The Easter freeze that struck the Mid-South in April gave many corn and wheat growers a severe headache. For Kip Cullers, the freeze may have cost him a chance to repeat as the top producer in the National Corn Growers' National Corn Yield Contest.
Cullers, a Stark City, Mo., farmer, harvested 347.2698 bushels of corn per acre on his way to finishing first or second in three categories of the 2006 NCGA yield contest.
His yields in the other categories were 338.238 bushels, 332.7733 bushels and 297.711 bushels.
He had hoped to better those yields in the 2007 National Corn Growers Association competition and also improve on the world record soybean yield he set last year (139.52 bushels per acre).
But Cullers wasn't very optimistic about his chances when he gave a writer a look at one of his contest fields on a hot, muggy August day in which the temperature eventually reached 104 degrees. The field was planted in Pioneer 31N30.
“This is Plan B,” said Cullers, a tall, angular man who gives new meaning to the phrase “intense.” “Sometimes you don't mind getting a light frost on a contest field because it will help the corn come up even. But this was different.”
Cullers says it dropped to 15 degrees F in Stark City, a farming community about 25 miles southeast of Joplin, Mo., on Easter Sunday morning. The unusually cold temperature, even for southwest Missouri, froze the ground 2 inches deep.
“People kept asking me wasn't I going to go look at my corn after the freeze,” he said. “I told them, ‘What’ the use?' I knew a freeze that hard would kill the growing point even though it was below the soil surface.”
As a result of the freeze, Cullers replanted 1,600 acres of corn. Those did not include the contest fields. “You don't come back on April 10 and plant contest corn,” he said.
Despite his pessimism, most who know Cullers wouldn't count him out just yet. Even with the freeze-reduced stand, walking into one of his contest fields is like stepping into another corn-growing world.
Several yards into the field, Cullers stopped to examine a corn plant. The plant didn't have just a single stalk. It had a stalk and two tillers, each with a full-sized ear of corn.
Asked how he did that, Cullers shrugs and says, “Well, this corn doesn't lack for much,” referring to the intense management he provides not only his contest fields, but also the remainder of his farm.
He usually seeds about 60,000 plants per acre in his contest fields to achieve a final stand of 56,000 plants per acre. “If you look down that row, you won't see any sunlight hitting the ground,” he said. “We want to capture the maximum amount of sunlight with these plants.”
The Easter freeze reduced the stand in this contest field to about 44,000 plants per acre — the main reason for his lack of optimism about his chances for repeating his high-yielding entries in the 2006 NCGA contest. (He averaged 345.9452 bushels per acre for a second-place finish in the irrigated category of the 2005 contest.)
In 2006, Cullers finished first and second in the no-till/strip-till, irrigated category of the NCGA contest with yields of 347.2698 and 338.238 bushels per acre. He finished first in the irrigated category with 332.7733 bushels per acre and second in the ridge-till, irrigated category with 297.711 bushels.
(The no-till/strip till, irrigated contest field was planted with Pioneer 31N28 and Pioneer 31P41; the ridge-till, irrigated with Pioneer 33N29; and the irrigated with Pioneer 32B59.)
He also could have won the no-till, dryland category with a yield of 323 bushels per acre if he had known how well the corn would do. “We have a 70-acre field next to the river that out-did our expectations,” he noted. “But I didn't monitor the field the way it should have been if I had planned to enter it in the contest.”
Most of the Cullers corn is not no-till, though he is using the practice in a corn-pasture rotation in which he plants corn into burned-down fescue. He follows the corn with two years of fescue, which he figures contributes about 100 units of nitrogen per acre to the soil.
The predominant soil type on Cullers' farm is a Newtonia soil, a red, sandy loam that looks as tough as some of the Ozark Mountains that lie not too far away. (You have to step over rocks the size of cow piles in some of his fields.)
While the land may not be as black or as deep as some upper Midwest soils, Cullers bristles at the comment some have made that it won't grow corn as good as that in Iowa or Illinois.
