Renewable Farming

Yes, non-GMO corn and beans can outyield biotech “traits”

July 25, 2022 

For about seven years, I’ve seen Dave Olson’s non-GMO corn and soybean yields average higher and more uniformly than those of neighbors who raise GMO crops. He has used WakeUP since 2016, but that’s just one  element in his pursuit of profitable crops.

Dave farms near Fort Dodge in north central Iowa. A few days ago, my wife Jill and I brought him a tote of WakeUP Summer and asked how his years of field trials have led to his current yield averages.

“I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars trying every $8-an-acre jug that doesn’t work, and a few that do,” he quipped. He has also relentlessly tracked down non-patented, non-GMO soybean varieties with proven consistent yield and health. He doesn’t spend heavily for contest yields. “I foliar-feed to keep crops healthy and adding quality all season,” he told us.

Drive-by neighbors wouldn’t see anything exceptional in Dave’s annual corn-bean cycle except that his high-clearance sprayer is busy through the growing season, and he owns and uses a cultivator. He fall-applies anhydrous and dry fertilizer. Uses conventional herbicides (not glyphosate, glufosinate or dicamba). Fall-chisels cornstalk residue. The absence of glyphosate residue in Dave’s soil probably enhances the balance of bacterial and fungal soil life. It’s long known that persistent glyphosate application skews soil organism populations toward fungal species, including pathogens.

An unusual practice you may not notice is Dave’s Pursanova water activation system, which includes the Pursalex tubes, filters and reverse osmosis unit capable of activating 2,000 gallons of well water daily. Pure, activated water enhances all the foliar-applied nutrients and herbicides. Dave has used this for many years. 

Here’s an edited transcript of our visit with Dave in mid-July 2022.

What product or technique has provided your most consistent yield on soybeans?

Something consistent? I haven’t found it yet! Coca-Cola syrup — the food-grade concentrate used at soda fountains — has been the most consistent. But there are seasons when it gives no yield response. Maybe it’s timing. Or it rains, and I can’t spray. Or the winds come and tangle the beans so the sprayer can’t go. 

I’ve come to the point where I aim to keep beans healthy with foliar nutrients about every week, and help them reach their full genetic potential with minimum cost. But the pursuit of high contest yields — that’s a mystery beyond me.

Do you need fungicides on soybeans?

No. Around R3, I include about a pint per acre of copper sulphite to fend off late-season disease. Or I’ll split that into two foliar applications. 

How often do you apply a foliar nutrient spray on beans during the growing season?

I used to spray four or five times. Now it’s every 14 to 20 days.

With what?

Sugars. Minerals. I keep trying different things. 3-18-18 fertilizer. I include WakeUP — you can see the difference in how the dew and  spray absorb more uniformly and quickly. I’ve tried just about every mineral mix, every $8 an acre cure in a jug. It’s $8 an acre because no farmer will stand $10, but they won’t sell it for $5. So it settles out around $7 to $8 an acre for these products. 

Lately I’ve been trying some Fulltech products from Spraytec. And this season I’m testing some foliars from Agronomy RX — Larry Eekhoff’s firm in Webster City. 

I’ve had some awfully nice-looking soybeans that didn’t yield better than rough-looking beans I didn’t do anything with. Just when I think I’ve found the secret, the next year it doesn’t work.

Has tissue analysis helped focus on what micros might add yield for a given crop?

We’ve gone through that. It’s always two weeks too late. It tells you what it was then. Anytime you do a tissue analysis, the crop will show a deficiency in something. By the time you find out what you think you need to know, the crop has moved on to some other need. 

Right now we’re trying to use nutrition to alleviate soybean stress from all the chemicals in the air.

Such as herbicides?

People spray weedkillers on windy days. Look at the road ditches; they have a funny look to them. So I’m going out with micronutrients just trying to heal up our soybeans. 

A neighbor sprayed Roundup on his corn, upwind of one of our non-GMO fields. We didn’t know until a week later. My corn showed damage well beyond one round with my sprayer, which is 182 feet. The six or eight rows closest to the neighbor’s field were dead. I sprayed Spraytec’s Fulltech and Ultra Zinc on our entire field, and within two days, most of the field recovered — except the edge, which was already dead. In most of my field, the yellow leaves had greened up. But it was stunted, so I still have short corn. All we could do was try to stop the yield decline from glyphosate drift damage. That’s the curse of raising non-GMO crops in a nearly all-GMO area. 

So that foliar restored the zinc and other traces that glyphosate overspray had chelated?

Zinc and manganese, I assume. That foliar was a kind of shotgun approach which contains several traces. 

On soybeans over the years, what kind of yield trend have you had?

