Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
For Minnesota corn farmers Chris Sobeck and Curt Haler, the National Corn Growers Association’s (NCGA) Corn Yield Contest (CYC) is a great way to see what today’s corn hybrids can do, and try new things on their fields to become better farmers.
This is the second part of a two-part series of posts highlighting Minnesota corn farmers who placed first in a specific category of NCGA’s CYC. Click here to read the first part. Click here to see a full list of results of Minnesota CYC finishers.
Sobeck, 49, who farms near Winona, finished top in the no-till/strip till on non-irrigated land with a yield of 262.2668 bushels per acre across a 20-acre field. He raised the same number as the year before, planting DeKalb DKC62-97RIB.
“This farm has participated for 20 years, and me personally, I’ve been in the contest for the past five years,” said Sobeck, who has farmed since returning from college. In that time he has watched the performance of corn hybrids skyrocket.
“What the hybrids are capable of producing is amazing,” Sobeck said. “You look at my dad’s and uncle’s fields, the yields seem to be going upwards and upwards. When they first started if you got a yield over 200 it was incredible. Now, you have to be over 250 to even think about mentioning it.”
In addition to raising corn, soybeans and alfalfa, the Sobecks operate a 200-head dairy.
“After college, I wasn’t too keen on farming,” said Sobeck. “I thought 40-hour a week job, working in a cube would be more appealing after growing up on the farm, and having to wake up early and do chores, keep going until late, and work seven days a week. But then, after awhile in the office world I realized I wanted to work for myself as opposed to working for stockholders. Here on the farm, there’s never really a dull moment. Every day is a different battle. When it’s 20 below zero like it is now, it kinda makes me reconsider (laughs) but most days are pretty good.”
Asked what management methods resulted in such high yields, Sobeck said: “It’s a high fertility field where we do no-till, and it works best to put it on bean ground. We had soybeans on it last year.”
Curt Haler, Hastings, felt gratified to win in the irrigated category with 253.7533 bushels. After years working as a consultant with a farm partnership that entered the contest, this was the first year that Haler entered CYC under his own name. He won with Pioneer P1151AM1 ™.
Haler had decided he wanted to break out of the ‘stalemate’ — the plateau of yields in the 180-220 bushels farmers in his region harvest each year. So he decided to try to better understand the science of how the corn plants grow in his fields.
“We spoonfed nitrogen — we were feeding it the same amount of product, but then we were feeding it as needed,” Haler said, describing how the use of irrigation pivots regulated by computer makes this approach easy.
He continued: “The plant let us know when it needed nitrogen. We let the plant tell us the story. We’re trying to figure out when we can do this. It looks like we need to start at V2, go to V10, pre-tassel, post-tassel, and then the last shot when it was almost ready to dent.”
Haler said they closely managed the whole regime of macro and micronutrients: adding extra potash at certain extra times, a little boron several times, some sulfur and some zinc.
“We were spoon-feeding it as the tissue samples came in,” Haler added. “To try to understand the science behind how the corn grows we pulled tissue samples every week. Basically the same time, the same place in the fields throughout the growing season. We sent the samples off to the lab and applied nutrients according to the results. We’re finding out that might be the right thing to do. We are looking at purchasing a few more pieces of equipment to help us do that across more acres. We’re still studying all the records. There’s a lot to learn here.”
Haler, who has been farming since 1978, said one of the main concerns on their light, sandy-loamy soil, is using the right amount of water in the irrigation system, neither too much nor too little, in order to get an the best results. It turns out that conservation is a part of this picture.
“With corn-on-corn, we try to leave enough residue on top so that we don’t get anything blowing. Once in a while we fail on that. We have put some waterways in. Our biggest thing is that we are trying to build the soil up,” Haler said. “We actually decided to go corn-on-corn about 10 years ago because we had no (moisture) holding capacity whatsoever. Now it seems to be working for us. We can slow down, we don’t have to irrigate quite as much.
“Here’s what we learned as time has gone on: we go more often with less water. We let the crop tell us when it needs the water. And these (soil moisture) probes are really starting to help out with this too. We are trying some variable rate irrigation where we program the irrigators to the probes and they tell the irrigators when to start and when to go back, put more water on, or speed up and not put as much water on. We are trying some of that technology right now.”
The results so far are promising: with the schedule of putting less water on, but putting water on more often, they have zero runoff and no ponding.
“We were pretty impressed, pleased with what we figured out using the plant tissue sampling and the soil moisture monitoring,” said Haler. “It’s going to be interesting this year. We’re hoping to be one of the first in this area to crack 300 (bushels per acre).”