Randy Dowdy believes strongly in the power of change, and it’s a philosophy that has served him well. A perennial national corn yield champ, the south Georgia farmer has produced yields that previously were not thought possible in the lower Southeast.
“I would not have made these yields without God’s favor, and if I was not willing to try something new,” says Dowdy. “It’s important to at least try something new each year.
“It’s easy to get in a rut. But one good thing about me being a new farmer is that I was hungry. I talked to the best growers, and I talked to people at the University of Georgia to try and find out what resources they had that would make me a better farmer. I was willing to try new things.”
The biggest obstacle for many growers, says Dowdy, is to get out of your comfort zone and try something different from what your grandfather or your dad did or what you’ve been doing.
“But to do that, you’ve got to be willing to take a leap of faith and maybe spend a little bit more money,” he says.
Dowdy is a small farmer, comparatively speaking, so he has to make his efforts count.
“It’s not about just winning a contest, but maximizing return on investment,” he says. “I have to make as much money as I can with the small amount of acres I have.
“But now my acres are increasing, and I might find out just how good a farmer I am, as well as a manager of the people I have and the equipment I use.”
The one “silver bullet” for increasing corn yields is to eliminate plant stress, he says. “If you do that, your yields will go up, no doubt about it.
“Plant stresses include compaction, lack of weed control and the stress placed on the plant by weeds or herbicides, uneven plant stands, temperature, too much or too little water, disease, and lack of water and proper nutrient balance.
“These are the keys — if you eliminate these things, you’ll create a higher yield potential on your farm every time — 10 out of 10 times,” he says.
If it was as simple as N, P, K, and secondary nutrients, anyone could do it, says Dowdy, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. “This is a complete system. But if I don’t have enough water, I could have everything else right and still not succeed.”
One of the keys to high-yield corn, he says, is taking soil and tissue samples, something he does every year. Others are hybrid selection and seed treatments.
“We’ve got one chance to plant the right hybrids,” he says. “On seed selection, most of us need to match the right hybrid to the amount of water we can apply.
“If you can’t supply enough water, you need to select a hybrid that’s more drought-tolerant, or only plant maybe half of a pivot instead. You’ve got to know that you’ve got enough water — not hope that you have enough.
“We can’t control rainfall, but hopefully, we’ll get enough to rain to lower our cost of production and help us on our energy needs and water supply.”
It’s important, he adds, to get a uniform stand and to get it up immediately.
Dowdy grows both strip-till and conventional tillage corn, but he does a burndown in both cases. “I use a pre-emergence herbicide behind the planter, and then I don’t make but one trip across the field postemergence — that trip is to control weeds.
“I don’t want any compaction, so I do everything else through the center pivot or with an airplane. Early in the season, we begin to apply fungicides by air. I typically begin to spray at the V7 stage, and then I’ll make other applications through the year to prevent disease and promote plant health.”
The difference between a good farmer and a great farmer quite often is timeliness, he says.
“Don’t hope that it’ll be okay, or that the plant will grow out of it. Know that you’re eliminating stress — this is the key. Be proactive and not reactive. If a plant tells you something visually as you walk into a field — or via a tissue sample — then it already has cost you yield.
“If we start with a yield potential out of the bag of 600 bushels and we’re capturing only 200, then we’ve failed. We don’t have any control if weather took some of that from us — but we need to be proactive in addressing the factors that we can control.”
Make sure that your combine is performing adequately and that you’re not losing yield out of the back of it, he says. Two kernels per square foot equates to a one bushel per acre yield loss.
“How many people have a yield monitor on their combine, and how many map fields from the combine? Everything is about data. If you pull soil samples, then you have data. If you have a Veris machine and you’re checking your soil types to see if they’re susceptible to nematodes, then you have data. If you have tissue samples, you have data.
“Now you have to take the harvest maps and overlay the data to find out where your weaknesses are. Is it something you can control, like nematodes? Is it compaction or nutrients? You have to have data to start making the best management decisions possible.”
A producer must understand what the “minimum” is on his farm, Dowdy says. Many farmers have heard of the Law of the Minimum, or have seen the examples that illustrate the Law of the Minimum concepts concerning nutrients.
“The law also should include agronomic practices, because quite often they are a grower’s minimum,” he says. Correcting variance will increase yields if it’s something that’s in your control.
“I’m contour farming, so we have to control erosion. At a minimum, I’ll do 2-1/2 acre grids. It costs about $6.50 to $7 per acre, and more often than not, just the lime will pay for that. Don’t be cheap — you’d rather have the data. Don’t hope that a 5-acre grid is consistent.”
Dowdy pulls soil samples at the same time each year, behind the combine.
