Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Tribute To Three Decades and Morris

Our son Brian, will no longer be in his twenties as of the first week in December. This important fact caused me to reflect on what life was like in 1985.

It was an amazing time to be a sports fan.
The Edmonton Oilers won their second straight Stanley Cup, with you know who leading the way.
Mario Lemieux was NHL rookie of the year.
The Blue Jays lost the ALCS to the Kansas City Royals who went on to win the World Series. (That sounds oddly familiar)
Michael Jordan was NBA rookie of the year.
In movies, Out of Africa won the best picture.  I don't remember seeing it, but I sure remember Back To The Future.
In music, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen were topping the charts.
The first Live Aid concert was held to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief.
Microsoft launched Windows 1.
The Nintendo Entertainment System was introduced with the Super Mario Bros game.
My all time favourite comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was published for the first time.
Coca Cola introduced the New Coke. A colossal failure that only lasted three months.
Interest rates were approximately 10%, a liter of gas was 50 cents.
On a much less important note, 1985 was the first year of my long association with Pioneer Hi-Bred Ltd.

In Ontario agriculture, out of the big three field crops corn was easily the king with 2M acres of grain corn planted, roughly the same amount as today. Soybeans were planted on 1M acres and winter wheat was on 590,000 acres.  The provincial yield averages were 37 bu/acre for soybeans, 67 bu/acre for wheat and 101 bu/acre for corn.  (In 2014, those same averages were 46 bu, 77 bu and 161 bu respectively.)
At the time Ken Stevenson at Ridgetown college was conducting high yield corn research. His project ran for 5 years from 1982-86.  His mean 5 year corn yield average was 262 bu/acre.  In 1985 he recorded the highest yield of the project at 293 bu/acre.  It was being recognized that Ken was achieving some of the highest documented non-irrigated yields by corn researchers in North America.
Ken was looking at four factors that are important to corn production.  Namely genetics, population, irrigation and fertility.  What did he learn?
His highest yield of 293 bu/acre was achieved using a Pioneer hybrid, 3540 planted at 41,800 plants per acre.  The average plant population used by farmers at the time was barely 25,000 plants per acre. The two Pioneer hybrids Ken used gained an average of 39 bu/acre when plant population was increased from 25,000 to 40,000.  Hybrids from other companies in the experiment responded poorly or had yield decreases when populations were increased.  
The experiment was conducted on a site that tested high for P and K.  Ken used several fertilizer rates over the lifetime of the trial, but basically he was testing rates from a low of 274 lbs of N, 45 lbs of P and 155 lbs of K to a high of 524 lbs of N, 258 lbs of P, 316 lbs of K plus Mg, S, Zn, Mn, Cu and Boron.  In only 2 out of the 5 years, did the super high rates plus micro nutrients produce a significant yield response.  It goes without saying that when economics were applied, super high fertility rates had a large negative effect on profitability.
Irrigation response was also inconsistent due to timely rains through the course of the experiment.  At the end of the 5 years it was easily concluded that genetics and population were the two dominant contributors to increasing corn yields.

Also at this same time Herman Warsaw was dominating the National Corn Growers Association yield contests in the US.  In 1985 he produced a mind boggling 370 bu/acre on his Illinois farm. University corn research staff were visiting him to see how he did it.  Herman was a keen observer who had fine tuned his recipe over 20 years.
He identified corn hybrids that responded to his management.
He built high fertility levels throughout the root zone with a combination of commercial fertilizer and manure.
He believed in incorporating 2/3 of the corn residue while leaving 1/3 on the surface to encourage earthworm and soil micro-organism activity.
He believed in "deep tillage" to incorporate fertility and trash.  I don't know what his definition of deep tillage was.  It is probably safe to say he was working with a deeper topsoil layer than what is typically found in Ontario, but I don't know for sure.

Thirty years have passed since Ken and Herman were front page news for corn producers. Their contributions ring as true today as they did in 1985.  Hybrid selection, plant population, base fertility levels, residue management and soil biological activity remain at the top of the list for serious corn producers.  If we add nitrogen management and fungicides to the list, we have the bases well covered. Is one more important than the other?  I think not.  The big agricultural companies have put the focus on genetics and fertility because that is where the margins are for them.  That is fair game.  But to a farmer, a lack of healthy, biologically alive soil means the money spent on genetics and fertility are wasted to a large degree.

All this aside the corn industry including farmers, researchers and big agriculture can be very proud of their accomplishments over the last 30 years.  The provincial corn average has gone from 101 to 160 bu /acre.  In 1985 a 150 bu field average was considered extraordinary.  In 2015, there are a handful of examples where field averages are approaching Ken Stevenson's records.  From Herman Warsaw's record of 370 bu we now have Randy Dowdy in Georgia breaking the 500 bu mark.
No matter how you slice it there has been a 60% improvement in productivity from the same acre from 1985 to 2015.  Just to be a small part of this achievement should make us all smile and be thankful to live in this time.

Brian and his wife April just welcomed their third son, Owen into the world.  What will Owen be witness to in 2045?  Will corn yields continue to increase at the same rate?  Is a provincial corn yield average of 250 bu/acre achievable?  I would not put money against it.

And a footnote.
Morris Sagriff who I have been fortunate to know for 30 years is retiring from Pioneer Hi-Bred Ltd. He is legendary within the halls of Pioneer and the general agricultural community at large. Google the definition of passion to help farmers and Morris's picture should be there.  He was not always right because that is impossible.  However, in my view he was right many more times than he was wrong with his assessment of genetics, agronomy, faith, peers and co-workers.  I want to personally say a big thank you for everything that you have done to make me a better agronomist, farmer, husband and friend.
Good luck Morris, in whatever path you take.