So yesterday I spent the whole day with Bob Recker of Cedar Valley Innovation in Waterloo.
Waterloo is the home to the John Deere tractor factory and Bob is a retired engineer. He also invited a friend Jack Boyer to come along is is also a retired John Deere Engineer. I got the feeling that Jack and Bob are guys that are now retired but are busier than before. The reason that Bob was Recommended to me was because of his work on Strip Intercropping, which in simple terms is having one strip of corn then one of soya beans. (Picture below is from Corn and Soyabean Digest)
Bob had found that the outside rows of each strip of corn he could increase the seed rate from 34,000 to 50,000 seeds and get a large jump in yield. This yield increase would diminish in the second row in and again in the third
The outside rows would yield about 400 bushels of corn and when the control would be yielding about 200 bushels. The Soyabean yields would take a slight hit due to shading but they thought there was about a $100 per acre overall benefit. The benefit they thought came from the increased amount of sunlight on the outside rows and also increase ventilation keeping the corn cooler and so it matured slower. The problem comes on how do you manage a strip on a field scale when a 3m strip was the ideal width. This was not such a problem when you could control weeds using just Round up with Round up ready corn and soya beans but now there is widespread round up resistant weeds which need herbicide mixtures to control them which would kill either the corn or the soya bean. So now Bob has taken the idea and changed it around. He is now testing in fields options to mimic strip intercropping and seeing what is viable. First idea is to shut off one row of corn
The loss of one row is more than made up in increase yield. These missing rows would allow farmers to enter their corn all through the season which is not possible once the corn gets to a certain height.
The next idea is to stick to four rows but instead of corn Do something else with the strip.
Bob thinks that hopefully the bare ground would be compensated by the increase yield of the strip. The issue is what to do with the strip? Plant a cover crop for fertility and soil erosion is a possibility as leaving it bare would encourage weeds. This is a work in progress and Bob admits the biggest challenge he has is to convince any farmer to leave half his field empty! Also he is not sure whether the benefits are different for different varieties. He thinks that the use of robots will allow this idea to become practical. (Bob has a patent for a robotic tractor)
Working on strip intercropping has lead Bob into other areas of research and agriculture. As he was measuring yield of each row by weighing each individual cob he noticed that there was huge variation within the row in yield and he wondered what was causing this variation. So one thing Bob has done is use time lapse photography to watch corn emergence and take this through to yield.
Delayed emergence in corn has a huge impact on final yield. This coupled with Bob taking aerial photography pictures of corn crops from a thousand feet has led him to consult with farmers to understand the huge in field variation in plant yields from field scale down to individual plants and to try to understand this variation. A lot can been seen from the air that can’t be seen from the ground. Bob is also now using drones to compliment his aerial photography. Along with this is also planting trial plots, talks at farmer meetings and cycles for miles, so busy!
Bob’s friend Jack Boyer is also supposed to be retired joined us for the day. Jack is now a farmer and does research for people like The Practical Farmers of Iowa. We went to Jack’s farm to see one of his trials. He was trialling the use of cereal rye as a cover crop and varying termination dates. So his plots had no cover, cover terminated 10 days before planting and cover terminated a day after planting and he was wanting to see the effect on soya bean yields. The unexpected thing to come out of the trial is the weed pressure difference.
On the left is the soya beans with no cover. The extra green is weeds and especially round up resistant waterhemp. The difference is huge!
Below is the difference between late termination and no cover
Jack is now going to leave some plots unsprayed and count the difference in weeds. For him where waterhemp is becoming a big problem this development is huge.
Jack is also experimenting with establishing cereal rye in the standing corn. In Iowa because there is little time between harvest and winter drilling cover crops after harvest is not very successful. So Jack has rigged up his sidedress toolbar bar with a seeder box and splash plates and seeds the rye when he is side dressing his nitrogen. The shank gives enough soil movement to give soils to seed contact.
This seems to be working very well
Yesterday I spent 13 hours with Bob and Jack and have forgetten more than I have remembered. I had a really great day with them and found their passion inspiring. Thanks to them for giving up their time and keep up the good work.