By Dan Miller
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
It's a well-worked phrase, and Bob Little, Hebron, Ind., knows well its half-dozen words: "What a difference a year makes."
In 2012 his northwest Indiana farm produced not one, but two winning entries in the National Corn Growers Association National Corn Yield Contest. Along with his wife, Kathy, the Littles scooped up the highest yield awards in the AA No-Till/Strip-Till Non-Irrigated class (Bob) and the AA Non-Irrigated class (Kathy). Bob's entry was 297.1250 bushels per acre. Kathy, who also works for Hospice Care, entered a yield of 294.7642. AA states include Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.
A DIFFERENT YEAR
"I sure would be happy to be picking last year's crop again," says Little on a warm day in late August. "Last year we were the garden spot of the Midwest, from what I heard." That crop was a robust 30 bushels more per acre than his long-term average.
This year is different. Little recorded just 1.5 inches of rain in the seven weeks following the first of July. "So far the crop is holding together," he says on this day. "But I can see deterioration; it seems like every couple of hours."
Little farms 960 acres in Lake County, Indiana.
The county's north is heavily industrialized, its northern border formed by Lake Michigan with a fine port where lake freighters move steel from USX Corporation's Gary Works. The plant has the capacity to produce 7.5 million tons of steel per year. The county is bisected north to south by Interstate 65. The heavily traveled Interstate corridor 80/94 runs around the southern tip of the lake to points east and west and up into Chicago. From Little's home to Chicago's downtown Loop, it is 56 miles.
There are 496,000 people in Lake County and 441 farms -- half are farmed by full-time operators, and half of all the county's farms are 50 acres or less. The county's 128,400 acres of cultivated soils produce 10.8 million bushels of corn and 2.1 million bushels of soybeans. Little's south Lake County farm drains into the Kankakee River that downstream forms one branch of the Illinois River. Average rainfall is 40 inches. Average daily temperatures range from 16 degrees to 83 degrees Fahrenheit. On the longest day of the year, June 20, the county's crops soak up 15 hours of sunlight. The last frost is early April, and the first frost comes typically in the first week of October.
Good land. Little's soils range from light sand to heavy gumbo. His sandy loams -- he calls them black sand -- have good levels of organic matter and drain well.
For an hour of that August day, Little inspected an open circle he had cut in the middle of a contest corn field, maybe a couple hundred square feet in all. The corn towered over Little. But as he opened a few ears of corn, he explained how the 2013 crop might fall short.
"There's not enough sunlight, and I'm seeing aborted ears," he says. "I won't have a devastatingly bad crop. But I do feel it's losing yield every day."
Indeed, this particular field would not fare well. A few weeks later, a pair of storms knocked down a third of the stalks. But across his entire farm, Little was finding yields better than expected. The low end of his 2013 harvest was around 140 bushels per acre. But some of his corn contest plots were up around 300 bushels.
"I was surprised," he said during a follow-up telephone conversation one afternoon.
The 2013 crop got off to a good start. He started planting corn May 1 and finished 10 days later. A 160-acre piece was too wet. It was planted to soybeans on June 18.
Little plants 99- to 116-day hybrids into ground he has no-tilled for 25 years. "Sometimes those early varieties have pretty good yields," he says. Little has seen his yield monitor go as high as 300 bushels in early maturity fields. "But sometimes it is zero," he admits. Overall, though, his historic yields in those early fields are fairly good.
"In spring one enemy is too much moisture," Little says. Drainage tiles don't work on his marshy soils, so his fields are surface drained by pumps. "But the water didn't stand in the fields too long," he notes.
As Little is sidedressing at V4 to V5, he keeps a running "score" on the condition of the crop. Scores range from 0 to 10, with 10 being perfect. "I'm not changing applications as I go along. I just want to evaluate the crop. The scouting produces a lot of paper. If I have 60 passes, I have 60 [scores]. I use them to find my best acres. But I usually can't find the paper," he laughs. Little is moving away from paper to do his scouting work on an iPad.
How did his crop do by those numbers? "This year we had great stands at V4. Then the weather just got funky with cool nights and cloudy days." Little found many runt plants, though they were not tied, he believes, to emergence problems.
Year in and year out, Little pays close attention to his potash levels. He broadcasts a preplanting maintenance application once every three years. At planting, Little puts down an 8-18-6 starter, 5 inches on either side of the seed trench and 2 inches below the seeds. He also applies 18 units of sulfur and a quart of zinc. In 2012, he applied 1/2 pint of Bio-Forge. He might add a little boron and boost the sulfur application a bit depending on the field. He adds 15 gallons of 28% nitrogen if he is planting corn into soybean stubble. Twenty gallons of 28% N is applied if he is planting corn on corn or corn into wheat.
Little is a proponent of Bio-Forge. "I use it mostly to help [control] stress. It helps the plant deal with stress," he says.
He broadcast sprays the 28% N. "It helps with microbial activity, and I think it's essential in corn on corn," Little says. This application feeds the soil microbes that might otherwise reduce the effectiveness of his starter applications. "It's easy for the roots to get some of that N. Without it, we see yellow corn."
He does not use a pop-up fertilizer. "I did at one time," he explains. "I believe there are good pop-up products. But a lot of time, in the heat of the battle, there are some things I sacrifice."
Little's final fertilizer application comes at about V4. He tries to get another 200 units of ammonia applied on his marshy soils. The rest of the crop gets a sidedressing of 28% N. Little is looking at a 25% potassium product applied at a quart per acre after tasseling. He believes it will help alleviate the potash deficiencies he sometimes sees.
Little is blessed with many weeds to battle. Well, blessed may not be the right word. There is velvetleaf, lambsquarter, waterhemp, fall panicum and crabgrass. "If there's a weed, I grow it," he says.
FOCUS ON WEEDS
Into this battle he brings a strong lineup of herbicides. As a preemergent he applies Cinch ATZ at 2.5 quarts per acre. The premix of atrazine and S-metolachlor offers control of annual grasses (foxtail and barnyardgrass) and broadleaf weeds.
At V3, Little comes back with an application of glyphosate and Status to help control glyphosate-resistant broadleaf weeds.
"I'm very particular about having clean fields," Little says. "Anyone with a yield monitor can tell you what weeds do to yield." Altogether, Little uses four modes of action to control weeds and, importantly, to manage resistance.
Little goes after white grubs with Defcon that protects corn roots and also contains a root growth enhancement. Defcon controls rootworm larvae, cutworms, wireworms, seedcorn maggots, seedcorn beetles and white grubs.
The Bt corn contains above-ground protection for corn borers. The DuPont Pioneer hybrids Little uses also are effective against the recently arrived -- since about 2006 -- western bean cutworm. This late-season pest, which feeds on the reproductive parts of the corn plant, can be devastating to yields and grain quality. Little controls Japanese beetles at silking with an application of Lorsban. He mixes the insecticide with the fungicide Headline AMP and Bio-Forge.
There are two fungicide applications made over Little's fields. In 2012, he applied Headline AMP and Bio-Forge about 10 days before tasseling, and he applied Headline AMP and Bio-Forge again 10 days to two weeks after tasseling.
"I attribute that to the crop I had [in 2012]," he says. In 2013, he applied a third fungicide application using Aproach (DuPont) at 4 ounces to the acre. "I wanted to try something else," Little says.
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