Stable to up. For about 10 years, our beans were in the mid-50s. Now we’re pushing into the mid-60s. We’ve usually raised clear hilum beans, which yield a hair less. But you pick up a price premium. The last two years, Landus cooperative has offered the best premium. My understanding is they have a non-GMO feed market in California. In other years, depending on the local basis, we hunt around for the best premium. Now, a lot depends on rail availability, and everyone’s talking about that uncertainty. 

What kind of price premium have you gained with non-GMO white hilum beans, over local elevator prices for GMO beans? 

The best is three bucks. Those white hilum beans were a variety that used to do about 50 bushels. I kept working on them, encouraging branching, and got them up to about 60 bushels. Then, the buyer for those beans, World Foods, sold off that division to Cargill — and quit buying white hilum beans. Landus doesn’t care, white hilum or not.

Lately we’ve been delivering our beans to a buyer based in Iowa Falls. His facility is at Mt. Carmel just north of Carroll, Iowa. He’s a young farmer who bought a former Syngenta seed plant with lots of storage and a seed cleaning facility. If our beans don’t go to Landus, they go to him.

Tell me about your corn program.

I try to keep it healthy, too. Just before tasseling, we throw everything at corn that it’s going to need for the rest of the season. A package of micros, and I put two quarts of 3-18-18 with it. Plus two to three pounds an acre of feed grade urea. A pint of Coke syrup. Two pounds of cane sugar: Beneficial bacteria in the leaves like the sugar. Three ounces of WakeUP Summer. Insecticide if needed. Plus a quart of copper sulphite for disease control. That keeps out the bacterial and fungal diseases, plus some of the viral diseases. 

All this is carried in 14 to 15 gallons of Pursanove/RO water per acre. I use a flat fan spray, 100 pounds of pressure, with two sets of nozzles angled at 45 degrees forward and backward.

The minerals and copper sulphite sounds like Dr. Don Huber talking.

That’s where the idea comes from: mineral nutrition and copper sulphite. It’s in Huber’s book, Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease, and in most of his seminars. Healthy plants don’t need fungicide.

I’ve tried foliar nutrients on corn early in the season, but learned we get along as well with just a pre-tassel application. I get our high-quality soluble feed grade urea at Arcadia, Iowa. It’s for ruminants. Everyone else’s urea has too much ash in the product and it plugs the sprayer screens. This urea has two kinds of nitrogen, and it’s dominant in the nitrogen that gives the corn an energy boost to promote conversion from male to female — from vegetative to reproductive.

Farmers all around you see your crops, yet very few are willing to try going non-GMO to cut their costs and increase yields. Why?

What do you see in the farm magazines? Or hear on farm radio ads? All biotech; chemicals. Ads for products that will enhance somebody else’s pocket. Most people want to be included in a group, and the accepted technology now is GMO traits and BT and herbicides and fungicides.

And when you send a kid to Iowa State or the University of Missouri to study agronomy, what does he or she learn about crops and weed control? Exclusively chemicals and biotech. The land grant schools for years have taken large research donations from the big multinational chemical, seed and pesticide corporations. There isn’t any significant, independent university research any more.

Right now, all the dominant GMO and BT traits out there — don’t work. But you’re still paying for them. You still have rootworm problems. You still have all the other problems which have been there, plus weed resistance.

There are other non-GMO growers in Iowa. And my GMO neighbors respect what I’m doing; they’re typically careful when they spray. I respect them too; I’m not critical of others — just keep my nose down and keep working, trying things.

What can GMO-dependent growers do when the herbicide companies run out of new formulations — and weed resistance overwhelms the weedkillers?

Roundup and Liberty have already generated weed resistance. The dicamba approach had a lot of problems. 2,4-D still has some promise, though some areas have resistance to it. So in a couple of years, GMO growers will be moving on to the next weedkiller.

But when they hit the dead end on weedkiller and rootworm modes of action, what will they do?

Buy a cultivator. Get yours first.

How long have you been growing non-GMO crops?

Forever. Well — ever since I started farming. I tried Roundup soybean genetics two years, and tried Liberty one of those years. Neither performed as well as what I’d been doing before. I said “I’m not paying extra for this crap and not getting results.”

Here’s the sad part: Before the biotech takeover, I had a wide choice of non-patented soybean varieties. I knew how they were going to react, and they always yielded well. I cleaned my favorite public varieties of soybeans and planted them. 

