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Ontario Grain Farmer Magazine is the flagship publication of Grain Farmers of Ontario and a source of information for our province’s grain farmers. 

The farmer’s hand to success


david hula of Renwood Farms in Charles City, Virginia might just be one of the most innovative corn growers in North America. Well known for recording higher than average corn yields, Hula has delivered the top national yield in the National Corn Growers Association corn yield contest four times in the past 10 years. This year, he won first place out of 7,118 other American corn growers with a yield of 368.4 bushels per acre. Hula is now sharing his technique with other farmers through a guide entitled The Farmer’s Hand to Success; he also presented his ideas during a seminar at the University of Guelph earlier this year.


The idea for the hand came from a conversation with his daughter. Together, they developed the concept of representing each step to success by one of the five digits, starting at the thumb.

Hula has listened to other speakers talk about how many billions of people will need to be fed in the years to come. “And we’re challenged with trying to feed them,” he says. “Monsanto announced that we’re supposed to have a 300-bushel corn average by 2030 or 2040. If that’s going to happen, a lot of people are going to have to have a lot higher average than that. That’s a monumental task. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to do it. And we think we’re onto something.”

step one:?having the right attitude
You need to have the right attitude to grow corn, says Hula. “You have to be willing to try something new, something different. Don’t do the same thing your dad did, your granddad did. Step out of the box.”

step two: wherever possible, take control
The first finger following your thumb is the pointer finger, which signifies the things you can point to – things you can have control over. “These are things that growers can specifically point to and say yes, we did things right, yes, we did something new, but it didn’t work out,” says Hula. “For example, some of the things that we can control are soil management, fertility management, pest management and water management.”

When it comes to soil management, farmers should identify soil types, manage residue, minimize traffic on the field, especially when it’s wet, and use no-till practices, wherever possible.

Fertility management is especially important. “It’s important to know where your plant is and what your plant is going to need, and then make sure you apply it when it needs it.” Hula uses a Pioneer app to store information and do calculations. “It allows me to not second guess myself,” he says.

You get the highest yields from even emergence, so anything you can do to help that along will greatly improve numbers, says Hula. “If you don’t have even emergence, plants don’t respond the same.” You want to have your corn emerge between 12 and 24 hours. If you’re in no-till, though, even emergence can be difficult because soil temperatures vary throughout the field.

Hula feels that the seed treatments he uses contribute to that even emergence.
He uses a mix of Pentilex and Wolftrax. Wolftrax, he says, gives him a .6% moisture reduction at harvest. Every second year, he applies potash as well – about 250 pounds prior to the corn crop.

Hula’s fertility management program begins with starter fertilizer, both beside the rows and in-furrow. The starter fertilizer (60-30-0), along with six pounds of sulfur, 0.6 pounds of zinc and 0.1 pounds of boron, is applied in bands, two inches below the seed trench and three inches to the side. His in-furrow pop-up fertilizer is applied through the planter at a couple of gallons per acre.

Following that, he adds a micronutrient cocktail at the V4 stage. “We were seeing a better nutrient balance once we added that earlier application,” he says. At the V5 stage, they add another application of nitrogen, as well as sulfur, since his soil is sulfur-deficient. Finally, at the V8 stage he comes in with more sidedress.

When it comes to nitrogen applications, Hula looks for periods throughout the growing season when an application will have the greatest impact, usually right before a growth spurt, and especially right before tasseling. This year, he tried something new. He applied 90 pounds on three separate occasions (30 pounds each time) of UAN using his irrigation units.

Hula says he has “zero tolerance for weeds.” As a result, he has equally intensive management plans for weeds, both pre- and post-emergence, as well as treatments for diseases and pests.

step three:?using the right tools
When it comes to the mechanics of the farm, it is important to have your equipment running right, says Hula. Precision planting is where it is at; a good machine will tell you when you have skips and doubles. It will even tell you if your hired workers are doing things wrong, like driving too fast.

step four: relationships
“Picking the right corn variety is like finding the right spouse,” says Hula. “It is emotionally driven; and if done right can be very rewarding. If done wrong, it can be very costly.”

When you are selecting a variety, look for yield potential, emergence score, standability score, disease package, unique traits, and test weight. On his farm, Hula is constantly testing new seed varieties, but so far he has had the most success with Pioneer’s P2088.

It is equally important to build relationships with the right people along the way.

“I do not know it all, by any means,” says Hula. “I surround myself with people who know a lot more than I do, whether it be Pioneer folks, agronomists or university people.”

step five: have a plan
Part of sound management is having a plan. “I’ve got things stripped out about where I want to be, and I hope you all do too,” says Hula, “because I think, to get to the next level you’ve got to write it down.”

Just having a plan is not enough, though. You have to develop and execute that plan, then evaluate and adjust it along the way.

“We may not always execute it on time, but we’re going to execute our plan,” says Hula. “Then, throughout the season, we adjust it. At the end of the year, we evaluate it again and then, if necessary, we change it for the next year.” •


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