At 394 bushels, he ‘sure knows how to raise corn’

PLAIN GROVE, Pa. – When Francis Childs of Manchester, Iowa, talks about growing corn, farmers listen, and take notes.

Childs is the four-time national corn growers’ contest winner in the non-irrigated class. His highest record yield, produced on his contest plot in 1999, was 394 bushels to the acre.

He was the guest speaker July 18 at the 2001 Lawrence Conservation Crop Day at Sankey’s Feed Mill north of Plain Grove, Pa.

About 120 people turned out for the one-day event sponsored by the Lawrence County Conservation District.

Looking for rain. Although most producers who were there reported that they are seeing what looks like heavy production this year, they were still keeping all expectations reined in, looking for signs of rain.

What the Pennsylvania and Ohio farmers said they were hoping to pick up from Childs were some bits of information they might apply to increase their own yields.

“He sure knows how to raise corn,” said Wayne Rogers of New Wilmington, Pa., who in retirement is farming 40 acres and is looking for ideas to make even his smaller acreage more productive.

Childs plants 44,000 corn plants to the acre, and hopes to increase the population again next year by going from 30-inch to 20-inch rows. At least, he said, he wants to give it a try.

Idea to look at. Larger plant population was one of the things the some of the Pennsylvania farmers who came to listen to Childs said they were also interested in pursuing.

But they added that in Pennsylvania “where you’re lucky to have 8 inches of topsoil in some places,” the possibilities are more limited.

Because Childs is a self-described “celebrity” farmer, he said he is getting to experiment with growing methods now more than ever before. His sponsoring companies have been willing to provide what he needs in the way of seed and equipment.

This year he had a chance to try out a new Case International Harvester corn planter with a computer in the cab that he says “tells you so much you never knew before, it scares you.”

Next year Case IH is going to let him experiment with 20-inch rows by providing another planter. He will have be able to plant both widths to make a direct comparison.

Trying new ideas. But Childs said he has always been an experimenter and a tinkerer, constantly trying out new ideas to see what might work best. That’s how he got into the position to win the Iowa Master Corn Growers’ Contest nine times between 1990 and 2000. His first national title was in 1997.

Childs farms on 320 acres just west of the Mississippi River, near Dubuque, Iowa, that he said has been planted continuously in corn for the past 30-some years.

He has three 45-acre test plots, “the best land on the farm,” he uses for corn competition, but also said that on his whole farm yield average has consistently been close to 250 bushels an acre.

All three of his plots, he said, have an Iowa corn suitability rating of 74, based on a scale of 100, “so it’s not the best land in Iowa.” He has just learned how to get the best results in Iowa.

Experimenting. Childs takes a systematic approach to farming, treating all his land the same with his applications of fertilizer, and then constantly experimenting with different approaches, which he treats like experiments with a control for comparison.

He knows just how many bushels to the acre difference each element that he has adopted makes in his yield.

For instance, he said, he now makes a last application of nitrogen to his corn two weeks before it tassels, spraying it down between the rows at 50 to 60 pounds per acre. That produces, he said, an 18-bushel increase in yield.

Using a mini moldboard plow that furrows at 14 inches increases yield by a few bushels an acre, he told his audience. Using trash whippers and seed firmers on the planter makes a difference of 13 bushels an acre. Planting at a speed of 2 miles an hour makes a big difference in plant population.

Still pushing. Childs has taken his population from 28,000 plants per acre to 44,000 since 1990 by gradual increases, finding that each increase yielded better crops. Now he is ready to attempt to push that a little further by trying a plot of narrower rows.

He is also constantly changing seed. He said he uses five different numbers each year, two or three older ones and tries two or three new varieties.

“And the way things are now,” he said, “it all changes so fast that the seed that was my experimental numbers in 1999 is now among my older numbers.”

“It took me a long time to get my first 300-bushel corn,” Childs said, “and I thought that would be hard to keep. But since then we’ve been increasing by an average of 19 bushels every year.

He said if he keeps increasing on the same scale, he will be harvesting 500-bushel corn in another five years, and that is his goal.

Other programs. Also featured at the Lawrence County Crop Day was a look at the Penn State 2001 Roundup Ready Corn Herbicide Trial that is being conducted in a corn field at Sankey Feed Mill.

The test plots starts with an unsprayed plot in the middle of the field to give the extension scientists conducting the trials a feel for the weed pressure on that field.

Then the field is treated in four-row intervals with 28 combinations of herbicide applications done at different points in the growing season.

Ryan Hockensmith from the local Penn State Extension office answered weed and insect questions, and then led participants on a narrow trail cut into the test plot, explaining the difference in the results from each different application.

Alex Dado, soil scientist with the Natural Resource and Conservation Service in Venango County, used a soil pit to explain the layers of soil “beneath the surface” and how they can be used and managed.

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at jcummins@farmanddairy.com.)

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