When I tried the GMO route those two years, I sold all my favorite soybean varieties — and I’ve been hunting for those beans ever since. I got one of my favorites back. I’m working on a second one. Before everyone went to GMO, there were a lot of soybean varieties out there. Now those public varieties aren’t available. Two of my favorites were nematode resistant — the Peking line and P88. And you had diversity within those. Pioneer had an excellent Peking number that worked, and we ran it in our rotation. We got along really good, controlling nematodes. But as soon as these large multinational companies started promoting higher yielding beans with their herbicide traits, availability of public nematode-resistant bean varieties dried up. 

For years, Iowa State had an active testing program for varieties with nematode resistance. That program died. Completely dried up. Never heard a thing about it, because nothing more was being done at Iowa State with Peking beans. Their excuse was that the multinational companies weren’t making seed varieties available to work with. So what happened? Nematodes went crazy. And nematodes are probably the biggest threat to soybean yields.

Other attempts to control nematodes haven’t gotten far enough along to solve the problem.

Like the chitenase products that degrade the insect’s exoskeleton and reduces its larval growth?

Yes, and others. I keep looking. In 2015 I found an old favorite Peking variety in Minnesota, but the dealer said he wouldn’t sell it. The dealer uses that variety in the field as the standard to rate others against. I told him we have something to visit about… and eventually bought a tote of that variety. It has a history of about 25 years as a fairly stable bean. I worked with it 5-6 years. Even though this Peking version was stuck at around 55 bushels, it yielded where nothing else would. The beans look terrible. They branch. They vine. Then every node loads up with pods. 

Then I found another Peking variety that did quite a bit better, and dumped the one I’d been using those 5-6 years. I’ve regretted it since, even though I’ve had others that ran 65, 68 bushels. 

Back to corn — what kind of yields have you been maintaining?

Over the years, in the 260 to 290 range. Last year, 2021, it was dry, and that was a gift. I don’t want to be singled out as the epitome of success, because it had nothing to do with me. Funny thing is, when you have dry weather, you have sunshine. We had enough subsoil moisture that one corn-on-bean-ground farm made 289 bushels. The two wettest farms I have made the highest yields. The other wet farm made 293 bushels. It’s all about water. Our home place here was 277 bushels.

I had two corn-on-corn farms last year, cornering on each other, and they both made close to 255 bushels — the same, within two-tenths of each other. I have no answer. Both were 108-day or 109-day hybrids. I don’t go much beyond that. This year I planted 12 bags of 111-day corn; we’ll see how that goes. I want to start combining corn around 20% moisture. That’s when the ethanol plants will take it without drying.

We filled a bunch of bags last year with corn, and that turned out well. A 300-foot bag holds about 13,000 bushels of our corn. Walter Jay with Forage Solutions in Nebraska, who sells us our bags, says they’ll hold about 12,250 bushels of 56-pound per bushel corn.

But most of the corn I have is 62 pounds per bushel or more. I attribute that test weight to my late-season pre-tassel foliar nutrition. That’s where the extra yield is. We have the same stand as everybody else does, around 33.8 population.

The crop insurance people come out and measure standing corn, and say this is what it should yield. But the extra test weight changes the picture. That’s where we’ve been gaining. I generally figure my pre-tassel foliar adds at least 15 bushels, compared with where we didn’t get that application done.

One time when I was spraying corn, I had three five-gallon boxes of Coke syrup left over in the truck when I was setting up for the pre-tassel spray on my last field of corn. I was too lazy to unload the boxes, so I said, “Let’s just dump in all the syrup and see what happens.”

That field with extra Coke syrup in the foliar mix did 34 bushels better than the nearest field without any extra.

Is phosphoric acid the effective ingredient that syrup? 

Probably; I don’t know for sure. Coke doesn’t disclose all ingredients. [With a chuckle] The caramel color, maybe?

Every season I go over our program with my seed guy, my chemical guy and our crop insurance agent. They’re aware of most everyone’s yields in this area. I especially trust the yield data from our crop insurance guy, who sees our yield maps and everyone else’s. Most everyone has a high yield number on the monitor from some field, like a spike in low ground and that’s what they say their average corn yield was. 

But the crop insurance agent sees the real numbers. When he’s here, he shakes his head and says, “You’re way beyond what those people are doing.”

I told him, “I don’t think so, from what I hear.” He laughed and said, “But I see their real numbers.”

Your corn yield average has taken years of trying every promising product and management strategy out there.

Like I said, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on this education. And beans have frustrated me the whole way. I haven’t put as much time into corn as I have beans. Mainly, going to seminar classes like those organized by consultant Bob Streit and others. I keep looking for the next promising ideas, and trying them. 

If a farmer asks you for advice on keeping crops healthy and high-yielding, what would you say?

Try to work slow when testing different combos of nutrients. Sometimes the crop doesn’t respond like you feel it should, and you see tissue damage. Just substituting different brands of micros can cause damage because of varying formulations.