Cory Atley, Greene County

Big yield potential for 2021 as Ohio’s Corn Warriors take to the fields

By Matt Reese

The weather was just not cooperating for planting in 2020. It was time to start filming Season 4 of the reality show Corn Warriors and Greene County farmer Cory Atley was preparing for potential failure on national television. 

Corn Warriors airs on RFD TV and features six farmers from around the country trying to grow record-setting corn yields. Atley (nicknamed “Beast” on the show) farms more than 8,000 acres of leased and family ground and has won the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) yield contest for Ohio numerous times. 

“I was nervous. I thought the first year being on Corn Warriors was going to be a complete flop. The weather just did not work with us. We were wet early and we planted until June 15, which is not common for us. The biggest chunk of the corn acres went in the last week of May and beans were planted after that,” Atley said. “Then we turned hot and dry. We could not buy a rain. With the products and the hybrids we have out there, I could not believe how well the crop did after the year we had.” 

Despite the challenges, Atley and his corn yields were able to rise to the occasion. He had a yield of 320.24 bushels per acre in the 2020 NCGA contest and, with inter-cropping, got a yield of 333 bushels for his entry on Corn Warriors in a 60-acre field with 30 acres of corn and 30 acres of beans.

With planting season here for Ohio, growers around the state have Corn Warriors hopes for their 2021 yields and extensive research shows the best place to start is a careful focus on fundamentals. Roy Ulrich, technical agronomist forDEKALB/Asgrow in Southern Ohio, said big yields start with the basics.

“The first thing always goes back to planting conditions. To really set the stage for good corn yields we need a really uniform emergence, which means we need consistent soil moisture and consistent soil temperature. The more consistent we can get, the better start we can get, whether that is April 10 or a little later in the spring,” Ulrich said. “Getting a start based on those soil conditions and not looking at a calendar are pretty important. Over the last couple of years we have seen that, with today’s corn hybrids and genetics, we can plant corn a little later and still get good yields if Mother Nature is favorable. Things are looking pretty good. There is not excessive moisture left from that snow melt in February. Looking at the Drought Monitor, there is some ground out west and even into Indiana that is on the dry side. Let’s hope Mother Nature turns that around and we get ample moisture during the growing season. Right now in Ohio, though, we are sitting in a pretty good spot without too much moisture but enough to get this crop off to a good start.”

After a winter in the shop, the planter probably still needs a few tweaks, triple checks and field performance inspections as well.

“Really check over your planter to make sure your meters are set and ready to go for a uniform drop from a spacing standpoint. With the precision technology we have today, it can help us get a really consistent depth from seed to seed. Make sure all of that is ready to go,” Ulrich said. “Nothing beats planting some of the field and getting out and digging to check things out. We have had some guys with really expensive planters and they didn’t do that at the start of the season — even the best planter can still have some issues if it is not set and checked out right.”

And, of course, there are always questions about the proper seeding depth.

“Get that seed into ample moisture. The right depth varies a lot. For me, 2 inches is the minimum but some growers think that is way too deep and then on some lighter soils that may not be deep enough,” Ulrich said. “I like to see 2 inches as a minimum to not have issues with root development later in the season. A couple of springs ago we had planting conditions that were really dry and even 2 inches was not deep enough to get into the moisture. Where is that soil moisture line and where is it going to move to if it is going to be dry for 10 days?”

Recent research by Ohio State University researchers found that, in general, yield uniformity was improved with increases in seed depth, said Peter Thomison, retired Ohio State University Extension corn specialist in the virtual 2021 Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference (CTTC). From 2017 to 2019, the research recorded a mountain of data points through the V3 stage in corn comparing two soil types (Kokomo and Crosby) and approximate seeding depths of 1, 2, or 3 inches deep in two conventionally tilled fields. One field had 2% to 3% organic matter, and the other had 4% to 5% organic matter. Across the years of the study, the soil moisture in the wet springs led to May planting dates and high temperatures after planting. 

“Kokomo had higher yields with 2-inch and 3-inch planting depths. There was not much difference in Crosby,” Thomison said. “Increasing planting depth was correlated with yield increases. In the Kokomo soil, improvements in yield were associated with better basal ear pollination, better kernel set at the base and more kernels per row.”

Key takeaways from the Extension research by Kyle Nemergut, Alex Lindsey and Thomison were:

  • Soil GDD accumulation drives early emergence.
  • Uniform emergence was highly dependent on soil moisture content.
  • Emergence of all plants within three days is critical to maintain yield.
  • Yield per plant tends to increase with planting depth.

“We would certainly like to see what this would look like with planting dates in April,” Thomison said. “There will be situations where 2-inch planting depth has merit. New technology may help with optimizing planting depth.”

With the basics in place at planting — like soil pH and good soil test levels — then corn producers can start tweaking more details to build the yield potential. In work on big corn yields at the University of Kentucky, Extension professor for grain crops Chad Lee found some common fundamental factors in producing yields of 300+ bushels. He outlined them in a presentation at the virtual 2021 CTTC.

“Irrigation is important for high yields in Kentucky. We use no-till or reduced till and typically we have to have higher populations at 40,000 seeds per acre or more, but if it turns dry that high population can be detrimental to higher yields,” Lee said. “We use 30-inch rows, but once we get about 45,000 we need to go to narrow rows. We have not seen enough data to justify going there yet but maybe in the next decade we will see an advantage to going with narrow rows.”

