Renewable Farming

266-bu. per acre organic corn, worth $10 per bu. — with minimum costs

The first organic cornfield pictured here is near Topeka, Indiana. It yielded 266 bu. per acre. Value: $10 per bushel. $2,660 per acre. No chemical or herbicide cost. 

February 12, 2022: By Jerry Carlson  AgriEnergy Solutions agronomist Ken Musselman showed this photo to farmers at an organic crop production meeting Feb. 10. Farmers at the meeting in West Union, IA confirmed to me that organic yields like this are achievable on healthy soils and good seasons. Most of the growers I chatted with are budgeting for 150 bu. per acre corn, and often hitting 200. But they’re primarily managing for net profit per acre while building soil productivity. They want consistency, resilience in good years and stressful years.

Note the ears hanging down on corn which is
approaching black layer… but stalks and leaves
are still green, and have been pumping more
nutrients into the crop for maximum kernel
depth and test weight. This field yielded 266 bu.
per acre of organic corn.

I asked, “What’s the main cost you encounter?”  The most common answer: Investing years of building up soil biological life with rotations, cover crops, minimal tillage (but not zero tillage), incorporating their own livestock and poultry manure, and intensive efforts to digest crop residue into active humus.

Ken Musselman says, “I consistently see good yields where growers hit a home run with residue decomposition.”

Ken stressed importance of recapturing residue to maintain a favorable carbon-nitrogen ratio in the soil. Nutrient release is favored by C:N ratio of less than 15:1. C:N ratios between 15 and 30 to 1 are in between release and immobilization.  Over 30 to 1 favors immobilization.

Microbes need to oxidize nitrogen for energy. And microbes will eat nitrogen first, before crop roots can absorb it. Ken told growers, “Adequate nitrogen has to come from somewhere.” 

But seasoned organic growers use biology, not cash, to provide abundant nitrogen. Here are the per-acre sources Ken described:

  • 100 units of N from residue digestion of big crops. “Big crops are great for building healthy soil biology.”
  • 40 units of N from crop rotations including legumes.
  • 100 units of N from diverse cover crops. These covers multiply microbial organisms that store N in their cells.
  • 80 units of N from glyphosate-free manures and compost.
  • 40 units of organic N purchased fertilizer, as needed, metered to crops with in-furrow, band and foliar applications.

That’s 360 units of nitrogen, most of which is more stable in the soil than commercial NH3 or nitrates. Technically that’s enough for 360 bushels of corn. But in that list above, you’ve only written a check for 40 units of nitrogen. 

The seminar was sponsored by Ben Frieden, owner of Pleasant Valley, a consulting firm in Elgin, Iowa. Ben sources AgriEnergy Solutions products for growers — mostly organic growers.

I visited with several of the organic growers, all of whom farm in our northeast Iowa “back yard.” My main question was “What’s your biggest cash expense?”  The usual answer: “Seed.” But all those I spoke with were quietly relieved that they don’t face the shortages and costs which GMO-based growers do. Some examples:

  • High herbicide costs — if you can find it? “We don’t use it.” 
  • NPK costs? “I only use a little; AgriEnergy has OMRI organic nutrients. I don’t use manure from conventional feedlots, or chicken litter from conventional farms… don’t want glyphosate residue.”
  • Biological products? “AgriEnergy Solutions is a one-source supplier. I use their residue digester, MVP, nitrogen-fixing microbials, and several other products.

I presented a PowerPoint summary at the seminar, covering principles of foliar feeding nutrients. This is a highly efficient way to deliver NPK and trace elements into plant metabolism. Foliar feeding can help carry crops through peak demand periods, or stressful times when dry soil constrains root uptake of nutrients.

Photo credit: Center Ag, an AgriEnergy dealer at Topeka, IndianaPictured is Galen Nissley,
one of their sales agronomists who works with Ken Musselman and AgriEnergy Solutions.
This organic field near Nappanee, IN was partially cut for silage.
The section combined for grain yielded over 200 bu. per acre. 
AgriEnergy provided products and consulting for the grower.