Ask how national corn yield champions choose a hybrid and you won’t likely find a magic formula.
Take Kip Cullers, K & K Farms, Joplin, MO, for example. In 2008, Cullers garnered first place in the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) AA no-till/strip-till non-irrigated category, posting a 320.87-bu/acre yield. Cullers also set a record in 2007, with a 154.74-bu./acre-soybean yield that still stands today.
What is this multi-crop yield champ’s secret for selecting top-producing seeds? “I test them. Then I take good a look at what I’ve got.”
That sounds easy enough – unless you have a lot to test, like Cullers, who grows corn and soybeans on more than 10,000 acres and plants corn in five counties. His acreage also includes 410 corn hybrids in a Pioneer Hi-Bred Intensively Managed Product Advancement Characterization and Training (IMPACT) plot and 408 soybean varieties in a research plot.
Work crews from Pioneer plant and harvest the trials for IMPACT and research plots, says Scott Dickey, Pioneer area agronomist for western Missouri. “For IMPACT trials, we don’t want to go in with any preconceived notions on what will perform best,” says Dickey. “We’re testing our experimental numbers one last time before they become a commercial product.”
By seeing how experimental numbers perform on his farm, Cullers judges how well they’ll produce for him up to one year before commercialization for IMPACT plots and up to three years before commercialization for research plots. “I look around in my experimental plots at least once every week and sometimes every day,” he says. “I see what’s growing well and where it’s growing well. I think about why it grows well in one area and not in another. Then I make sure to plant a variety in a place where it grows best.”
Only ultra-high yielders find their way into Cullers’ yield-contest plots. “Our main contest plots have good soils and drain really well,” he says. “When we see something from a variety plot that shows really good promise for high yields, we try it in a contest plot.”
Yield is the main thing, but not the only thing to consider, adds Cullers, who says he typically knows by July which experimental numbers are probably going to yield best. “When you pick a variety, it’s all about yields, but I also look at how quickly they grow, how they handle cold, how fast they emerge and how well they stand,” he says. “In 2008, we won with Pioneer hybrid 35F40, because it works really well under no-till and has really good emergence. But we’re moving away from it now because we’ve found something that yields even better.”
Cullers is no slouch when it comes to examining experimental plots and choosing the best performers for future production, says Dickey. “Kip’s very good at integrating new numbers into his operation,” he says. “We try to target people for IMPACT plots who take a keen interest in it, like Kip. He really pays a lot of attention to what worked well and where it worked best.”
From last year’s corn and soybean test plots, Cullers says he’s found four new corn numbers and four new soybean numbers with good promise for this year. “For soybeans, we try to find varieties that don’t get too tall and still yield well,” he says. “Right now, I like one that stands much better than other varieties that I’ve looked at.”
Cullers also spends time looking for other top-yielding varieties elsewhere from all over the world. “I was in Brazil this winter and saw some soybean varieties there that I plan to try here. I’ve also looked at corn hybrids from Chile and Italy that might work for me,” he says.
Not every yield champ takes the same seed-selection approach, however. The emphasis of Chris Lindner, Keokuk, IA, whose LCL Farms entry won NCGA’s 2009 AA non-irrigated category, is a bit different from Cullers’.
“The main thing we look for is early vigor,” says Lindner, who won his contest category last year with a DeKalb DKC63-42 hybrid and a 298.31-bu./acre yield. “It has to come out of the ground even and perfect – right from the start – and it has to handle high plant populations well.”
Last year, Lindner says he aimed for corn populations in the 36,000-plants/acre range. This year, he’s boosted corn populations to 38,000-39,000 plants/acre.
“Even with higher plant populations, it will be hard to repeat a top yield like last year. We have three hybrids from FS, two from Pioneer and one from DeKalb that look promising,” says Lindner, who farms with his father Melvin and wife Leslie. “This year, we have really nice crops on our hills that drain well.
“On my hilly ground, I’m typically looking for a racehorse hybrid with stability and stress tolerance,” he says. “On my bottom ground, a good disease package is essential.”
Wherever he plants corn, Lindner says he likes to try new hybrids, without abandoning the old standbys. “I typically have about 18-20 different numbers spread out where they should be on either hilly ground or bottom ground,” says Lindner. “On my contest plots, I like to take a chance on some of the new hybrids that are coming out, but I don’t hold a grudge if taking that chance doesn’t pay off,” he says. “The number that won for me in 2009 was an older, reliable hybrid.”
Reliability under high plant populations is also a key ingredient to producing high yields for Mark Dempsey, Fowler, IL, who won NCGA’s 2008 AA non-irrigated category with a Garst 8488IT hybrid and a 348.38-bu./acre yield.
“When I won in 2008, I had a 44,000 plant population,” says Dempsey, whose contest fields have been in continuous corn for up to eight years. “This year I’m shooting for a 51,000 final stand.”
When choosing hybrids, Dempsey also says he’s looking for strong stalks and roots. “If you don’t have good stalk and root strength at 30,000 plants/acre, you won’t have it at 50,000,” he explains.
This year, Dempsey says he’s planted 30 acres into corn yield contest plots with three different numbers: two DeKalb and one Pioneer. “I do some side-by-side comparisons of different numbers that look promising, but I usually go with whatever stands out from what I’ve planted before,” he says. “This year, my DeKalb DKC 63-42 is looking pretty good. It was knee-high on June 4, was tasseling before July 4 and putting on ears on July 6.”
In addition to experimenting with new hybrids and plant populations, Dempsey also compares different starter fertilizers from three companies. Scouting fields and communicating with trusted advisers is also important for him.
“I’m in my fields at least once per week and I keep rainfall records in my contest fields,” says Dempsey. Like other investments, past results don’t necessarily guarantee future successes, notes Dempsey. “There’s always something new to learn,” he adds.