Precision Push

Like everyone else, we’re pushing hard on our farm to get to 300-bushel corn. We’ve managed to hit 289 bushels in our test plots, so we’re very, very close.

A lot of people believe that to hit those high yields you have to really push fertility, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me, it’s about accuracy and dealing with insect and disease issues in a timely fashion.

Accuracy is a front we’ve made significant progress on in the last 5 years. Our big steps forward started with installing a Precision Planting 20/20 AirForce system that automatically measures and adjusts down pressure on our John Deere 1770NT planter, so our seeds are planted at a correct and consistent depth.

When necessary, more pressure is applied, and when that’s not needed, pressure is backed off so we don’t pack the soil in the seed trench. It does a great job of accurate placement and gets us closer to the picket fence stand.

Initially I just had the 20/20 SeedSense and was getting about 90% to 92% perfect stands. With the addition of the AirForce system I was able to push precision to 98%.

The higher our populations get with the newer hybrids, the more important it is to get excellent singulation and the perfect stand. We’re currently planting at about 35,800 plants per acre.

If you have a skip, you’re losing yield because there’s nothing there. A double results in smaller ears and, of course, smaller yields. We have to get everything perfect to hit those high corn yields.

Auto-steer has been our latest and greatest precision purchase. It was first installed on our new combine, and in 2012 we installed it on every other piece of equipment we own. The savings we achieve by not overlapping atrociously expensive seed and other inputs have us on track to pay off the systems in just 2 years.

We had GPS guidance in the past, but auto-steer just takes it to the next level as it saves on driver fatigue and driver error. It’s especially useful when planting our corn-on-corn acres because we can find the old row and plant exactly 6 inches off to the side of it.

Consistently hitting that 6-inch offset mark is critical because staying off the old row means our expensive seed isn’t planted in the root ball of last year’s crop. Planting into a root ball usually means poor seed-to-soil contact and poor germination.

Now that we’re not just eyeballing it to stay off the row we’re getting a lot better germination and emergence.

Corn-On-Corn Challenges

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Corn-on-corn acres are plenty challenging in a conventional system, and take even more attention in no-till.

That said, I’ve been pretty successful in raising no-till corn-on-corn. I pick a hybrid with good disease resistance and manage it to succeed.

Seed is planted with an in-furrow pop-up formula of 6-23-6 with zinc, boron, copper and manganese, and a little fertilizer.

As soon as the plant sprouts, the root picks up a little fertilizer, giving it the boost to grow out to the 10-34-0 fertilizer and 28% nitrogen we also place in 2-by-2-inch bands with the planter.

Pop-up fertilizer and the liquid fertilizer together have given us anywhere from a 6- to 10-bushel advantage. I’m also sure to give my second-year corn 30 extra units of nitrogen because it’s not getting the extra little nitrogen boost that it would if it followed soybeans.

I’m fairly particular, if not a little old school, with my planter setup.

My floating row cleaners, with depth-gauge wheels, clear a 6-inch path for me to plant into. I also run a wavy no-till coulter. If the soil is really dry, I like that coulter there to cut the slot and take the pressure off of my openers.

I prefer cast-iron closing wheels to the new spiked tooth wheels because they have a sharper edge to press down the soil. I’m also a real believer in drag chains to pull sod clumps back over the trench and cover them up when conditions are a little wet.

Once the seed’s in the ground, it’s about managing the disease and insect pressures. There are a lot of fungi and bacteria living in the no-till residue. That can result in grey leaf spot, Goss’s wilt, rusts and other disease problems popping up. All of our corn-on-corn acres get a fungicide and insecticide application at tassel to offset the higher risk.

In my personal push to exceed the 300-bushel mark, I don’t believe that dumping a bunch of fertilizer on is the key. Fertilizer management really hasn’t changed much over the years, and I feel I get just as good of an advantage from having a healthy, functioning soil.

For me, the next yield advantages will come from better management of insects and diseases. Better products and more timely treatments will get us there. It just doesn’t seem practical to apply 500 pounds of nitrogen.

Air Capacity

Tile is an extremely valuable no-till tool for our farm. It’s the first thing we install when we get a new farm, and we’ve even re-tiled our acres that had old tile. We believe that tile opens up our soils and allows them to breathe.

Our soils are a mixture of black loam and clay. They can be a little harder to dry out. On wet years, tile works with no-till to move water through the soil profile and gets us in the field faster.

The classic no-till line is that you have to wait 2 to 3 days after the neighbors are in the field before you can plant. But with tile, I can start planting 2 to 3 days before the neighbors.

Tile performs in dry years, too. There’s more air in the soil that helps microbial and earthworm activity. The soil microbial activity builds soil structure, and earthworms can burrow all the way down to the tile. My corn roots follow those burrows and expand through more of the soil profile.

In wet or dry conditions, that larger root system is able to pull nutrients and water from more cubic inches of soil.