South Georgia farmer Randy Dowdy says some of his neighbors have remarked that if he had good dirt, there’s no telling what he could do.

What he has done, on mediocre soils, is to break Georgia’s state corn yield record by more than 60 bushels, with an astounding 364 bushels per acres this past season. He also was the state’s corn yield champ in 2010 and winner of the National Corn Growers’ Yield Contest for Georgia with a high of 279 bushels per acre.

“My heart is in corn production,” says Dowdy, who farms in Brooks County, Ga. “I really enjoy it — you might say I’m a student of growing corn.”

Dowdy says he is most competitive with himself and not others when it comes to corn yields, and he is always aiming to beat his yields from the previous year.

“I’ve been doing variety plots for Pioneer and DeKalb for the past five to six years, and each year, they have asked me to enter the National Corn Growers Association yield contest. I was hesitant to enter the contest in the beginning, but last year I decided to enter the NCGA yield contest and I was blessed to win,” he says.  The winners of this year’s contest will be announced by the NCGA in December. 

As a result of winning in 2010, Dowdy says he attended the Commodity Classic in Tampa in hopes of learning something new, but was disappointed that the other national and state yield winners wouldn’t share any specifics of their production.

“I wasn’t looking to re-invent the wheel, but I was looking for ways to improve. The advice from growers was limited, but advice from Glenn Rountree, a Pioneer sales consultant and friend, proved beneficial. The experience motivated me, since I always like to try new things, and I share whatever I’m doing with other growers. I spend a lot of time on corn production, to the point to where my family and friends say I need a hobby. But my hobby is growing corn because I don’t consider it work.”

Wanted to hit home run

As he looked forward to the 2011 crop, Dowdy says he wanted to “hit a home run.”

“This year, instead of walking the fields a couple times a week, I walked them a minimum of every other day, watching what was going on as I applied nutrients, chemicals and water. I looked at the plants to see how they were responding to what I was doing. I felt I was doing some things right, but I also tried some different things,” he says. Dowdy’s main motivation was to learn something in order to help other growers reach the next level.

“I knew I needed to think outside the box, focusing on removing corn plant stress and learning why, when, what and how the plant functions throughout its reproductive cycle. I had to make sure I removed all of the stressors of the plant — fertilizer, weed control, disease, plant population, tillage, irrigation — all of which must be managed to prevent yield loss. The variable of Mother Nature is out of our control, but we can do something about all these other yield-limiting factors.”

And Dowdy is quick to add that everything must be done on time. “Timeliness is everything. Many times, the difference between a good farmer and a great farmer is four or five days. We need to get seed in the ground early and with precision, spray herbicides on time, fertilize and lime timely and accurately based on yield goals, apply fungicides for disease prevention, and make sure water is always present in sufficient amounts.”

In addition to corn, he also grows peanuts, cotton and wheat, sometimes double-cropping soybeans with wheat.

“My passion is in growing corn, and when I grow corn, sometimes I deliver it to the local elevator and sometimes I grow it for dairy farms or poultry houses. The markets have been pretty good since ethanol plants came on line in the Southeast, such as the one in Camilla, Ga. Corn gives us another opportunity to combat herbicide-resistant pigweeds because we can use different chemistries with corn.”

All of his corn is irrigated, otherwise it’s too risky and too unpredictable, he says. If there are dryland acres, it’s because the pivot doesn’t hit it, like a corner of the field. This year, he had five to 10 acres of dryland corn in some fields, from which he says he didn’t make one bushel.

“In anticipation of what kind of yields I would be making due to the hot and dry weather, I started doing yield estimates after pollination and couldn’t believe the averages I was coming up with. The yield estimates were consistently above 300 in some hybrids. Surprisingly, at harvest, our first NCGA entry went 296 bushels on a variety that was 50 to 60 percent lodged.  I knew if the lodged hybrid was yielding that high with the large amount of loss, then the corn still standing was going to be really special.

“Next, we did a check on Pioneer 1814 that was still standing, and the first check went 340 while the recheck went 352. The yields were not kept quiet for long. After we got the 352, it was chaos around here, with everyone coming by and wanting to see the corn and asking what I was doing different to attain those yields.

