Corn’s Carbon Cowboy Busts Outstanding Yields

Corn’s Carbon Cowboy Busts Outstanding Yields
No crop voodoo or mystery ingredients: Jim Nichols’ corn yields have jumped by an astounding 100 bu. per acre. Standing on the edge of his southwest Minnesota farmland, the Lincoln County grower points upward at a carbon secret: His corn crop comes from the sky.

In 2012, Nichols hit the brakes on traditionally-patterned row crop production. He switched 200 acres to six-row, alternating strips of corn and soybeans, and focused fertilizer application on a 21-day July window. Harnessed to photosynthesis and nitrogen, Nichols rode a corn yield beast, culminating in a 292 bu. average across the 200 acres. With booming yields as testament, corn wears a carbon crown on Nichols’ six-row strips.

“It’s not complicated. I’m using the power of carbon dioxide and pulling bushels from above,” Nichols, 71, explains. “I’m actually just growing carbon. I farmed 30 years and never realized the true power of photosynthesis.”

Nichols’ yields are all the more remarkable considering the topography and location of his operation. Outside of Lake Benton, a mile from the South Dakota border, he farms along the Buffalo Ridge, where the glacial advance ended and deposited rocky clay across hilly ground. At 2,000’ in elevation, Nichols’ farm is battered by cold winds and sits atop one of the highest points in Minnesota. By convention, his fields are far too short on heat units to be viable 300 bu. candidates. However, the self-effacing Nichols has always bucked convention, and the trajectory of his career is plain testament to innovation.

“It’s not complicated. I’m using the power of carbon dioxide and pulling bushels from above,” Nichols, 71, explains. “I’m actually just growing carbon. I farmed 30 years and never realized the true power of photosynthesis.” Raised on a farm, Nichols served a tour in Vietnam, returned home and bought his Buffalo Ridge land in 1972. A political independent, he ran for state senate in 1976, juggling politics and agriculture for five years, before stepping away from St. Paul in 1981. In 1983, Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed Nichols as state agriculture commissioner. During his tenure, Nichols had a direct hand in benchmark agricultural change, authoring the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) bill, steering Minnesota’s 1991 ethanol mandate and promoting wind turbine energy.

Fields of Change                    

In 2008, Nichols walked away from fall fertilizer and fall tillage, and watched as organic matter in his soil grew from 2% to 5% in less than five years: “I’d like 7%, but my ground just won’t allow it. But at 5%, I can hold water and fertilizer, and prevent erosion.”

Nichols works a 600-plus acre operation, with 500 acres in corn and soybeans, 100 acres in pasture, and a tiny remainder in CRP. The boost in organic matter became a springboard for further changes. Essentially “farming on top of the mountain,” Nichols’ ground craves heat. He began planting along a north-south orientation, to catch the east-west sun: “Vertical leaves grab more sunlight. My only limiting factor is cold, and I have to use every photosynthetic advantage I can.”

Nichols’ perspective: Narrow rows lose sunlight. In addition to changing the orientation, Nichols started planting in six-row, alternating strips of corn and soybeans. The 15’ strips are set on 30” rows, enabling his outer corn rows to bask in sunlight. His soybean yields remained consistent, but corn made a dramatic jump. “The outside two rows are always over 300 bu., all due to the sun. The inner two rows are down in the 200s, closed off to sunlight. I don’t enter contests and I don’t apply extra fertilizer, but I had the highest corn yield in Minnesota in 2016 at 316 bu. The winner of the state contest was 288,” Nichols says.

Threading the Nitrogen Needle

Sunlight played an integral role in the yield boost, but Nichols emphasizes a twin pillar of growth: fertilizer timing. Nichols began heeding the fertilizer advice of his daughter, Kris Nichols, an independent soil microbiologist based in Pennsylvania. Kris emphasized corn’s nitrogen needs during July.