Lee recommends 220 to 240 pounds of nitrogen per acre for 300-bushel yields in three applications — one at planting, one at V5 or V6 and fertigation right before pollination.

“Sulfur and boron do not seem to help. We thought we’d see an advantage with those nutrients with the irrigation but we do not,” Lee said. “You need good weed control, no soil compaction and the only fungicide that is applied if diseases are present and no foliar insecticide, though there are situations when those are needed. You need uniform emergence. All of those fundamentals have to be in place. I’ll tell you, while it is easy to talk about it and while we think we all understand it, when you have the variability year to year of the weather, that is really hard to do. Those fundamentals have to be in place if you are going to get to those high yields.” 

With many of these basics in place on his farm, Atley will be again showcasing what it takes to achieve next-level yields in the 2021 seasons of Corn Warriors and the soybean yield competition show The Podfather. For corn, Atley puts a huge focus on acre-by-acre management from tillage (he does both conventional and no-till) through the combine. In recent years, Atley has tried to hone-in on how to best spoon feed exactly what the crop needs. 

“We treat every acre differently. Every farm has different soil types that handle a different hybrid and each hybrid can handle a different yield goal. I treat each field differently. There is no blanket program for the farm. At the end of the day, Mother Nature is going to win. We try to take a spoon-feed approach and if Mother Nature is going to work with us, we’re going to keep pouring the coals to it, but if Mother Nature is winning, sometimes we have to pull the plug and walk away,” Atley said. “I want to survive and make money this year so I can farm again next year. Learning from the TV show, I probably would do better if I set aside a 10-acre plot and made several passes on it for corn and beans, but mentally I can’t get myself there because it is not a practical play. Everything we do has to make sense.” 

Each component of the operation has to pencil out financially and fit in the framework of the farm.

“We don’t have irrigation. We are in 20-inch rows and getting down rows to sidedress doesn’t work. I don’t have a high clearance sprayer,” he said. “I do have a great crew that works with me on the agronomy side and we do have good soil. My dad has been a big proponent of soil health for years. Once you get soil health figured out you have a base platform.” 

Atley is a believer in biologicals as well. He works with a wide variety of products in his Advanced Yield Select Crop Inputs on his farm and other operations.

Will Atley again be able to produce winning yields in 2021? Photo provided by Corn Warriors.

“I am so excited that biologicals are finally getting the attention they deserve. The biggest thing is educating farmers on how to use them. A lot of these products, when they touch air or see daylight, they are on the clock. They are only going to be alive for so long. I messed it up a lot and did not know how to mix them or handle them. It had nothing to do with the product. The first thing people think is that they don’t work and they won’t use them,” he said. “We started testing a lot of different things and it is all about ROI. Some of the results were good. Some were breakeven. You really have to figure out how to make these work for you. One product from Pivot Bio has made a lot of noise. Start Right product (from AgBio Logic) goes on every acre of corn for us in furrow, but that is a rarity.”

The biggest push for the corn crop is up front.

“We spend the most money within the planter. We don’t have 2X2 because logistically we just can’t figure out a way to cover the acres we have to cover in the small planting window and stop every 50 to 100 acres. We are running 4 gallons of straight water because I have so many different fulvic acids and biologicals in there I need water as the buffer to keep everything happy. A lot of these products don’t like to mix with other things. I don’t look at it as a starter or a pop-up,” Atley said. “Since I don’t have these capabilities, my package needs to have products that are going to work to get it out of the ground that will help to V5, V8 and tassel. What products can I put out there in that mix that will work for me when I’m not out there working? The reason planting is our most expensive pass is because that is when we are most hopeful for a good season. At V5 we are going back in with foliar fungicide to try to help feed it. We are doing tissue tests to see what the crop needs. If we need to get in there for a rescue in V8 or V10, I can still clear it, but after that we are relying on the airplane. We follow our tissue tests then to see what the plants need.” 

Atley is also a believer in fungicide use.

“Disease pressure or not, fungicide is going on. We were so dry last year, we needed the plant health aspect of it. If we can use a good fungicide to keep that plant alive longer it helps,” he said. “We are going to get disease pressure eventually in most cases and it is just added protection.”

He is not a proponent, though, of costly passes not resulting in profitability. 

“I am not taking a sprayer across a field 10 to 14 times. It is not practical. When we look at different things, I want to be able to control each pass so I can break that pass down and say this one really worked. It paid,” Atley said. “I don’t want to have a lot of money tied up per acre and have Mother Nature take it away, even on 10 acres. I’m very competitive. I don’t like losing on any amount of acres so I want to do things that make sense. The biggest thing I take pride in is when you see 320 bushels, I’m doing that on thousands of acres.”

As the 2021 growing season heats up along with the level of the competition from around the country for the “Beast” of Ohio corn production, viewers can keep up with Atley’s progress as he navigates the uncertainties of the growing season on Corn Warriors and The Podfather. Atley points out, though, he does not have to participate in the national television show to find strong competition from top notch farmers. 

“I have a lot of farmers right down the road who give me a run for my money every year. I get to work with them and learn from them. It is really fun because everybody does it a little differently. I don’t have strip-till but I work with a lot of people who do. I don’t have 2X2 but a lot of people do. And there are so many products out there and it hard to know which ones work and which ones don’t,” he said. “But I do know Ohio can run with the big boys with some pretty big yields.” 

For more on the Corn Warriors and The Podfather, visit cornwarriorstv.com.

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