“A week or so later, we started harvesting Pioneer 2023, which was my winner last year. It was a 120-day hybrid, and when it finally got dry enough to pick, we got into it and the yield check went 354 and the re-check went 364 bushels per acres.

Overall average yet to be determined

“We don’t have the on-farm total average because some of my corn is still in the bin, and I don’t have my weight tickets for the unsold corn yet, but it’ll be somewhere between 320 and 330 bushels for the whole farm, and that particular farm is 100 acres. On that farm we harvested only 91 irrigated acres.”

In addition to growing his own corn, Dowdy consulted on between 2,500 to 3,000 acres of corn production this year in Georgia and north Florida.

“All these guys had very good yields. Although it was a dry year, we were actually fortunate to have cloudless days. This promoted cooler nighttime temperatures, and the plant was able to ‘rest’ at night.  Also, the lack of cloud cover enabled maximum photosynthesis to occur during the day which was an advantage as long as you had irrigation. I irrigated 26 inches this year compared to 9 inches last year.”

Dowdy had an eight to nine-week period during which he didn’t see any rain.

“The corn pollinated at from 96 to 104 degrees F. I tried some new irrigation techniques this year that worked. The key is to keep the plant as cool as possible during the high temperatures of the day and at night.

“One of the biggest mistakes I feel farmers make is that when their land is irrigated and they get rainfall, then they think the corn should have enough water. You have to know your corn has enough water. You can’t make high corn yields unless you can supply the plant’s water needs. If you get rainfall, then that’s a bonus.

“At best, you may be able to eliminate an irrigation trip, but only for the amount of that rainfall. If you don’t have a pivot that can put out four to five-tenths inch per day to keep up with plant needs in conjunction with the evapotranspiration rates, then your water profile will continuously decrease, because you’re losing at least a half inch of water per day from around 60 to 110 days after planting.”

If water is limited, he says, this issue alone should influence you to plant half a pivot instead of a whole field or plant on fields with small pivots. When a farmer is doing his planning, the most important thing he can do is make sure water is not a limiting factor, says Dowdy.

He uses the University of Georgia’s irrigation table as a guide but not a rule. “It tells you the plant water needs in relation to days after planting and growth stages. It is necessary to be aware of your soil types and have intimate knowledge of your soils’ moisture holding capacity.

“This is the easiest way of estimating the amount of available water for the plant and promoting timely scheduling of irrigation.  They call it the checkbook method.  I’m considering incorporating soil moisture probes for this next year because it might help me eliminate some watering.”

Some of Dowdy’s fields have been in continuous corn for five years, and he doesn’t agree that you’ll always see a yield reduction in corn following corn.  He has been double-cropping a legume behind the corn to help with weed control and to help fixate some nitrogen. 

“You will see a yield reduction if you don’t perform certain practices. You need to perform deep tillage in the fall, plant a cover crop, and apply some nitrogen after the corn is harvested. This is done so the soil microbes can feed off the nitrogen and begin to break down the corn fodder and remove some of the disease and insect risks associated with heavy corn residue.

Getting good rotation

“Basically, I am getting some good rotation between crops because I plant a legume and then a cover crop after the corn. I do deep tillage in the fall and in the spring. Part of this tillage is to help with moisture retention and to remove compaction, but it also helps to break down the litter.”

The field that produced Dowdy’s highest corn yields this year once was rolling terrain and was in pasture for several years.

“When I took it out of pasture, everyone said it was the most conservation-friendly crop possible, and that it was helping to hold the land together.

“Frankly, all the neighbors thought it was foolish for me to farm this land due to the terrain challenges. After the first year of farming, I thought they were right, but I didn’t have irrigation on it, and that made all the difference. If God made it, I believe I can work with it.”

While Dowdy admittedly farms on a smaller scale than some, he says smaller farmers have to make every acre count, and to do that, you have to make high yields.

For fertility, he pulls GPS grid samples. “I started doing variable-rate fertilization, and in the last two years, I’ve moved to 1-acre grid samples. It gives me a better picture of what’s out there.

