With a little help from his family and friends, Spurgeon Foster Jr. has just done it again. The holder of previous state corn yield records has just produced one for the books.
In Davidson County, N.C., this past season, Foster had a corn yield of 309 bushels. The yield goes down in the annals as the largest in the state of North Carolina.
Foster, who's no stranger to records, points to a variety of factors that influenced the Midwestern-like mark: A good wife, good help, good climate, good varieties, no-till, timely nitrogen application, and prayer.
He set a state corn-yield of 237.70 bushels per acre in 1980. Since 1994, he's only missed a 200-bushel per acre yield one time, according to Ron Heiniger, North Carolina State University corn specialist.
Just as soon as he completed harvesting that record yield, he and his wife, Sherry, began planning the 2002 season. He'll finalize hybrid selection this month when he sits down with his Pioneer representative.
He planted wheat as a cover crop this past fall on 1,600 acres, a practice he's done since 1990. That was the last time he ran a moldboard plow through his Piedmont land. He credits farmers in the surrounding counties with influencing his decision to plant no-till corn. “We couldn't be farming the acres we farm had it not been for no-till,” Foster says.
Depending on what the wheat looks like in early spring, Foster will determine whether he harvests it or burns it down. Last year, he applied 200 pounds of 12-36-14 to the wheat on Jan. 2, 2001.
In early February 2001, Foster applied 25 gallons of 30 percent nitrogen per acre, along with a half ounce per acre of Harmony before abandoning the wheat in April.
In September of the previous year, he applied a ton of lime per acre based on soil tests.
Prior to planting this past season, he applied 50 gallons of liquid nitrogen, three pints of atrazine, two pints of Princep, one-tenth ounce of Harmony and two pints of Gramoxone per acre.
After planting the corn, he came over-the-top with Banvel at three ounces per acre. He used Accent to spot spray where needed.
In total, he used 267-plus units of nitrogen on the river bottom field where he produced the 309-bushel yield. “The reason we applied so much nitrogen is because river bottoms have the potential to make high yields,” Foster says. “On the upland field, we only used 35 gallons of nitrogen per acre — and even those fields were making 200-bushel yields.”
In a normal North Carolina summer, high nitrogen levels in the river bottoms might have been leached when the rains came, he points out. But 2001 wasn't the normal year for corn production in the state. Prior to the first of July, rainfall was only approximately one inch.
“We were within a week or 10 days of losing the crop when we finally got rain,” Foster says “I guess we prayed at the right time because we got a three-inch rain.”
On the other hand, temperatures during the growing season were near ideal for top yields. July temperatures didn't get over 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The lack of rain for much of the season meant there was little potential for the leaching of nitrogen.
At harvest, those ideal conditions showed themselves on the yield monitor.
“We checked one field and had 271 bushels, then moved across the creek and had a 254-bushel yield,” Foster says.
In fact, each hybrid Foster planted had average yields of more than 200-bushels per acre — on the river bottomland as well as the “upland” fields.
On the upland fields, he chose Pioneer 31R88, a variety tolerant to drought conditions.
In the river bottoms, he chose varieties resistance to gray leaf — Pioneer 31G98 and Pioneer 32K64.
Pioneer 31G98 made the record 309-yield for Foster.
“I told my sons that we were harvesting corn like people in Illinois enjoy harvesting every year,” Foster says.
In the mid-1980s, Foster traveled to Illinois to visit a corn-yield champion and pick up tips on how to produce top yields. The farmer he visited had grown 370-bushel yields.
Wesley Foster, 24, and Bryan Foster, 28, farm in Tyrrell County, about 280 miles away on the eastern North Carolina coast. They are also grain buyers in Columbia, N.C. The elder Foster bought land in eastern North Carolina because of better soils there, dry summers in the Piedmont and the fact that “agriculture is being pushed out here.”
In late November, fresh off the heels of the record yield, Foster and his wife weren't exactly slowing down to relish the accomplishment.
When I visited them at their home near Mocksville, N.C., home, Sherry was doing taxes and preparing comparative records, which will determine just how much they will spend on inputs next year.
“She's a vital part of the operation,” Foster beams.
In fact, she's not above heading to the field at harvest to help.
In 1999, when a massive hurricane was bearing down on the state, Foster and his wife worked 36 hours straight in order to get the crop harvested before the deluge of the hurricane rains.
Looking back on that time, Foster remembers telling his sons that working long hours through a week would save them a month. He was right. He got his crop in. Those less fortunate didn't get their crop harvested.
Foster and his wife took time to take pictures of the hurried harvest.
“Top yields aren't just the work of one person,” Foster says.
“Justin Carter, who's the same age as my youngest son, did the planting and the spraying,” Foster says. “John Forrest, who works with us, also helped.
“I have to thank people like the Pioneer reps, Troy Coggins, Davidson County Extension agent, Ronnie Thompson, Davie County Extension agent, David Lederer at Southern States, who organizes the soil testing and recommends what fertilizers to put on and helps us look at the price-per-acre,” Foster says. “Also, Nelson Pusser with UAP/Carolina advises us on insecticides, herbicides, and starter fertilizers.”
As the winter sets in on another year, Foster knows exactly what it will cost him to produce a crop next year. He's holding those numbers close to his vest, but points out that the larger the yield, the better chance he has to make money.
“If it costs you $300 per acre to grow corn, you've got to have at least a 132 bushels at $2.30 per bushel to break even at today's prices” Foster figures. “If you grow 200-bushel-per-acre corn, you make money.”
The bottom line is, consistently high yields lower the cost per bushel.
But the bottom line goes much deeper for Foster.
“I believe in prayer very much,” he says. “I don't see how anybody can farm without faith.
“I often ask myself, “Why do we do this — work 16 hour days,” Foster says. “But we always manage to pay our bills and manage to do it again for another year.”