Starter fertilizer, big finish

The top winners of this year’s corn yield contest grew more corn than any North Carolina producers have ever grown in the state. Greene County corn growers Jimmy Harrell and Tommy Hardy of H&H Farms and Hardy Farms, near Snow Hill, produced 399.26 bushels per acre on their Irrigated Division, conventional-tillage category corn entry.

They also were state champions in the Dryland Division, conventional tillage category, with 314.27 bushels per acre; and state Dryland Division no-till winners on a Hardy Farms entry with 279.16 bushels per acre. Harris Farms, also of Snow Hill, was the no-tillage winner in the Irrigated Division, with 331.83 bushels per acre.

Key Points

• Farmers get 399 bushels of corn per acre in 2009, a state high.

• Credit starter fertilizer among factors leading to high yields.

• They say new varieties will lead to ever-increasing yield gains.


Knocking on the door to 400 bushels: that is a lot of corn, says North Carolina State University crop scientist Ron Heiniger, and there are many growers who would like to know how they do it.

“These farmers have been first or second place in the yield contest for any number of years,” says Heiniger, who organizes and administers the corn contest. “They’ve got a nice place there along the Neuse River that has very productive soil. They clearly work to add the latest technology and the latest information so they can continue to compete at the top of the game.

“There are plenty of people shooting for them out here,” Heiniger says with a laugh, “who would like to pick them off of that top spot.”

Harrell and Hardy’s success on their irrigated, conventional-till entry stems out of several factors. They use narrow rows, plant high seed populations, irrigate and use starter fertilizer. Most of all, they give corn the attention it deserves — attention all growers don’t give it.

Planting in narrow 20-inch rows allows them to grow and harvest a population of about 51,000 seeds per acre, giving their corn canopy a higher potential to capture more “green” power from the sun.

“For that higher population, you have to catch the rainfall,” says Hardy. “But higher population in your field will help keep more moisture in the soil, too, by producing more shade. The shade keeps the moisture in the field two or three days longer than would be the case with a lower population.”

The fact they irrigate allows their corn to meet that important consideration for water, particularly in critical parts of the growing season. They typically put down about 1 inch of irrigation water every four to five days.

Despite the varying opinions about its effectiveness, the partners believe the small amount of 11-37-0 starter fertilizer they put down plays a big role in their high yields.

“Fifteen gallons is about the maximum amount we can put, because we put it right in the seed furrow,” says Harrell. “Actually, we put down about 12 gallons, but we know if we put more than 15 gallons it will burn the seed and cut back on germination. A lot of people don’t use starter fertilizer. Other people use dry starter fertilizer. We’ve tried that, but we found that since dry fertilizer doesn’t reach the roots all at the same time, it results in lower uniformity.”

The starter fertilizer boosts early growth, which then helps shade out grass and weeds. “Its just that simple,” Harrell says. “A lot of people say in the long run, a field without starter fertilizer will catch up with the field that has it. We don’t think so. In fact, we put the starter out with a Dickey-john sprayer. We’ve had places where we forgot to put the starter on and later we could tell it right to the hill.”

Forging ahead

Harrell and Hardy expect corn yields to continue to rise, mainly because of the advances in seed technology that companies are making. Harrell says seed is another place some growers cut corners. Not them.

“I’d say one of the biggest improvements most growers could make would be just to look at state variety tests and choose higher-yielding varieties. The cost of the seed is more per bag, but most of the time it will be less costly in the long run because they’ll make more. After all, you could keep your seed, you could plant free seed, but then that free seed might become the most expensive seed you plant.”

Box scores

Here are some key corn production practices used by yield winners Jimmy Harrell and Tommy Hardy in 2009 on their 399 bushel-per-acre corn entry.

Row width: 20-inch narrow

Final stand population: 51,000 seeds per acre

Key advantage: irrigation

Key practice: use of starter fertilization

Credited strategy: using top technology varieties


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TEAMWORK pays: Tommy Hardy (left) and Jimmy Harrell are farming partners who set a new 2009 corn record. The pair converted 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre into 399.26 bushels of corn per acre.

This article published in the March, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.