“I pull tissue samples several times during the year to verify that my fertilizer is actually available to the plant.

“Also, I pull samples based on the reproductive stages of the plant. If you see that you have a deficiency, it’s already costing you yield. If you see it visually or through a tissue sample, it’s already too late.”

It’s also important, says Dowdy, to pay attention to minor elements. “Probably the biggest weakness we have in corn production is the lack of research on minor elements and accurate fertility recommendations.

“The levels being recommended by all of the labs are insufficient, in my opinion. It’s based on research from the 1940s and 1950s, when improved varieties were not being planted and irrigation wasn’t available.

“We’ve come a long way with new corn hyrids, but we still depend on old research. Global populations are increasing significantly, and to feed these additional people will require greater yields. We need research at the university level to advise farmers on current hybrids, fertility and new technology.

“We’re using 21st century irrigation, hybrids, and other practices to remove yield-limiting production variables. Insufficient fertility should not be one of those variables.”

Dowdy says his corn weed control is “nothing special,” with timing being the most important factor.

“I strip-till, so I chemically burn down a cover crop. I make a herbicide application a couple of days after planting and use irrigation to incorporate those chemicals. Then, I make another herbicide application two to three weeks postemergence.

“I constantly monitor for weed flushes, and I’m aggressive whenever that happens. Weed control is huge in corn production up to a certain stage. Once you get to about 45 days, shading will be your best friend.”

All of Dowdy’s irrigation sources are underground, and he’s pumping from wells. All nozzles are drops with rotators to help minimize erosion. He has a system that can monitor his center pivots through a computer or through his cell phone.

Believes yields were limited

Dowdy has no doubt this year’s yields were limited significantly, and he believes he can top his winning corn yields.

“When I planted, I unfortunately had an issue with the planter. I had inconsistent seed placement, with doubles and triples and skips. Throughout the growing season and especially at harvest, you could tell there was a problem with consistency. It probably cost me 15 to 20 percent of my yield. Needless to say, I no longer have that planter.

“The genetic potential of hybrids before we plant them, according to what research tells us, is 600 to 800 bushels. If I average 50 percent of that yield potential, compared to most people’s standards, I’d make an A. But if a professor was grading me, I’d make an F. 

“Often, the yield-limiting issues are things that are within our control. We can’t control things like temperature and rainfall, but we have to do our part, and timing is everything.”

His yield goal for 2012 is 400 bushels per acre. “Last year, it was 300 bushels, and the good Lord blessed me. I take copious notes throughout the year, and I did some experimenting this past year that I’ll do on a grander scale this next year.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that some of the things I did increased my yields. I’ve already booked corn for next year and started purchasing and taking delivery of fertilizer.”

Dowdy hopes that whatever he is doing to achieve high corn yields can be used by other farmers.

“Some farmers haven’t grown corn in years, and things have changed, so maybe I can help them.  Farmers have to be flexible and be willing to change current and past production practices and/or do things more timely with an emphasis on producing as much as possible and making every acre count.

“Cost-per-acre will go up with my system, but everything I do is based on return on investment. It’s not about winning a contest — it’s about making money. Nine times out of 10, if you have top yields you’ll make money.”

The son of a minister, Dowdy says he started doing farm work with people in his father’s congregation when he was eight or nine years old. He attended college, obtaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and worked professionally for awhile.

“I initially started buying land for an investment and for recreation, because I love hunting. Then, to help the land pay for itself, I started farming. I’ve been farming on my own since 2002, beginning then with food plots.

“In 2004, I started farming row crops. In the beginning, I asked peer farmers a great deal of questions and much credit for my success must go to the University of Georgia staff, specifically agronomist Dewey Lee. Dewey has been a friend and very helpful with answering my never-ending questions throughout the years, for which I am very thankful. 

“It has been very difficult at times to succeed because I’m a first-generation farmer. I’m buying all of my own land and my own equipment, but I am not complaining. The good Lord has blessed me thus far, and I will keep trying to get to the next level.”

phollis@farmpress.com