Secrets to High Yielding Crops
Have you ever wondered how it is possible that some growers are able to consistently out yield national and state averages? Some farmers can grow double and even triple what their neighbors harvest every year.
How exactly is that possible?
Maximizing Yields By Minimizing Losses
A number of growers, agronomist and crop consultants have started to look at yield enhancement as minimizing losses to crop potential. The idea is rooted in the fact that the seed represents ultimate potential. There is nothing that you can do to increase the genetic potential of that plant. You are simply trying to not do things that diminish that potential.
While that minimizing losses might seem fatalistic and disheartening, keep in mind the average harvest yield per acre on US corn acreage is around 170 bushels per acre. Meanwhile, most scientists estimate the genetic potential of today’s hybrids at over 1000 bushels per acre. So, there is a lot of money we’re leaving on the table.
Big advances have been made in the areas of tillage, irrigation control, disease resistance, populations, and of course plant genetics. There’s a great article on that topic here. But, for the most part, we are describing advances in plant science that are available to everyone.
Plant Genetics Are Pushing Average Yields Up
Most growers and agronomists agree that while the advanced genetics typically found in today’s hybrid seeds will give you a better average outcome, they can actually decrease maximize harvest yields.
That probably sounds confusing or contradictory, so let me explain.
Breeding Is Compromise
In order to give the plants a particular trait, seed breeders are forced to make compromises in selecting breeding partners. For example, if they are looking for resistance to a particular disease or pest, they may do so by sacrificing fruit size or day length.
Particular hybrids are bred and sold for specific circumstances. For instance, one line may perform better in drought conditions, whereas another may resist lodging in high winds, whereas another may provide earlier fruit set to allow the grower to take advantage of favorable early season markets for their crop.
Seed companies load the latest seeds with traits to give them advanced pest resistance, bred to germinate, grow and mature within strict parameters in order to maximize harvest stands and yield counts.
But, the latest hybrids and even GMO seeds are made available farms across the country every year. The guys winning the national corn growing contests and breaking the 500 bushel yield barrier, are planting the same seeds as the guy down the road who barely pulls in the county average.
Is It The Weather?
Of course, weather can have a significant impact on your crop. An exceptionally dry growing season can cut yields in half or more for dry-land farmers. If you’re up north, an extended cold wet spring can delay germination and emergence and shorten the number of days available to maximize yields. And, for just about everyone high winds and hail can turn a record setting stand into a crop insurance claim in a matter of minutes.
So, we understand that weather has a significant impact. But, in the case of our championship grower and the neighbor down the road, they’re both growing on similar soils and in nearly identical climate. Until we can learn to control the weather, we need to focus on those things that are within the growers’ direct control.
Double Your Yields
What would doubling or even tripling the yields on your farm mean to your family’s financial situation?
Most of us aren’t operating on fat margins. The prices for major crops like corn, wheat, cotton, soy, and even coffee are controlled by the laws of supply and demand in large international commodities markets. You can decide to grow specialty crops or those with limited availability in your local markets. But, the prices you’re able to get for your crop each year are controlled by agricultural economics.
So, why doesn’t everyone just do what the top yielding growers do? The reason is, it take a lot of hard work.
Planning, Management and Discipline
The most successful growers tend to put a premium on planning, management and the discipline to stick with their cropping plans.
Planning will start sometimes a year ahead of time where growers will look at field layouts, crop rotations, planting populations, fertility programs, irrigation and the all-important selection of appropriate hybrids for the field, soil, and climate conditions.
Fertilizer And Crop Inputs
Diligent growers will usually apply fertilizers to replace nutrients that were removed through crop removal the previous season or to repair long range imbalances or deficiencies in their soil.
Plant populations, obviously, are a big part of per acre yield potentials. Growers who are pushing yield will frequently test out different row widths or other layouts in order to maximize populations without increasing pest or disease pressure in the field.
Crop Rotations And Field Layouts
Crop rotations are a big part of enhancing yields in particular crops. There are long range studies that show that most farmers will get between 7-15% more yield on a cornfield when coming off of a soybean rotation. Legumes create symbiotic relationships with N-fixing bacteria that leave more nitrogen in the soil once the soybean litter has been reincorporated into the soil.
Irrigation And Drainage
Maximizing your crop yield means managing the moisture in your field. While appropriate moisture levels will vary based on the makeup and structure of your soil (or growing medium), most soil scientists believe that an mix of 50% solids, 25% moisture, and 25% air is an optimum growing environment. If natural rainfall in your region is not sufficient to feed your plants, obviously, one of the easiest things to look at is artificial irrigation options, such as flood, pivot, or micro-sprinkler setups.
While limited rainfall or drought conditions are frequently the yield limiting factors, too much rain can also be a problem. Water-logged fields inhibit the natural gas exchange needed for the root system of your plants and the microbial population in your soil to survive and thrive. Roots get deprived of oxygen, and disease and rot often destroy your crop.
Drain tiles and contouring of fields are two ways farmers have tried to take advantage of natural rainfall while managing the amount of water the soil in their field holds. Obviously, these are two things that need to be taken care of during the off-season well before a field is put into crops or into a fallowed field.
Choosing the wrong hybrid is probably one of the biggest things you can do to lose yield. Hybrid selection is part art and part science. Because of this, the more experience you have as a grower of a particular crop, on your soil, in your climate, the easier it will be to select an appropriate hybrid for your conditions.
If the grower is able to anticipate a late spring or an early winter a shorter day-length hybrid will be appropriate. Additionally, if getting adequate moisture onto the crop during critical growing periods becomes an issue, a drought-resistant hybrid will typically outperform a ‘racehorse’ type selection.
Once the plan is in place, management becomes crucial. Management essentially means doing what you can do as a grower to ensure that your crop never has a bad day. That means:
- Monitoring moisture levels across your field and adjusting your irrigation plan as necessary.
- Taking soil samples and monitoring the use and loss of nutrients and organic matter in the soil.
- Taking frequent tissue tests on your crop so you can recognize and address nutrient shortages or imbalances in the elements critical to efficient plant growth and reproduction.
- Recognizing and addressing conditions which invite yield-crippling disease in a proactive manner
- Getting in front of pest problems by utilizing rotations and cropping systems that minimize your crops susceptibility and then responding in a proactive manner to keep insect or pest problems from stressing your plants
In order to maximize your probability of success while pushing for higher yields, it’s important that once you have a plan in place that you are diligent about working your plan throughout the season. That doesn’t mean that you’re inflexible if weather, conditions, or a disease or pest outbreak forces you to alter your plan. What it means is that you have contingencies in place to deal with changes once they arise.
While continued breakthroughs in genetics and crop science will help lead the way to higher on farm average yields, truly extraordinary yield breakthroughs will undoubtedly continue to be driven by on-farm management.
By providing adequate nutrition of the right kind, at the right time and the right place we will give our plants the best opportunity to express their genetic potential. By ensuring that our plants always have adequate moisture in the soil in order to nourish them allow them to maximize their photo-respiration we can ensure that our plants are able to photosynthesize for the maximum portion of the photo-period of each day. And, by protecting our plants from insect, disease, and other pests we can minimize the amount of stress our plants endure and allow them to devote all of their energy to developing their vegetative or fruiting bodies for maximum yield potential out of our farms.