Never-till growers reaping benefits

Grain growers in the Southeast have all heard the concerns that they can't compete for corn and soybean yields with the fertile soils of America's Midwest. Trouble is Virginia grower David Hula and some of his neighboring farmers forgot to read that script.

For starters Hula won a division of the National Corn Growers Association annual yield contest with a whopping 385.6 bushels per acre. He didn't do too badly with soybeans either, taking second place in the Virginia Soybean Growers Association's annual yield contest with 89.3 bushels per acre.

Just up the James River from Hula's farm, Roxbury, Va. grower Jon “Chub” Black took top honors in the Virginia Soybean yield competition with 92.3 bushels per acre.

There's more than a friendly rivalry that annually places these farmers near the top of state and national grain yield contests.

Hula and Black are among a handful of Virginia farmers who bought in early to the concept of ‘never-till’. Exactly where the term started is not for certain, but long-time Virginia Tech Extension Agent Paul Davis is the likely source. Davis, who preaches no-till and never-till to all his farmer friends, practices what he preaches on his family farm near West Point, Va.

In 2007, a dry year that devastated corn from the Florida Panhandle to the Del Marva Peninsula, Hula, and his brother Johnny managed to win first and second place in the National Corn Growers Association No-Till, Strip-Till Irrigated Division.

David produced an entry of 385.6 bushels per acre to capture top yield honors in the NCGA contest. Johnny finished second in the No-Till/Strip-Till Irrigated Division with a yield of 370.8 bushels per acre.

David and Johnny farm with their father, Stanley at Renwood Farms along the James River in eastern Virginia.

Overall, the Hula family averaged 160 bushels of corn per acre on 1,500 acres, all but 100 acres grown without irrigation. Hula says the moisture holding capacity of the soil no doubt helped their crops survive the extreme drought and allowed them to produce yields above the national average.

The Hulas give healthy soils part of the credit for producing high yields in a difficult farming year. They have practiced continuous no-till to the point that David calls their style of farming “Never-Till.” The fields at Renwood Farms haven't been tilled for more than 10 years.

Despite the many benefits of no-till farming, one of the major drawbacks can be a build up of disease organisms. A key to their success in 2007, David Hula says, is the use of a broad spectrum fungicide on most of their corn and soybean acreage.

“I can't say for sure that a build-up of crop residue from no-till contributes to plant diseases, but that seems logical. We know the same organism that causes decay in corn stalks also causes wheat scab. Much of our crop is planted into wheat stubble. Because we grow crops for seed, we have to keep the plants as healthy as possible so we put a fungicide on every crop,” Hula says.

On their corn crop, they used Headline fungicide. Headline not only protects their crops from diseases, but also contributes to increased test weight, an important factor in grain marketing, according to the Virginia grower.

Headline is active on foliar and soil-borne diseases representing all four categories of fungi commonly found on corn. A site-specific fungicide, it stops spores as they germinate, preventing them from infecting plant tissue. By interfering with cell respiration and the production of energy, Headline causes the fungus to stop growing and die.

The use of fungicides on corn, prior to the 2007 season was generally considered to be not economical. With corn prices well over $5 per bushel, many growers with high yield potential used either strobilurin or triazole herbicides to protect their crop. Based on increased usage some changes have been enacted for fungicide use in corn.

  • The REI for bare-hand detasseling in seed corn fields receiving an application of Headline (BASF) was reduced from 7 days to 12 hours.

  • Application of Quilt (Syngenta Crop Protection) and Stratego (Bayer Crop Science) were previously restricted for use after the development of brown silks. The new PHI was reduced for these products on corn and applications should not be made within 30 days of harvest.

  • Headline and Quadris still have a seven day PHI for corn.

Though all of the strobilurin and triazole fungicides have had some successes in increasing grain yields, there does appear to be a common thread between high yielding corn, no-till, and Headline fungicide.

In the National Corn Growers yield contest Headline was used by six of the nine first-place winners, four of the nine second-place winners and five of the nine third-place winners.

“If growers are trying to improve yield and generate more revenue, they need to look at a fungicide program. We ran tests on our farm, comparing several different fungicides and Headline proved to be the best option for us,” Hula concludes.

In addition to protecting his grain crops with fungicides, Hula relies on a crop consultant to help with fertilizer and pest management practices. The professional agronomist takes tissue samples during the growing season and recommends a fertilization program based on the yield potential.

In 2007, the Hulas fertilized their corn three times as the crop progressed. The consultant also scouted for insects and recommended a tank-mix of a fungicide with micronutrients and an insecticide if the corn wasn't genetically modified to resist insects.

Though fungicides add to the cost of producing a high yielding corn crop, never-till usually offsets those costs with lower fertility requirements.

Virginia grower Randolph Aigner has produced 100 bushel per acre wheat using no nitrogen fertilizer and regularly produces high yielding corn crops using less than recommended amounts of N, P and K.

In addition to cost savings, Aigner contends long-term no-till or never-till practices help preserve moisture in the soil. Despite its increased moisture holding capabilities, Aigner contends he can work his fields much quicker after heavy rainfall than he could on conventional-tillage soils.

If the proof is in the pudding, growers looking at no-till or never-till need look no further than the Hula family. Their record high yields on irrigated corn is impressive, but maybe more impressive is the farm average of 160 bushels per acre on nearly 1,500 acres in a year when many corn growers in the Southeast struggled to harvest 60 bushels per acre.

Both Hula and his neighbor, Jon Black produced record crops of soybeans, also grown on never-till land. With soybean prices at 10-year high levels, 90 bushels per acre is profitable production, regardless of what part of the country they are grown.

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