Crop residue between the soybean rows helps moderate soil temperatures, water evaporation, and reduces weed growth, as well as provides some food for microbes. Overall, a corn plant is composed of 46% carbon. All carbon in a kernel of corn comes from carbon dioxide, Kris explains, but the plant needs to suck in 75% of nitrogen intake during an intense 21-day growth period, roughly in July: “Every cell in the plant has a carbon component. Photosynthesis transforms carbon into sugars to become building blocks. More photosynthesis means more carbon activity. It’s critical to have adequate nitrogen available at the right time to make proteins, which are crucial for photosynthesis.”

“Proper photosynthesis for corn means nitrogen at just the right time. For my dad’s crop, that’s three weeks in July,” Kris adds.

Nichols began threading the nitrogen needle with strict attention to the 21-day window. He had previously followed the farming maxim centered on 200 lb. nitrogen for 200 bu. corn. He maintained 200 lb. nitrogen, but upended the timing and application scheme. Nichols strip-tills, placing a liquid combo 4” below seed, composed of 100 lb. nitrogen, 80 lb. phosphate and 80 lb. potash. (He grows a longer-day corn with a flexible ear and plants 37,000 seeds per acre at 2” deep in early May.) A few days later, Nichols adds 10-34-0 starter fertilizer at 7 gallons per acre to give the seed a good kick. Fertilization is paused until he returns July 1, with 100 lb. of additional liquid nitrogen.

"It’s a simple truth and a big yield secret: I farm carbon." - Jim Nichols

“I come back with wide drop nozzles to get nitrogen down by the roots. I drive down soybean rows with corn at knee-high to waist-high, fertilizing 12 rows at a time,” he says. “I’ve seen a 25-50 bushel increase just from the fertilizer timing. I only drive between the rows and never compact the ground where the plant grows. I have no compaction issues.”

“If I was on flat land, hell yes I could hit 350, but I tend to think my location on this ridge is just too tough," Nichols says. “Nitrogen applied to the ground binds with water and becomes nitrate. Put it on in fall and it’ll bond with rainfall and snowmelt, and half will run right out of the field,” Nichols continues. “I don’t have nitrogen in my tile line because I put it on in July, right when corn starts to grow. The biggest mistake is putting on nitrogen in the fall. It’s not rocket science; you’ve got to hit the July window with fertilizer.”

Theft and Loss

Half of applied nitrogen fertilizer is typically lost, according to Kris. It takes more synthetic fertilizer to produce a bushel of grain than it did in 1960, she details, and the reasons are heavily associated with biological activity. Her father, Kris explains, is maximizing the efficiency of nitrogen utilization through fine-tuned application: “Plants can only absorb so much fertilizer, especially when added early. Prior to 1960, soil microorganisms were plentiful and cycled the nitrogen. Therefore, Dad is getting microorganisms to keep working throughout the growing season. Timing the nitrogen application in July is supplemental to microorganism activity, instead of outsourcing their job.”

(For more on Kris Nichols and soil health, see here and here)

Additionally, with corn and soybeans aligned in adjoining strips, nitrogen can pass between the crops. As soybean bacteria fix nitrogen, fungi serve as a conduit and connect the roots of soybeans and corn, allowing nitrogen “borrowing” during crucial corn growth periods, Kris notes.

Six miles from Nichols’ operation, his brother, Pat Nichols, began strip production in 2015 on a small 140-acre farm, and watched his 2016 yields take a 100 bu. jump to 286 bu. and 291 bu. In 2017, a wet spring kept him out of the fields and pushed soybean planting to June 3, yet he still managed 235 bu. across the board. Pat echoes Kris’ position on nitrogen flow between the strips. “We think there is a fair amount of theft going on,” he describes. “We do not have definitive data, but we believe corn is stealing nitrogen from the adjacent row of beans. It basically travels through a fungus in the soils between the roots.”

Since Nichols ended all fall tillage, corn stalks provide snow catch throughout the winter to add moisture and residue in the spring to protect – armor – the soil from erosive forces and provide some carbon-based food to some microorganisms in the spring. In 2016, a major seed company set up test plots across the highway from Pat’s fields. He grew the same corn variety as the test plots, yet Pat’s ground yielded 50 bu. higher. “With these strips, I’m also 70 bu. above the surrounding farms. I always plant in the same row and I never drive on the row. I’m getting more heat units on my outer rows and it’s easy to see all the double-ear stalks on those outside rows.”