“When I sample in the fall, if I have a pH problem, I make sure I address it, and by the time spring rolls around, the lime source has had time to respond to the soil and change the pH. I correct nutrient and pH levels based on that soil sample. I sample at 6-inch to 8-inch depths, and I monitor the samples for variances from previous years.
“What use are your soil samples if you can’t tell if you’re increasing your soil fertility, building it up, depleting it, applying enough nutrients, or if your crop is requiring more than you’re applying?
“Don’t just get your results and throw them on the pickup dashboard or desk. Review them carefully.”
Dowdy would prefer not to make foliar fertilizer applications. If tissue samples show a need, he feeds the roots.
“I only use foliar as a last resort. I believe in feeding plants via the roots and constantly stimulating them to grow by spoon feeding the crop via fertigation.
“I want everything to be there before the plant tells me it needs it. And to do that, I pull tissue samples, about every 20 acres or so. Depending on the growth of the plant, I’ll take different leaves.
“I correct deficiencies either with an airplane — which I do very little of — or I do it through the center pivot. I’m working with Agrium/Rainbow on a homogenized fertilizer, so I’m applying it early.
“It’s loaded with minor nutrients, and it’s kind of expensive, but all of it is used by the plant. Don’t get sticker shock — just understand that it’s part of the system.”
When planting, Dowdy uses Poncho 1250, with Votivo as a seed treatment as insurance to address soil-borne insects and nematodes. Pentilex is another product he applies to the seed to promote emergence and increase early root development.
“If you want a picket-fence stand, it’ll require the correct planting speed, planting depth and agronomic practices,” he says. “You have one chance to get it right.”
Dowdy’s planter is equipped with down-pressure pneumatic bags so he can increase the down-pressure whenever he gets into hard, cloddy soil.
“If you’re planting 2 inches deep, make sure your 2x2 application is 2 inches to the left or right of that seed and 2 inches below seed placement. If you’re planting 2 inches deep, you should be putting fertilizer 4 inches deep. Make sure your system can do that. I don’t want to have to depend on rainfall or the pivot to put fertilizer where it needs to be.”
Seed plates should match the seed size, he says. If you change seed size or hybrids, make the proper calibration. His planting speed is 4 mph or less, and he sprays Capture in-furrow as another measure of insurance.
Dowdy plants cover crops for several reasons.
“No. 1 is that if there are any residual nutrients in the soil, I want the cover crops to take them up and re-release them to the next crop. Also, it promotes and helps root growth.
“If I do deep tillage before planting the cover crop and I’ve got prolific root penetration in the soil, that cover crop has helped. Thirdly, cover crops help with weed control.”
He uses a Great Plains Turbo Max behind his tractor to minimize the litter. “You can’t find much corn litter/fodder in my field. Microbial activity is breaking it down, and it’s eliminating it so that I don’t have to pay a carbon penalty in the spring.
“Part of the nitrogen is being used to break down litter, and you want that to happen in the fall rather than in the spring. Also, disease will come from litter.”
It’s also important, says Dowdy, to calibrate center pivots, no matter their age.
“Just because you’ve bought a new pivot doesn’t mean it’s accurate. I installed a new pivot last year on new ground where we’d had pine trees, and it scored a 65.
“Humans have to put in those nozzles. If the installer is having a bad day or doesn’t care, you’ll pay the penalty. If you’re not applying water uniformly, then you’re not applying fertilizer or chemicals uniformly.”
He begins shelling corn at 25 percent moisture in order to fulfill contracts and to timely plant a double-crop.
Plant health is tremendously important throughout the growing season, says Dowdy.
“If your fields are not green when you begin to harvest, something is wrong. Disease, plant health or something else is causing that plant to die before it reaches black layer or physiological maturity.
“I don’t want the plant cannibalizing itself because of a lack of nutrients, nor do I want it to die prematurely due to disease. Headline and Headline Amp have played a pivotal role in mitigating disease effects in my fields.”
Dowdy also believes growers should walk their own fields, even if they have a crop consultant.
“When was the last time you pulled a tissue or soil sample yourself? Walk along with your crop consultant. If your consultant says you have a problem that the plant will grow out of, fire him or her, because the money you’re paying them is costing you more in yields.”
Walk your fields at least once each week to determine plant stand, weed types and methods of control, moisture availability, irrigation uniformity, insects and their control, diseases and their control, nutrient deficiencies, ear count and harvest loss, he says.
Continue to be a student of corn production, says Dowdy, and glean everything you can each year.
“Take copious notes from year to year and ‘pay your knowledge forward’ by helping others increase their yields. It’s a good feeling and very rewarding.”