BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Eleven years ago, Randy Dowdy bought a pasture adjacent to his home in southern Georgia and decided to take up farming.
It was a bold task for a minister’s son whose ag background was limited to working on a tobacco and watermelon farm in his youth to make money to purchase school clothes to help his folks out.
The lack of farming experience was not going hinder this former police officer. He was all-in from day one, hungry for knowledge and willing to do whatever is necessary to get high yields on his 90 acres with less than 1 percent organic matter and a cation exchange capacity of four to seven.
He first met with some resistance when he was told he may be able to raise 200-bushel corn on that type of ground, but not 300 nor 400. He wasn’t going to settle for the norm.
His efforts have paid off as Dowdy raised more than 500-bushel-per-acre corn in 2014 and hit a record 171-bushel-per-acre soybean yield in 2016.
Dowdy shared what he has learned in his quest for high yields with a packed house of farmers and agronomists at an event sponsored by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn Growers Association and Growmark.
“The difference between a good farmer and a great farmer is timing and attention to detail,” Dowdy said. “I’m a guy who likes to challenge conventional wisdom.”
Dowdy was an open book on what led to his yield successes and served up the “meat and potatoes” of that success.
On profits: He grew 503-bushel-per-acre corn in 2014 at a cost of $2.67 per bushel, and he sold it at $4.60 per bushel. In 2016, he raised 521 bushels and 501 bushels per acre with a cost per bushel of $2.74. It was sold for $4.30 to $4.70 with a 95-cent basis.
On expenses: “Our costs include land rent at $250 an acre, $40 an acre for planting costs, harvest cost at $45, hauling costs at 25 cents a bushel, drying costs of 20 cents a bushel, seed costs, chemical costs (fungicide, herbicide and insecticide), dry, liquid and foliar fertilizers (aerial and land applied), tissue and soil samples, utility costs, fuel costs, labor and scouting fees, 85 percent revenue protection, liability and property insurance, and interest on my money for four months,” Dowdy said.
“We accounted for everything, and that’s one reason why we spent so much money. We believe the most important thing you can do is to have return on investment, and we have to know what our costs are. It surprises and amazes me all of the time that farmers don’t know what their true costs are.”
On soil tests: Dowdy recommends soil testing in one- to 2.5-acre grids. He takes soil samples annually on a one-acre grid, “so we can have the same yield from one side of the field to the other.”
On tissue sampling: He pulls his first tissue sample at 350 growing degree units — the growth stage where the plant transforms from depending on seed energy to sunshine and root uptake.
Tissue samples are taken the same day each week until R4-R5, and the GDUs were recorded on each sample for future fertility management reference. Dowdy selected the R4-R5 growth stage because research shows nitrogen can be applied as late as that stage and impact yield.
“The beautiful thing about tissue samples is it will help you understand not all fertilizer is created equal. Yet, everybody buys fertilizer based off of price,” he said.
“If you put a fertilizer source out there and it’s not in the plant, it won’t do you any good. Tissue samples will help explain that to you. If the plant has it, that’s what matters. People will say those fertilizers are expensive, and it will cost too much. Is yield loss expensive?”
On fertility: “You want 300-bushel-per-acre corn? If it takes a certain amount of nitrogen, a certain amount of phosphorous and a certain amount of potash to make a bushel of corn, my question is, how much magnesium, molybdenum, copper, iron, sulfur, calcium, manganese, phosphorous, potash, boron and zinc does it take to make a bushel of corn? Yields are based on limiting factors,” Dowdy said.
“It blows my mind of how many farmers are willing to do something to save $1 or $2 (by doing their own repairs), but they can’t tell me the nutrients it takes to make bushels. What makes you more money, bushels or knowing how to replace that bearing? You grow corn for a living. How can you not know how many nutrients it takes to make a bushel of corn?”
On planting: “All the plants have to grow at the same time or you’re leaving yield on the table. We want all of the seed planted at two inches. We want good seed-to-soil contact,” Dowdy said. “If you can plant at 5 mph and get them all at two inches, good. If you can’t, slow down. You’re going to live with it all year. It’s not a race to get finished; it’s a race to get done correctly.”
In order to provide for roots on both sides of the plant, he places fertilizer four inches deep on either side of side of the seed. The 3x2x2 applications resulted in a 31-bushel-per-acre yield bump.
On risk: Spread risk by using different hybrids. Dowdy uses three different hybrids in every field and varies the planting population. He uses populations of 28,000, 32,000, 36,000 and 40,000 seeds per acre in his trials. His trials include 25 to 30 different varieties.
On tillage: Dowdy does fall and spring deep tillage to manage the soil in a two-crop program. Corn is planted the end of February, first of March and harvested around the first of August. A legume is then planted and is harvested between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Dowdy said there is little corn residue by the time the legume is harvested due to microbial activity. He then plants a cover crop to capture residual fertilizer, prevent erosion, control weeds and provide organic matter.
On irrigation: Dowdy has pivot irrigation that not only allows for the delivery of water, but also a way to fertigate for feeding the plants to meet in-season fertilizer needs.
“We can inject any kind of fertilizer we want to into that water stream,” he said. “Irrigation adds 30 to 100 bushels no matter where I go.”
On harvest: “I harvest early, beginning at 25 percent moisture,” Dowdy said. “To prevent dent (lost yields) the plant has to be alive. You leave yield on the table when it starts to dent.”
- Farmers should walk their fields at least once a week to determine plant stand, weed types and methods of control, moisture availability and irrigation uniformity, insects and related control, diseased pressure and control, nutrient deficiencies, ear count and harvest loss.
- Learn how to manage your crop based on growth stages by measuring GDUs. You can then consistently manage it from one year to the next.
- Understand the Law of the Minimum and the minimums on your farm.
- Planning starts at least a year before planting based on last year’s performance.
- Match hybrids to the availability of water, rotation and contractual obligations.
- Look at data from yield monitor to determine yield loss factors. Dowdy matches the yield data with the locations of the hybrids and planting populations.
“If I have five places in the field that make 400-bushel corn, what is in common from a soil fertility perspective in those areas? Now we know where the yield is coming from and why,” Dowdy said. “We use data; now duplicate what you’ve done.”
Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.