marion Calmer and our sponsor, Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul. A transcript of this episode and our archive of previous podcast episodes are both available at If you'd like to hear more from Marion Calmer, be sure to register for the 2023 National Strip-Tillage Conference this August in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. The event will feature a presentation from Marion Calmer on one of his latest on-farm studies examining nutrient stratification in no-till fields, and how strip-till could solve the problem. Visit for details. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening. Keep on no-tilling and have a great day.