Farmers have a number of factors they can control — the color of their equipment, the width of their rows, the brands of their seed. But when it comes to soils and rainfall, they have to take what Mother Nature gives them.
Kenneth Barnes has been the recipient of some good soils, and some not so good, in the area where he farms around Union City in west Tennessee. The problem is they are often found in the same field.
“We have some of the best dirt in the country,” says Barnes, who was interviewed on the turn-row during harvest this fall. “We also have some marginal stuff, and many times we’ve got them in the same field, from one end of the row to the other.”
Many growers in the Delta have different soil types in their fields, but they’re usually on one level, and they can offset some of those differences with irrigation. Barnes farms in rolling hills and bottoms, and can only irrigate one of his farms. That can make selecting corn products a challenge.
“We have to have numbers that will do well in a low-yielding environment,” he says, “and we have to have the same number to be able to do well where the ground gets good. It seems like the DeKalb brand has that ability, so when we come off a hill and go into a good bottom, it’s a pretty good pop. At the same time, on that old hill, it still hangs in there pretty well.”
Barnes, who farms about 4,500 acres with his brother, Lynn; son, Jeremy; and daughter, Kelsey, seems to be handling the challenge well. In the National Corn Growers Association Yield Contest in 2015, with DeKalb DKC67-72 brand, he recorded the highest yields in Tennessee in the Non-Irrigated (295.6 bushels per acre), No-Till/Strip-Till Non-Irrigated (285.3 bushels), and Irrigated (266.9 bushels) categories.
Growing those kinds of yields requires a season-long approach that includes adjusting the seeding rate to fit the soil capabilities and conditions in each of his fields.
“We variable rate our seed,” says Barnes. “We may plant as low as 22,000 seed per acre on a hill, and we may plant as high as 30,000 to 31,000 in the bottom. So I need corn that has the ability to do well in a 22,000 population environment as well as in a 30-31,000 environment.”
Some of his soils will produce an average of 130 to 140 bushels and others up to 250 bushels per acre. “And that may be in the same row,” he says. “That’s just part of what we deal with here.”
He can irrigate 208 acres on one of his farms. The rest of his land is totally dependent on rainfall.
“That’s why we like variable rate,” he says. “If I just put that one population in there to cover the bottom, then when I get up on the hill it will struggle with pollination — and it’s going to struggle with a lot of things.
Manual Rate Selection
“If I plant for the hill, I’m going to leave something on the table in the bottom,” Barnes says. He has had prescriptions written for variable-rate seeding in the past, but decided to try a different approach in 2016.
“I didn’t exactly like where it was doing its thing, and nobody knows my ground better than I do. So I did it manually this year. With the planters we have now, it’s easy to do — I can punch in five different populations. With a touch of a button I can go to any one I want at anytime, on the go.
“If I start up a hill, I just lower the population. If I drop down in the bottom, I just ratchet it back up. We use a yield monitor and soil maps to help determine the best rate. If we keep working with it, we can get it pretty close.”
Barnes planted DeKalb DKC67-14, DKC62-08 and DKC69-31 brands on the bulk of his corn acres in 2016. “The DKC69-31 and the DKC62-08 are the tougher products and can handle a lot of situations,” he says. “They’re the ones I would plant where I’m variable rating because they can handle the low population and the high, and they’re stressier. But they still have top end potential."
The DKC67-14, he says, “needs to be on our better ground; it’s more of a high end product.”
Off To An Early Start
“That’s part of living here. We’re going to be wet in the spring, and it’s going to be hot and dry in the summer. If you can’t take that, you don’t need to be trying to farm in this part of the country.”
Barnes and his family members were able to plant early in 2016. Then in the summer the weather turned hot and dry, depending on the location. Where Barnes lives, in Crystal, Tenn., north of Union City, it was dry, but the field where he was interviewed, south of Union City, had more moisture. The locations are about 15 miles apart.
“Heat affects corn more than people realize,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how much water you have, when the temperature hits up around 98 degrees and stays there for several days, it’s pretty rough on corn. That’s what we had this year.”
Anthracnose was also a problem in some fields. “Stalks in a lot of the corn — no matter whose it was — weren’t as good as what we’ve had. I think some of that was also due to heat and stress. Anytime corn goes through stress, it’s going to weaken things.”
His corn yields were varied in 2016. “We had some that was really good,” he says. “In the dry areas, it hung in around 140 to 150 bushels per acre, and we had some quite a bit over 200 bushels. It depends on where we got rain.
“You don’t always measure your corn on a good year,” Barnes says. “You measure it on a bad year — that’s when it will tell you what’s good and what’s not. Temperatures took their toll, particularly in June when it would normally be pollinating. We had a week or two there when it was really hot.”
He began harvesting Aug. 27 and finished mid-September. He had begun combining soybeans when he was interviewed Sept. 28, and hoped to finish the 2,400 acres of beans in 10 days to two weeks, depending on the weather.
The Barnes operation was truly a family affair this year. Besides working with his brother, Lynn, he was joined by his son, Jeremy, on the combine and daughter, Kelsey, driving a tractor pulling a grain cart. Kelsey will begin graduate school in international studies at Texas A&M University in January.