“I was talking to an editor at a meeting in Chicago, and she said something to the effect that, ‘I know your soil isn't as good as that in Illinois…’” said Cullers. “A friend of mine was listening to the conversation, and he started laughing so hard he almost fell out of his chair. I just turned away and talked to someone else.”
Besides farming about 7,000 acres of corn and soybeans, Cullers grows 3,000 acres of green beans. He uses the lessons he learns from the green beans and the spinach, collards and zucchini he also grows in producing high-yielding corn and soybeans.
One of those is keeping corn and soybean plants well watered so they don't suffer in the heat, which has reached near record levels this summer. He also makes sure they don't lack for nutrients, although his corn yield contest figures show he applies less nitrogen than some of the other 3,157 entrants in the 2006 NCGA contest.
“That's because they don't have anywhere for you to put down how much manure you put out,” he said. “That was something else the editor in Chicago couldn't understand — how we grew such high yields with less nitrogen.”
Cullers also walks every one of his fields, every day, a habit he picked up from growing intensely managed vegetable crops.
Though Cullers obviously relishes the challenge of growing high-yielding corn, it's not the end-all of his farming operation. “We take what we learn in the contest fields and apply them to the rest of the farm,” he said. “We have a yield goal of 250 bushels for our irrigated corn, and we try to achieve that consistently.”
Cullers aims for a plant population of 44,000 seed per acre in his irrigated, non-contest corn and 32,000 in his dryland. The latter, which includes a host of hybrids he's testing in an on-farm yield trial, seemed to be faring well despite the lack of any rain on his farm since July 3. (Cullers was interviewed on Aug. 16.)
The trial includes a number of U.S. seed company hybrids along with some hybrids developed in Argentine, Brazil, Chile and other countries. Some of the latter show good potential for planting in the United States, he said.
Cullers' propensity for using one crop to benefit another was reflected in the soybean field that bested what many believe was the previous world soybean record of 118 bushels per acre.
He was actually trying to improve the soil tilth in the field by producing a high-yielding soybean crop to get it ready to grow an even higher-yielding corn crop. He planted about 300,000 soybean seed per acre on 7.5-inch rows, using a drill set up to seed spinach. His final plant population was about 245,000 plants per acre.
“I really wasn't thinking about entering it in a contest until a Pioneer agronomist happened to come out and look at it,” he said. “When he saw the numbers of pods on the plant, he got excited and said I had to enter that field in a contest.”
The field's average of 139 bushels per acre won the conventional category of the Missouri Soybean Association yield contest. MSA officials believe the yield number is a new world record. The variety was Pioneer 94M80, a late Group 4 variety that was planted later than Cullers intended, on May 20.
The plant population in this year's entry isn't as high — 220,000 plants per acre — but it's difficult to imagine walking through a field that had more plants packed in it than Cullers' potential 2007 entry.
As Cullers wades out into the middle of the field, he pulls up a stem loaded with pods. “This one is branching, he notes, adding that he sees a number of pods containing four soybeans each. The branching helps improve the yield, “but what you really need is to have the plants setting pods in the top like that one over there.”
Soybean size matters on the front end, he says. “I believe small seeds produce small soybeans, and big seeds yield big soybeans. The soybeans I grew were really big and that added to yield.”
Asked how many times he has irrigated the field this year, Cullers said, “Every day. I usually come by and turn the pivot on in the morning and turn it off around noon. We have different nozzles on this pivot so that we get more of a misting than having water pouring on the plants.”
The wet environment can lead to an increase in disease pressure, but he applies fungicides and insecticides as needed. Flags in one section of this year's field denote a seed treatment trial.
Cullers' accomplishments have attracted the attention of agronomists in other states. Roger Elmore, Extension corn specialist at Iowa State University, has been following the Missouri farmer's experiences.
“Kip Cullers produced the top yield in the 2006 National Corn Growers Association yield contest with a Pioneer hybrid that could be purchased by any farmer,” he says. “But no one thing is going to get you to the Kip Culler stage. You have to have the whole package, just like he does.”
It's no secret that Cullers has even higher corn yield goals in mind in the future. “I find this business of growing high-yield corn very challenging,” says Cullers, who admits he never takes a vacation during the growing season. “It's what keeps me going.”