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Given all the high-tech gadgetry David Hula deploys to his corn fields, he found 20 bushels of new yield in a 2 1/2-gallon bucket. In an example of imagination, Hula gathered the buckets, drilled holes in them and enlisted his son, Craig, and coworker, Lee Wooten, in an 8-acre experiment. Following the recommendations of an agronomist, Hula and partners used the buckets to dribble 100 pounds of 30% UAN down the rows of an irrigated corn field one week before tasseling. It was June 2011, an unexpectedly cool day in Charles City, Va., and drizzling. The trio walked, because the plants at 14 feet were too tall for a high-boy sprayer.
"I took some time to calibrate [the buckets]," Hula says. "We'd like to say we picked up 20 to 22 bushels," he says, adding that Hurricane Irene ended the season early. "It had better test weight, too. I'm not sure the nitrogen contributed to it, but in my mind, I think it did."
Hula, his father, Stanley, and brother, Johnny, are well-known for being among the most innovative corn growers in the nation. They have won numerous corn yield contests, as well as yield awards for soybeans and wheat. In 2011, Hula won the "no-till, strip-till irrigated" class in the National Corn Growers Association National Corn Yield Contest with an entry of 429.0216 bushels per acre. (His yield monitor ticked up to 502 bushels in that same field.) That was the highest documented contest yield in a decade.
Hula harvested that contest field in late August, only hours before Hurricane Irene's 60 mph winds mowed down large swaths of his corn. It is with some irony that just five weeks ago, the Hula farm was rushing again, pushing through long October nights, to plant 2,000 acres of small grains just ahead of Hurricane Sandy.
But Sandy would not uproot Hula's corn. That harvest was done. Hula's 2012 Corn Yield Contest entry fell short of 2011 -- an amount "in the 380s," Hula says. It was hardly a disappointment. Crop year, version 2012, was a very good year on the Hula farm.
"We had a record crop across 1,000 acres," he says. "It was the very best crop ever, across the board. We're very blessed. Go 20 to 30 miles due north of here, and they don't have it." He expects his whole-farm average will be 180 or 190 bushels per acre. Not including 2012, his long-term corn average has risen from 120 bushels per acre 10 years ago to about 167 bushels.
"I try to learn from observation," Hula says, returning to the story of the buckets. Nitrogen is a highly valued resource on this farm. Hula's farm is along the James River, and it flows into the highly regulated Chesapeake Bay. He must, by regulation, account for his nitrogen applications. Hula broadcasts no nitrogen. Soil testing and tissue testing are routine.
When Hula plans his nitrogen applications, he looks for moments in a growing season when the nutrient has greatest impact. Just ahead of a growth spurt is a good time -- a point of maximum uptake by the plant. That's why he deployed the buckets just ahead of tasseling. The growth was going to happen; the UAN kicked it into a higher gear.
"This is somewhat new in that, typically, we have focused on applying nitrogen when the plant is starting its vegetative growth spurt," Hula says. "Yet, there is another high nitrogen requirement time in the plant's life cycle. In a high-yielding environment, it occurs just prior to tasseling," he explains.
The experiment worked well enough in 2011 that Hula was encouraged to expand on the idea. This year, he applied 90 pounds of 30% UAN through his irrigation units. Timed to rapid crop growth, Hula divided the total application into thirds. He applied 30 pounds with a single turn of his irrigation units on three separate occasions. This is the newest piece to Hula's nutrient-management practices. There are many other pieces to the pie.
By the results of soil tests, he spreads pelletized sludge, lime and fertilizer in the fall. He broadcasts about 250 pounds of potash per acre every other fall prior to a corn crop. Typically, a small-grain crop follows the corn and double-cropped soybeans after that.
At planting, Hula applies a starter fertilizer (60-30-0) with 6 pounds of sulfur, 0.6 pounds of zinc and 0.1 pounds of boron in bands, 3 inches to the side of the seed trench and 2 inches below. Boron helps the plant during pollination, he says. Hula adds an in-furrow pop-up fertilizer. He applies 3-18-18 through the planter at a couple of gallons per acre. He credits the practice with boosting yields 3 to 4 bushels, and as much as 11 bushels.
Additional applications of nitrogen are made based on tissue sampling. He'll sidedress corn with 60 to 120 pounds of N and some sulfur at V5 and V12, the latter about six weeks after emergence. He may add zinc, boron, calcium and other micronutrients to boost yields.
His intention through the season is to never leave the crop wanting for something. "We want it to stay green as long as we can," he says. "When we harvested 385 [bushels in 2007], the ear dried down, but the plant stayed green. We want to replicate that in all our fields."
Hula farms 4,500 acres along the James and Chickahominy rivers. He farms on both sides of Williamsburg to the outskirts of Richmond. His soils are mostly Pamunkey (Virginia's state soil), soils formed in stream sediments in the James River drainage basin. It is a fine, sandy loam at the surface with a yellowish-red clay underneath and layers of sand and gravel below that. Hula has been 100% "never-till" for more than a decade. He draws irrigation water from the James.
Some of Hula's fields have been farmed for 400 years, 13 years before Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. It was on ground first broken by Jamestown settlers in 1607 that he first broke above 300 bushels. Hula looks for corn with emergence unhampered by the cool and wet conditions of April, when he begins to plant. He treats seed with Poncho 1250 to fend off the Southern corn billbug, a pest that cuts yield at the moment of germination.
In 2012, Hula incorporated a couple of products from Biovante. He used Pentilex seed treatment. Biovante says its Pentilex treatment helps germination and emergence even under stressful conditions. It claims a 10% improvement in yield. Hula has also used BioGold. Biovante describes BioGold as a "concentrated liquid soil amendment that contains free-living soil microbes."
"I'm continuously looking for ways to improve soil and plant health," Hula says. "Not all products do what they claim, so we spend a lot time evaluating new products."
Hula is a proponent of BASF's Headline. In past years, he has applied it at about three weeks after emergence and then flew it on again after tasseling. With that second application of Headline, he added Bayer CropScience's Baythroid insecticide for a quick knockdown and residual. In 2011, he added a third application. In 2012, he added a fourth application of Headline.
"Anything I can do to keep the plant as healthy as long as I can, I'm going to [try]," Hula says.
For the first time on his farm in 2012, Hula installed drip irrigation in corn. He buried tape under the corners of an irrigated field -- 5 acres on 30-inch centers and 5 acres on 60-inch centers. The tape was installed only temporarily from 1/2-inch to 6 inches deep. He wanted to pull it up to learn if the James muddy, and occasionally salty, waters plugged the tape.
The tape produced a yield increase in areas typically missed by his irrigation units. The 30-inch on-center tape had a 5-bushel advantage over those buried on 60-inch centers. "But the economics don't allow 30-inch rows," Hula says. He looks to the tape to reduce his water use and as a way to irrigate smaller, irregularly shaped fields.