Winning has Roots Tour spends time with two farmers passionate about raising yields and finds the experience informative, and fun
By: Willie Vogt
Passion and farming go hand-in-hand. In this business if you're not fully engaged, you're leaving opportunity on the table. In the last two days, as we're winding down the Winning has Roots tour, we got to one part of the schedule I was looking forward to – farm visits.
Our first stop was at the farm of Braden Short, a Hamilton County, Ill., young farmer who committed to high-yield corn in 2017 and has been pushing his yields ever since.
Our second stop, this time near Dubois, Ind., was time with a familiar name to many in the world of high-yield corn – Kevin Kalb.
Short admits he was turned on to the idea of high-yield corn after hearing Kalb speak, though neither know each other, but it shows that through networking farmers do get great ideas.
Building a plan
For Short, the idea of raising corn yields started with a review of his nutrition plan. "We wanted to give the corn what it needed when it needed it," he says. But how to know what the corn needs?
How a corn crop utilizes nutrition, and when to make that nutrition available to the plant, are key areas of focus for many high-yield producers who also compete in the National Corn Growers Association National Corn Yield Contest.
Short turned to tissue testing to better understand how that corn crop is using nutrition. "I'm testing weekly," he says. But in his case, those weekly tests were not so much a move for in-season changes, but for better analysis of nutrient use for the following year.
Spreading out delivery of crop nutrients, and changing the form were important tactics for Short. His father, Brad, had long been an "anhydrous man" working with that nitrogen source for years. Today, the Short operation relies more on liquid nitrogen, 32%, and timed delivery.
Short farms with his father, and his grandparents also still help around the farm.
As for those weekly tissue tests? Short sits down with that data over the winter, along with information regarding weather, timing, and other factors he's recorded to analyze what he's done. And he's been making progress.
Short tried the high-yield approach on the first piece of ground he bought. That was in 2017, and the field average was under 200 bushels per acre. "In the first year, we hit 295 bushels per acre on that field," he says. The aim was to beat 300 bushels per acre on what would be his contest plot, but also to determine how those tactics could be applied across more acres.
He admits in 2018 he saw a setback in yield. Part of succeeding with a high-yield approach is learning from your mistakes. And learn he did. In 2019 the yield topped 305. And in 2020, Short's contest yield for dryland corn hit 321 bushels per acre.
Short is applying those tactics across the whole farm, boosting the field averages. Some would question raising the investment for inputs on a corn crop, but he says he's found that even with higher input costs the increased production offers a higher return on investment.
A key for him? "We're working to do what's best for the crop, not what's best for us."
A natural teacher
If you ever get the chance to spend time with Kevin Kalb, please do. Our time on his farm, checking corn and talking about high-yield practices was not only enlightening, but quite entertaining. And his wife, Shawn, is delightful!
When we drove up their lane in our yellow van, Shawn's first thought was "what did I order from DHL?" We laughed but having seen a DHL delivery van – also bright yellow – we can see how she might have been confused at first. But she and husband, Kevin, did get their picture taken with it and shared it on Twitter.
Back to talking corn with Kevin. Anyone who as met me knows I have a limited filter, anyone who has met Kevin knows that his filter is also limited. Conclusion? We had a fantastic time laughing and telling stories. But we also got into the nitty gritty of raising the average yield of corn on the farm.
For Kalb, those weekly tissue tests are being used in-season to manage nitrogen. Turns out corn may love nitrogen, but not as much as many of us think. "You can give a corn plant too much nitrogen," he notes.
He's constantly looking at ways to improve yield, and even on dryland hills he's seeing yields top 300 bushels per acre. His contest fields are yielding valuable information he can apply across his farm.
Kalb is also a natural teacher, sharing what he sees are ways to evaluate the corn cob for kernel size and performance. A look at leaves from later season plants offers insight into quick ways to know you've got high-yielding corn. Hint: That center channel in a corn leaf should be nice and wide.
Visiting with farmers was what got me into agricultural journalism 40-plus years ago, and spending time on the Short and Kalb farms does keep a writer engaged.
There was one message I got from both Short and Kalb. High-yield corn is not an "easy button" process, it takes time, and timing, to feed and nurture that top-genetic corn for the highest yields. Whether that's getting into a field at midnight with y-drops to provide proper nutrition ahead of a rainstorm or poring over data to better understand what you could do differently, the one benefit is that raising high-yield corn pays.
We're wrapping up the tour and will share more insights from the road in our last blogs. And watch Twitter by searching the hashtag #WinningHasRoots for not only what we're seeing but what's happening across DEKALB country.