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Published August 31, 2009, 04:20 AM

Corn guru urges farmers to increase corn yields

HARWOOD, N.D. — John McGillicuddy stands like a football coach in front of a placard that reads: “The Road to 250 — Increasing Corn Yields to 250.”

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

HARWOOD, N.D. — John McGillicuddy stands like a football coach in front of a placard that reads: “The Road to 250 — Increasing Corn Yields to 250.”

“So, how many of you are at 225 now?” the Iowa corn growing guru asks the field tour team. The chalk talk was at the Peterson Farms Seed field day Aug. 26 near Harwood, N.D. It’s one of numerous field events happening in the region this time of year.

“Average or peak?” a Richland County, N.D., farmer asks, from the back row.

“Average!” McGillicuddy says, without bravado, and he quickly explains, “If you’re not at 225, then 250 should not be the target. What should be the target? The target should be your next 20-bushel (increment). You should always be chasing the next 20 bushels.”

Attendance at this event was not overwhelming, perhaps because of the late cereal grain harvest. McGillicuddy’s is one of the popular tour stops. His discussions range from a tangent to a rant, sometimes as a weird sort of “64 Questions” game.

For one thing, McGillicuddy says farmers should judge their efforts on years where the “weather doesn’t beat the crap out of you,” and says, “I’m not sure this year will qualify for that.”

He is referring to the lateness of the region’s corn, which still is silking in areas of southeast North Dakota.

But he advises farmers not to rely too heavily on the excuse that the weather was bad.

Data points

Among other things, he advises farmers to count the weight of 250 kernels of corn from their field, and see how many 56-pound bushels of corn that equals. If the number is 75,000 to 95,000 kernels, that’s good. In eastern Iowa a couple of years ago, farmers had to pile up 115,000 to 120,000 kernels to equal that much.

The Iowan offers “10 data points” to decide what to do next with a corn crop. He says farmers should focus on plant population, and test their population limits to see if it’s high enough.

“You’ve got to push the population high enough to trigger some kind of failure,” he says.

He says a test doesn’t have to be on large acreage, and with higher-priced seed with stacked technology, the costs for being wrong escalate.

McGillicuddy notes that the biggest yield increases in the past 10 to 15 years have been a result of increased corn populations — adding 3,000 to 4,000 plants per acre.

“How high can you go?”

He says commercial hybrids may produce higher yields in the future, perhaps because of multiple ears per plant, but the system is based on stability — the greatest yield across the biggest number of environments.

He talks about how farmers can — through well-timed farming — help the corn plant optimize which of the eight potential ears will developed, thus increasing yield potential.

Because most corn genetics should offer 300 to 400 bushels an acre ofpotential, based on yield contests, the real question is what is robbing corn yield.

“Did you lose money early, because you didn’t feed the crop well? Did you lose money late because you ran out of nitrogen? Did you lose money because Mother Nature shut off the sunshine in the month of August? Was there something you could have changed?”


McGillicuddy says the most common question he’s gotten this month is whether Iowa’s projected corn yield is as good as everybody says they are.

“Two weeks ago, it was,” he says. “The old-timers say a big crop will keep getting bigger and a little crop will keep getting smaller. They may have this one as big as it can possibly be at this point.”

But he notes that crop estimates were made as the crop was going into the milk stage, so no one knows how many kernels will have “sucked back” and declined. In Cedar, Johnson and Clinton counties in Iowa, there was a gray weather in August that didn’t produce good kernel weight.

“Every field that hand-checked for kernel numbers at 230 bushels (yield estimate) made 175 bushels,” McGillicuddy says. “We didn’t finish that kernel. Kernel numbers should have taken us between 230 and 250. Kernel weight took us to 175 to 190 (bushels per acre).”

McGillicuddy says farmers should look at their own fields and they will “tell you where you should go.”

“It could be as good as they say, but we’ve got to be really lucky,” he says. “We’re looking at some kernel death on some early stuff that isn’t appealing to me. We had a whole bunch of rain on bunches of fields that have yellowed out.”

He says that while the government has projected a national corn yield average of 159.3 bushels per acre and some experts are projecting 162 bushels. The record average was about 160 bushels in 2004. That was bigger than the previous record in the 140s, and before that in the 130s.

“Have we ever beat the U.S. national average by 1 bushel? Usually we jump out by 8 to 15 bushels. So there’s no history to break the record by 1 and 2 bushels,” he says.

McGillicuddy says the years that the U.S. Department of Agriculture really misses on yield projections are years such as 1993 when the department grossly overestimated the year after an August of cold, gray, wet weather. He sees similarities to 2009.

“It might be the biggest crops in history,” he says, of the current crop. “I would not bet my life on it.”