David Hula didn’t just eclipse the 600-bushel-per-acre mark to win the 2019 National Corn Yield Contest—he crushed it, hitting a record 616.195-bushel-per-acre yield.
And no, it wasn’t on super-fertile, jet-black land. It was generated from one of Hula’s sandy-loam fields in Charles City County, Virginia.
“Everyone thinks we have a magic piece of dirt. We don’t,” Hula says. “It takes a team of folks and God’s favor.”
There are no silver bullets to such stratospheric yields. It takes attention to detail, forethought, and resolve, he says.
“I don’t mind failing. I don’t mind doing things on a few acres to see what works. And in these plots, we’re learning a lot. The things that do work, we’ll implement on other acres. When they work there, then it becomes a standard procedure for our operation,” says Hula, who rotates between corn; small grains like wheat, barley or oats; and double-crop soybeans after the small grain harvest.
The Corn Yield Contest rules require one hybrid number from at least 10 continuous acres. The previous record high for the NCYC, sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association, was 542 bushels per acre. It’s the fourth time Hula has set the world record and the fifth time since 2012 he’s taken first place in the National Corn Yield Contest.
Laying the foundation
Hula’s quest for top yields begins 18 months before harvest, when he’s planting the previous year’s crop and field testing new technologies and theories. In 2018 he began using Precision Planting’s Conceal starter fertilizer system, which places up to two different products on his John Deere 1770NT planter. Using Conceal, Hula places starter fertilizer 3 inches away from the row, 1.25 to 1.5 inches deep. “I’m adamant about 3 inches away because I’m putting 60 pounds of N on with the starter,” he says. “Every acre of corn on my farm gets that rate, whether it’s intended for the yield contest or not.”
He soil samples each field in 1-acre grids after soybean harvest. Correcting pH is a priority, as fields get an application of lime if necessary. He applies potash for the entire crop rotation before corn planting, using a strip-till system Hula began using two years ago. Equipped with the ability to vary rates on the fly, the SoilWarrior strip-till rig is able to apply a blend of dry products, including nitrogen, sulfur, monoammonium phosphorous (MAP), and micronutrients in a 7-inch band, making an ideal seedbed for corn.
Hula’s conversion to strip-till is a change from a long-term never-till system. However, strip-till allows nutrients to be placed in a narrow band, six to eight weeks prior to planting. He’d prefer to strip-till in the fall, but the last two falls have been too wet to do so.
By using variable-rate technology for precise fertilizer placement and only applying fertilizer in the tilled area of the field, Hula is able to feed the crop exactly where it is growing. This doesn’t necessarily mean he uses less; it just helps ensure efficiency. This way, every dollar he spends on crop nutrition precisely fuels performance.
Each year, Hula meets with his Pioneer representatives to study agronomic data for hybrids suited for his environment. Yield is foremost, but a priority is also placed on emergence, then plant health (or stay-green ability). He also prefers hybrids that “flower earlier than relative maturity,” he says. For instance, choosing a 112-day hybrid that pollinates like a 109-day hybrid, which gives a longer grain fill period.
Hula’s record yield was obtained using Pioneer P1197 corn, planted at a high rate.
“I understand 1197 very well. I know what makes that hybrid tick,” he says.
Hula plants approximately 20 different hybrids on his farm to spread risk and ensure yield stability. He recommends corn farmers do the same. Split the planter up and use two hybrids, one that flowers earlier than the other, he says. “There’s no better defense. You may not have the high yields all the time, but you’re not going to have the low yields,” Hula says.
For his contest fields, Hula aims to drop between 38,000 and 54,000 seeds per acre.
His planter is equipped with Delta Force automated down force, plus high-speed seed tubes to ensure ideal seed singulation, which is vital for even emergence of the new crop.
“If corn comes up within six, seven days and so many GDUs from the time we plant with even emergence, then we know we have an opportunity to do something special. We got that picket row fence stand,” he says.
The planter, Hula reckons, is the biggest key to maximizing yield. Every row of the planter needs to be working properly, whether it’s ensuring seed-to-soil contact and accuracy or getting fertilizer on in the right location. It may require waiting for the right field conditions. And in the field, stopping to check planter performance. “It’s the easiest thing for growers to fix. But it’s the hardest thing to do because they don’t want to do it,” says Hula, who checks each row every-other time he refills the planter.
“I only get one time to do it right. And when the planter leaves the field, you’re either blessed with what you did or cursed with what you did, and you get to live with it for the rest of the season,” he says.
On contest fields he plants 3 to 4 mph; on commercial fields, it bumps up to 5.5 to 6 mph.
In-season crop protection
For years, Hula has pulled leaf tissue samples from his corn crop every Monday, from which he’s built a large dataset that guides him on when the crop is ready for required, specific nutrients. Micronutrients, potash, nitrogen, sulfur, and boron are applied in-season with foliar sprays. Based on crop needs determined from the tissue tests, he sidedresses with Y-Drops. Later in the season additional nutrients are applied with the center pivot system, a process known as fertigation.
On contest fields, Hula typically applies two fungicide passes. He used BASF’s Priaxor fungicide early and added a later application of the company’s Veltyma fungicide on his record-breaking field. The goal is to keep the plant green as long as possible to maximize kernel development.
Hula says his 2019 contest field had consistent ears, with 800 or so kernels per ear. However, stalks had a second ear, with 400 to 500 kernels per ear.
“You don’t need 20 rows around. You want kernel depth. And if you have kernel depth, you’re going to have test weight,” says Hula, who adds that test weight in 2019 was about 62 pounds per bushel.
Is it profitable?
At $4 per bushel, 600-bushel-per-acre corn would gross $2,400 per acre. Is that enough revenue to offset the added cost of shooting for the moon in a yield contest? Hula makes nine passes through the field, between strip-till, planting, fertilizer, and crop protection products. Not counting cash rent, “I didn’t quite net $1,000 per acre, but I wasn’t far from it,” Hula says.
Still, Hula is in the yield contest for research and development of new corn production ideas. Pushing all of his corn acres to the extent of the yield contest acres isn’t realistic. Not only does he not have irrigation on all his ground, but he doesn’t have time to make that many applications on every field.
Not long ago, 600 bushels per acre was thought to be maximum corn yield, assuming perfect conditions. Now, Hula believes 800 to 900 bushels per acre is attainable.
“If that’s the case and our average is 170 bushels per acre, we’re nowhere near where the potential is,” he says.
He suspects most farmers aren’t producing as much corn on their fields as is realistically possible. Set yield goals a little higher, and incorporate some new thinking to reach them. Let the combine yield monitor serve as a guide. “Let's say you’re picking 200-bushel corn and then all of a sudden you see it get into 280 to 300 bushels per acre and stay there for a little while. That’s what their new targets should be,” he says. “But you’ve got to have goals.”