A lifelong chemistry and physics professor, Pat, 73, is no stranger to innovation. He has a patent on technology for grain drying in bags, and is searching for a better quality plastic with less oxygen permeability. “We’re really performing vacuum dessication and it’s so much cheaper than propane, maybe one-sixth the cost. I’m just an experimental guy and I can see strip row production has so much value for farmers. If you’re dealing with limited acreage, this is a real way to get more bushels to survive.”

Counting the Kernels

Between 2014 and 2016, Nichols’ six-row strips were synchronized with fertilizer placement placed in strip till, and gained yield increments each year. His 2016 corn yields were superb. Nichols had 15 separate yield tests conducted by seed companies and the results were outstanding: 292 bu. per acre average across the entire 200 acres, with no extra fertilizer applications. “It’s amazing how much yield comes from sunlight and fertilizer timing. Do the kernel math and you’ll see where I get my yield.”

Prior to six-row strips, Nichols’ corn typically reached 16 rows at 40-45 kernels; 720 kernels per ear. He now shoots for 20 rows at 45 kernels; 900 kernels per ear. “At 16 by 40, that’s 26 million kernels per acre. At 20 by 45, that’s 33 million kernels per acre,” he describes. (In addition, Nichols’ test weight has risen from 54 lb. per bu. to 60 lb. per bu. following six-row strips.)

Wind Woes

In 2017, Nichols anticipated more incremental yield increases until 100 mph winds pushed his corn down, ear tips to the ground. His entire crop was flat, yet still yielded over 200 bu. per acre. However, by creating a rush of volunteer corn, the winds ruined any chance for six-row strips in 2018. “I can’t do strips this season and I’m sick about it because that’s where I make money. If you want to do strips, you have to start out with blanket soybeans, and then plant your corn the following year. Good corn means starting with beans and that’s what I’ll do so I can return to strips in 2019.”

Field preparation for six-row strips of corn and soybeans.

"It’s not rocket science; you’ve got to hit the July window with fertilizer." - Jim Nichols

Nichols harvests with an International 1680 and six-row head. He farms alone and dumps into a grain cart parked along a turnrow. No carts in the fields; no compaction. “It can be hard for guys to find six-row heads for soybeans and you’ve got to figure out some new management angles. But for someone looking to maximize yield, or farm a third less acreage and still get the same yield, these strips are yield producers and I’ll be happy to share my data with anybody. I’m doing this in wind and cold: If I was on flat, black ground, things would be even better with a strip system.”

  Carbon Guzzling

Far beyond his acreage, Nichols insists U.S. corn producers are responsible for a rarely noted beneficial impact on the environment: carbon consumption. “At 200 bu. per acre, every acre of corn absorbs 8 tons of carbon dioxide. In 2012, U.S. farmers grew almost 100 million acres of corn and absorbed 800 million tons of carbon dioxide, and that means corn is very good for the environment. By itself, that is a story we need to tell.”

“Here is the key,” Nichols concludes. “Farmers just don’t realize 46% of every corn kernel is carbon. All of that carbon comes from carbon dioxide. For example, 220 bu. corn weighs 6 tons and almost 3 tons of it comes from carbon. That means the secret to growing is photosynthesis. I never thought about it my whole career and didn’t grow any different. If you remember to feed corn when it needs three-fourths of its nitrogen in 21 days, and provide plenty of sunlight capture, then yields are going to jump. It’s a simple truth and a big yield secret: I farm carbon.”

For more, see:

Blood And Dirt: A Farmer's 30-Year Fight With The Feds

Cover Crop Bandwagon Frustrates Farmers

Agriculture's Darkest Fraud Hidden Under Dirt and Lies

Pigs Don’t Fly: Feral Hog Spread Is A Man-Made Mess

Bald Eagles a Farmer's Nightmare

Who Killed the Finest Soybean Soil in the World?

When a Farmer Punches Back at the Feds

The Secret Life of Farmland Marbles

Private Property Rights Collide With Invisible Frog

Death and Burial on an American Farm


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