CROP REPORTS, CORN KINGS, AND A MULE NAMED DOLLY

corn ear2Ever since the September USDA Crop Report was recently released I’ve been giving a lot of thought to corn. In case you missed it, U.S. corn production for 2014 is forecast at 14.4 billion bushels, up 3 percent from both the August report and from 2013.

More impressive is the predicted average yield of 171.7 bushels per acre, up 4.3 bushels from August and nearly 13 bushels higher than last year. If realized, this will be the highest average yield ever recorded. Perhaps most mind-boggling is the 194 bushel per acre average yield set to be harvested by Illinois farmers. Wisconsin corn farmers are on pace for a 162 bushel per acre average yield, which would match the record of 2010.

This current cornucopia of corn was unimaginable not too many years ago. Scientists have determined that corn has the theoretical potential to yield upwards of 600 bushels per acre under perfect growing conditions with no yield limitations. Of course such controlled environments don’t exist on the back 40.

Through the years there have been individuals with an obsession to beat whatever the current world corn yield record might be. These individuals are held in high esteem within agricultural circles. Farm kids have posters of these guys hanging on their bedroom walls.

Most recently it has been David Hula, a Virginia farmer who last year set a new record by harvesting 455 bushels per acre on some irrigated rented land. Before Hula, it was Francis Childs, an Iowa farmer who was the first to crack the 400 bushel threshold with 405 bushels per acre yield in 2001. He followed that with 442 bushels per acre in 2002.

Perhaps the most revered corn farmer ever was Herman Warsaw from Saybrook, Ill. In 1975 he produced a then unimaginable yield of 338 bushels per acre. Ten years later he would eclipse that mark with a yield of 370 bushels.

Childs and Warsaw were driven by the quest for higher yields. Hula still is. These corn kings systematically eliminate one yield limitation at a time and hope for good weather. They set the bar for the industry; however, none compares to the greatest corn grower of all-time—meet Lamar Ratliff of Prentiss County, Miss.

The legend that is Lamar was chronicled in the Delta Farm Press by Hembree Brandon about five years ago. This story begins when Lamar was 10 years old and joined the county 4-H program in 1950. He chose corn as his first project.

The Ratliff’s were small-time farmers and grew very little corn, but Lamar staked-out the required one-acre plot and hitched-up the family’s eight-year-old mule, Dolly. He tilled deep, used manure, garden fertilizer, and rowed the Dixie 17 seed corn to 28 inches. The neighbor kids scoffed at the notion of growing corn in rows less than 40 inches. Of course their dads had tractors.

Lamar and Dolly’s first attempt at growing corn resulted in a state record corn yield of 179 bushels per acre; but they were just getting started. In 1951 boy and mule set another state record—182 bushels per acre.

This time Lamar figured out a way to irrigate the corn by running water downhill from his daddy’s fish pond. Further, he started adding fertilizer to the water.

The story continues. In 1952 Lamar set a new state record, 214.1 bushels, and was the national winner. This effort was aided by a new Funk’s hybrid, which was given to Lamar by the company. The legend of Lamar was growing.

Lamar contacted state agriculture specialists and indicated his desire to grow 300 bushels per acre. They told him it couldn’t be done. Lamar’s next big year was 1954 when his corn measured 218 bushels per acre, another state record.

Following this effort, an anonymous donor sent Lamar 500 feet of aluminum pipe and a 4-HP irrigation pump. The Mississippi farm kid was going big time.

Lamar was in the 11th grade in 1955 when he grew the state, national, and world record corn yield of 304.38 bushels per acre. That crop was planted in 24-inch rows at 35,000 seeds per acre. He thinned the stand to 30,000 plants per acre. Unheard of at the time, but pretty close to what is done today.

As is the case for all the corn yield kings, Lamar was asked to speak about his corn growing skills in every corner of the United States. He even addressed the Congress.

Lamar eventually ended-up joining the Navy after high school where he served a distinguished career as a submarine crew member. He circled the world eight times. Lamar eventually made it back to the family farm where he and his brother planted trees.

So here’s to Lamar, who with antiquated equipment and a mule named Dolly showed the world that if corn has access to water and needed nutrients, and it’s well managed, high yields are attainable. Given the September Crop Report, it looks like many of today’s farmers have gotten the message.

To read more about Lamar:
304 Bushel Corn — in 1955?, by Hembree Brandon in the Delta Farm Press, May 28, 2009
Youth Honored for Record Corn Yield, Toledo Blade, January 19, 1956
Record Corn Grower Wants to be Doctor, Sarasota Journal, January 19, 1956
Mississippi 4-H Member Sets Corn Yield Record, The Victoria Advocate, November 6, 1955

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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