BY STEW SLATER
SPECIAL TO THE BANNER
NORTH PERTH – Access to livestock manure for fertilizer and timely rains were common threads for Perth County farm operations that earned three out of the four top-ranked awards in the Dupont Pioneer seed company’s 2012 Corn Yield Challenge. All three — Maplevue Farms near Listowel; Bill Frank and his daughter Kelsey, also from the Listowel area; and Mike Player of Gads Hill — won trips to the long-respected Commodity Classic conference and trade show later this year in Kissimmee, Florida.
Another Perth County producer with access to manure, meanwhile, won an even bigger travel prize — a trip to Poland for a huge crop growing conference in July — in a corn yield-based competition with a decidedly different focus: the Agricultural Management Institute’s (AMI) “Most Profitable Acre” contest. Mark Brock of Staffa, Perth County’s representative on the Grain Farmers of Ontario marketing and lobby organization, was deemed by AMI judges to have the greatest income-earning potential from his corn, based on how much he paid for inputs like seed, fuel and herbicides.
Dupont Pioneer announced the winners in last year’s Corn Yield Challenge on Thursday, Jan. 10 at the Arden Park Hotel in Stratford. About 400 people — representing most of the growers of Pioneer brand seed who signed up to take part in this year’s competition — were in attendance to find out the Yield Challenge winners and enjoy a sit-down meal. They also heard a presentation from David Hula, the southeastern U.S.-based, multi-year National Corn Growers Association yield champion who has repeatedly pushed yields into the high 300 bushels per acre and recorded an astounding 429 bushels per acre in 2011.
According to Tavistock-based Dean Shantz, Eastern Canada account manager for Dupont Pioneer, the company altered the format of its Corn Yield Challenge for 2012 — the third year it held the contest for growers of its corn varieties. In the previous challenges, the province was divided by sales territory, leading to a number of winners from different regions of Ontario. But this year, the different categories were switched, and are now based on what he referred to as “maturity zones” — which equate roughly to the more commonly known “corn heat unit” zones.
“And here in Perth, we’ve got almost the full range,” Shantz explained. “We go from early heat units in the north, all the way down to longer-day maturities in the south.”
As a result, there are parts of Perth that fit into three of the four maturity zones identified by Dupont Pioneer for its revised Corn Yield Challenge. And in the growing season of 2012, growers in all three zones within the county were blessed with timely rains.
“Lots of manure, lots of cover crops, minimum tillage and strip tillage,” explained Maplevue Farms co-owner (along with his brother, Dave) Doug Johnston, when asked about his “secret” for achieving a yield of 269 bushels per acre in 2012.
Then he quickly added, “that, and the fact that it rained.”
Sharing stories from this past summer with his co-winners, Player noted his corn yield of 271 bushels per acre in 2012 was actually lower than the previous year. But with so much of the province suffering through conditions that were much drier than Perth County, even the drought-stressed corn of this area fared better than most anywhere else.
“Most of the people who entered the Yield Challenge this year were from southwestern Ontario,” noted Shantz. “In other parts of the province, it just wasn’t worth it to enter, it was so dry.”
Maplevue Farms has a dairy operation, along with the Johnstons’ crop-growing activities. The Franks — whose winning yield was 252 bushels per acre — have a beef feedlot, which provides manure to help build soil fertility. And Player has a hog operation to supply nutrients.
Brock, meanwhile, has sheep manure and manure from his brother’s hatching egg barns to contribute to a corn yield which — on the acre he submitted for the Most Profitable Acre competition — reached 252 bushels per acre in the dry summer of 2012.
The Staffa-area farmer had to submit a comprehensive listing of his costs for growing the crop, and learned earlier this month he had been chosen the winner.
“The business side of cropping is just as important as actually growing the crop. I’m already working on cost of production and developing marketing plans for the next season,” he said in a news release from AMI about his reasons for entering the first-time competition. “I track things like costs, yields and market prices and that has a pretty big impact on decisions we make on how to market our crops.”
Interrupted for an interview a few days after learning of his win, he took time out from looking over computer-generated spreadsheets tracking things like hours of time spent cultivating, and amount of fuel burned.
“Knowing that kind of cost of production gives me an idea of what I need when it comes time to market the crop,” Brock explained.
Speaking to a reporter following Dupont Pioneer’s award ceremony, Shantz admitted he has heard criticisms that it isn’t necessarily practical to award growers only for achieving the highest possible yield on corn. That’s because, as the AMI contest suggests, the costs of some inputs might mean achieving a high yield could potentially be a money-loser.
But he believes the growers who participate in the Corn Yield Challenge are fully aware of this. But they still like to try new things on small portions of their land, hoping to achieve high yields and possibly incorporate those innovations on a larger scale in subsequent years.