Steve Albracht sat in the cab of his big red tractor on a balmy, windy, early April day in West Texas, making adjustments to his on-board computer in preparation for corn planting season.
An occasional 40 mile per hour gust stirred up dust devils. A few wispy white clouds scuttled across the blue sky. A tractor preparing land in a nearby field was all but invisible inside a cloud of dust that clung to it like a swarm of red ants devouring a slow beetle.
Albracht, who farms near Hart, Texas, waved me up to the cab, where we sat protected from the wind and dust and talked about the challenges of making high yields of corn in what is often a less than ideal environment.
He knows how it’s done.
Albracht is the 2009 National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) Corn Yield Contest winner for irrigated, ridge-till production. His winning entry came in at 341.6 bushels per acre. That’s measured on 1.25 acres and he had to harvest and measure that minimum acreage twice.
Albracht has participated in the yield contest since 2003 and has won a first place each year. But he doesn’t plant specific plots just for the competition.
“I grew 1,013 acres of corn last year and raised it all the same,” he said. Harvested acreage in 2009 averaged 290 to 300 bushels. “That’s tough to do in West Texas,” he said. He had one field hailed out. “We can lose it all in an hour.”
Albracht always follows a plan.
He said he gets assistance from his Pioneer Seed Company technician. “He helps a lot,” he said. He plants only Pioneer corn.
Attention to detail may mean the difference between an average yield and an excellent one. “I walk the fields regularly,” he said. He looks for any sign of stress that could jeopardize production. “I eliminate plant stress as much as possible.”
He said some farmers plant too fast. “Slow down. Don’t plant fast. It’s just common sense; I see no reason to hurry to plant. If you can’t plant fast enough, buy another planter.”
Albracht maintains planting speed of 4.5 to 5 miles per hour.
He starts planting later than many of his neighbors, about three weeks behind. “I usually start planting by the first week in May, but I may go a little earlier this year.”
He said his latest planted field last year caught a cold snap and “didn’t dry down right.”
Avoiding compaction also pays off, he said. “I don’t combine or plow when the soil is wet. It costs money to get in on wet ground. Compaction will rob yields.”
He said trying new products or technology also helps move yield goals higher. Global Positioning System farming and a computerized planter have increased efficiency and reduced operator stress. “At about 10 p.m. planting corn is a peaceful place to be,” he said. “The best corn I ever made was planted at 2 a.m.”
He started using GPS technology five or six years ago. “Technology on tractors is amazing,” he said. “It gets addictive and spoils you. I can pay attention to what’s going on with the planter and be more efficient with less stress.”
Albracht plows all his land and makes three trips across fields to plant corn. “That’s all I ever do. But I start with a plan and soil test, apply about ten tons of manure and use a DMI tillage plow to get the manure in.”
He plows again to work in trace minerals and then “I pray for rain for planting.” He may plow to take out winter weeds.
Soil moisture this year is good to begin planting but he may irrigate to provide ample moisture for germination. In early April he said the area had not had rain for about four weeks. The area did receive rain about mid-month.
He rotates some land with cotton but plants mostly corn. “I may plant 400 to 600 acres of cotton. It’s a fickle crop in this area.”
He said high yields demand adequate inputs. “I shoot for the top end,” he said.
“I pick up some potassium and phosphorus from the manure but I don’t even consider that as a source for nitrogen. I use the manure mainly to get organic matter to help hold moisture.”
Fertility depends on soil and hybrid selection. “I typically apply from 300 to 400 units of nitrogen. I also plant a little higher population, again based on soil and hybrid.”
He uses tissue sampling to monitor nutrient needs during the season. “I sample through the whole life of the corn, even after it matures, so I can see if the fertility program worked late in the season.”
He’ll plant some narrow row corn this year, spaced 7.5 inches apart, “to get plant population up to 60,000 per acre versus 40,000 to 44,000 on 30-inch rows. I have maxed out population levels on 30-inch rows and I wanted to try something new.”
He said twin-rows will require more fertility and disease management and better overall attention.
He makes certain corn gets enough moisture in-season to prevent yield loss. “I apply from 32 inches to 40 inches of water per crop year,” he said. Wind and heat in West Texas pull a lot of moisture out of the soil. “I don’t ever want the plant to struggle for water.”
He protects corn from insects with Poncho 1250 on the seed. He uses Poncho 250 with Herculex insect protection. “I don’t have a lot of trouble with corn borers,” he said
He also wants to try drought tolerant corn.
He’s seen a good response in trials “with no yield drag. It uses available moisture and nitrogen more efficiently.”
He doesn’t plant dryland corn but did put in a test plot for Pioneer last year. “We made 60 bushels, which is not bad for dryland corn in West Texas.”
He uses Balance Flexx and Cinch for weed control, Atrazine as a preplant and Laudis “to clean up.”
He buys new equipment regularly, “when needed. Downtime costs money and we have to be efficient.”
Albracht’s winning corn yield came from Pioneer 32N73, a relatively new hybrid out only two years. He saw that hybrid in a Pioneer trial and said it looked promising. “It has a tough stalk.”
He will plant about 12 varieties on 1,000 to 1,200 acres this year with maturity ranging from 105 days to 119 days. “I’ll plant the 105-day corn where I have weaker water,” he said.
“I always match the hybrid to soil, fertility and water.”
Albracht has been a Pioneer spokesman in the Pioneer One Forum since last year and travels the country talking about “making high corn yields in West Texas. I also get a chance to listen to other farmers and learn new techniques from them.”
He said he doesn’t consider himself a model to inspire anyone but hopes to learn how to make the best corn crop he can.
And he’s still reaching. “My next goal is to break the world record corn yield,” he said. That’s 442.14 bushels per acre, according to the National Corn Growers Association. The record was set back in 2002 in Iowa. Albracht thinks that’s within reach, even in Texas.
“Then I want to make 500 bushels per acre. I think it’s possible, but everything has to be perfect.”