David Hula and Randy Dowdy know how to grow a high-yielding crop. The two strip-tillers are the reigning corn and former soybean yield world record holders, respectively. Hula grew a 623-bushel corn crop on his farm in Charles City, Va., in 2023, while Dowdy raised 190 bushels of soybeans in Valdosta, Ga. — a world record that was broken in 2023 by his mentee, Alex Harrell of Smithville, Ga.

Outside of their winning plots, the two aren’t only focused on how to maximize yields. They care more about maximizing their profits by being what they call “a student of the crop.”

“I’m a first generation farmer,” Dowdy says. “My dad was a minister. I have no formal education from an ag perspective. I’ve been self-taught, and learned a lot from good people along the way.”

Hula and Dowdy share 6 ways strip-tillers can be a student of their crops, so they can learn from their fields and make more profitable decisions in the future.

1. Write Down Everything

The first thing someone told Dowdy when he grew his first high-yielding crop was, “Anybody can do it once. Now duplicate it.”

The only way to duplicate something is to know exactly what you did the first time. That’s why Dowdy takes note of everything he does, which includes:

  • What seed he planted and when he planted it
  • Planter vacuum pressure
  • Row population and pattern
  • What he sprayed and when he sprayed it
  • How many gallons of water went out with his herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, and the pH of that water
  • How many growing degree units (GDUs) had accumulated by the time he made an application
  • Moisture of the crops when he harvested them

“You need to understand where yield is captured and where is lost…”

“I wrote down everything that I did, and if I liked the results, that was going to be my roadmap for the future,” Dowdy says. “You need to understand where yield is captured, where yield is lost and which ones of those are within your control.”

Hula points out the importance of tracking GDUs instead of growth stages, because it’s easy to miscount a leaf.

“I find myself going back into the 1990s and looking at old data, because now I can correlate it all to GDUs,” he says.

2. Determine What Pays

“Your local retailer sells a lot of products,” Dowdy says. “Which ones pay, not because they say they pay, but because they pay on your farm?”

Dowdy and Hula say strip-tillers need to avoid taking someone’s word for whether a product will pay off and determine it for themselves through on-farm trials.

Hula says the big mistake he sees farmers make when testing a product is skipping the control. Maybe they got the product for free and inputs are high, he says, so they do the whole field and have nothing to check against the results.

“It’s a pain to leave a control, it truly is,” he says. “I even struggle with it sometimes. We do so many trials that sometimes we forget what we did, and then we see a yield bump or something go down, and we’re like, ‘What happened?’ Then we have to go back and source it. You’ve got to have those controls.”

3. Get Out of the Cab

One of the most effective ways to be a student of the crop is to actually examine the crop. That means going into the fields and collecting data on-site.

On Hula’s farm, it’s protocol to pull tissue samples every week. Dowdy points out that tissue sampling is one way of ensuring that a fertilizer application is paying off.

“You bought fertilizer, and you made a foliar application,” he says. “Why wouldn’t you test to see if the plants responded to those applications? Why wouldn’t you make sure the plant has what you think it should or what somebody thinks it should have for the yield goal you’re trying to make?”

Dowdy also makes a point of stopping the combine during harvest to take pictures, look at ear height uniformities and pull soil samples, especially if there’s a spot in the field that’s doing better than the rest. When that happens, he tries to figure out what he did differently there vs. the rest of the field.

4. Do the Flag Test

Dowdy once heard the late Steve Albrecht, another yield champion, talk about how his plants all emerged in 8 hours. This inspired him to see how uniformly his own plants were emerging and how much of a deviation there could be between the first emerged plant and the last emerged plant without it costing yield. He determined this by doing the flag test.

The concept of the flag test is to flag a plant once it emerges, when it’s no taller than one-eighth of an inch. Then come back 12 hours later with a different flag color and flag every plant that wasn’t there before. When all of the expected plants have been flagged, notate how many plants emerged at every interval.

Dowdy recommends working on one-thousandth of an acre, which is 17.5 feet down the row for a 30-inch row spacing. The number of plants you should expect to emerge will then be one-thousandth of your plant population. If your corn population is 31,000 per acre, you should expect to find 31 plants in that 17.5 feet.

Then come back in the fall and hand harvest those plants when the corn is at 30% moisture, putting the ears in separate buckets based on when they emerged. So all the ears from the plants first to emerge are in one bucket, the ones that emerged 12 hours later are in another, and so on.

Now you can weigh those buckets and see how much delayed emergence is costing you in yield and start evaluating what you may need to change to make those plants emerge uniformly. Dowdy says the reason Albrecht’s corn emerged so quickly and uniformly is that he waited until his soils were pretty warm.

5. Share What You Learn

Strip-tillers can be a student of the crop by learning from others and being willing to share what they’ve learned.

Dowdy and Hula readily share information with each other and other farmers. Hula says that if your growing season dates are different enough, you can even learn from another grower within that season.

“Wouldn’t it be neat to be working with somebody, who might be planting corn March 1, and if it influenced emergence or they saw something in tissue levels, because they got 2 months ahead of you, you can exchange that information?” he says. “Wouldn’t that be valuable to somebody?”

Dowdy adds farmers have to break the paradigm of not sharing what they’ve learned with others.

“There’s nothing wrong with building a network of trust and sharing information…”

“Farmers, quite often, don’t like to share information, and I don’t understand that,” Dowdy says. “There’s nothing wrong with building a network of trust and sharing information with one another about what works and what doesn’t work, because all of us, David and myself included, still have more to learn. We shouldn’t have to be learning this all by ourselves. At the end of the season, reflect, learn and share information about what’s working on your farm.”

6. Catch Problems Before You Plant Everything

Strip-tillers don’t harvest their whole crop in 7 days, so Dowdy doesn’t think it makes sense to try to plant everything in 7 days either, especially if it means getting all your planting done before the crop has emerged. That makes it impossible to catch any planting problems that could be avoided on subsequent fields.

“Oftentimes, you’ll see farmers race to get finished,” Dowdy says. “It’s not a race to get finished, it’s a race to get it done correctly. Wouldn’t it be nice to catch a problem so that all of your acres don’t have a problem?”

Checking the Boxes for Strip-Till Success

David Hula will deliver the keynote presentation at the 2024 National Strip-Tillage Conference Aug. 8-9 in Madison, Wis. Fresh off his fifth world record-breaking corn yield of 623 bushels per acre, Hula will take attendees inside his systems approach to strip-till and share lessons learned from his biggest yield yet. https://www.striptillfarmer.com/nstc