LAKE BENTON, Minn. - Jim Nichols campaigns like a politician, but he isn't running for office anymore. The 71-year-old former Minnesota agriculture commissioner is lobbying for farmers to learn more about how to boost their corn yields.
He says he's achieved an impressive 300-bushel yield by paying better attention to nitrogen fertilizer timing.
It all started when his brother, Pat, a retired chemist and part-time farmer, told Nichols that corn is almost half carbon at 46 percent. Then his soil scientist daughter, Kris, told him pretty much all that came not from the soil but from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
"The corn needs the nitrate to create the rich, green protein leaves that absorb the carbon dioxide," Nichols says, adding he'd never focused on carbon equation before.
Thinking this concept through has helped him increase yields by 25 bushels an acre simply by more carefully applying nitrogen both early and during reproductive phases in July. Corn absorbs 75 percent of its nitrogen in 21 days, starting at the V10 (vegetative) stage, he says.
"Nitrogen-nitrate becomes protein in the leaves, and the sun - through photosynthesis - absorbs all of that carbon. And half of the crop is carbon," he says.
He's gained another 25 bushels through planting corn and soybeans in six-row strips, putting his yields consistently over the 300 bushel mark.
At the very least, applying nitrogen in July helps him prevent the "terrible mistake," of applying it in the fall - limiting yields and harming the environment.
"The problem is that when you put it on in the fall, 100 percent of those pounds are drained away in the tile lines," he says.
Nichols was one of six boys growing up on the farm in the 1950s. The home place is about five miles from where he farms today. He went to off Vietnam as a Navy Seabee in 1969 and came back to buy his farm in 1972. He served in the Minnesota Senate and then was appointed Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture by Gov. Rudy Perpich, serving in the DFL administration from 1981 to 1991 during the height of the farm credit crisis. After state service, he continued farming and was immersed in the new concepts of ethanol, wind and other ventures.
An innovator in business, Nichols acknowledges he too often simply farmed traditionally - moldboard or chisel plowing and applying anhydrous ammonia nitrogen in the fall.
And then one day he started listening to the scientists in his family.
Significantly, daughter Kristi "Kris" Nichols holds biology and soil science degrees from the University of Minnesota and West Virginia University, as well as a doctorate in soil science from the University of Maryland. She was was a scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service lab at Mandan, North Dakota, for 11 years. Now she's a consultant based in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
A decade ago, Nichols traveled to Mandan to visit Kris. Together, the two went to a field day on the Gabe Brown farm, just east of Bismarck in Burleigh County. Brown is famous worldwide for cover-crop and organic-matter innovation. Nichols always knew organic matter was beneficial, but he didn't realize its importance for holding nitrogen and water.
Nichols went home, stopped chisel plowing right away and left his crop over the winter. He "never applied fertilizer in the fall again. Never did fall tillage," he says. In six years, his organic matter content edged up from 2 percent to 5 percent.
That led to a series of other changes.
Soon, Nichols went to a starter fertilizer and aimed the rest of the nitrogen fertilizer application toward July. Kris emphasized to her father that plants "sense" how much fertilizer is available in the soil and they physiologically "decide" their maximum potential early in the game. In the past, farmers tended to put all of the fertilizer on by that point. But, Kris says the fertilizer on the top of the soil doesn't get the message to the roots.
Nichols places the starter fertilizer six inches deep in the the same strips where he plants corn 2 inches deep. He says that improves yields by 25 bushels to 50 bushels an acre.
Initially, Nichols thought he needed to apply the July nitrogen as a liquid, but later found that his yields were just as good by applying dry urea. And now the progressive commercial applicators have equipment to apply that nitrogen when corn is 4 to 5 feet tall.
Along the way, Nichols started planting most of his corn in strips on a north-to-south orientation. The crops suffered from wind and hail in 2017, but he showed a visitor a field in 2016 that did 300 bushels an acre in corn, while an adjacent field did 270 bushels per acre, "just because it was east and west."
Finally, in 2012, Nichols and his brother read of an Ontario, Canada, farmer who doubled his yield within seven years by planting alternating strips of corn and soybeans in a field. Putting the corn in narrower strips increases the photosynthesis.
Nichols started the corn-soy strips three years ago.
"The yields were 286 and 291 (bushels per acre), which was 100 bushels better than I'd ever harvested before," he says.
Farming in strips requires more effort, Nichols acknowledges.
"It's a bigger hassle with equipment, a bigger hassle with herbicides," he says.
But he says it's worth the time, and the concept might be especially appropriate for young, beginning farmers who can't afford the high land rent and may not be farming as large.
Kris explains the corn-soy alternating system is more efficient because the rhizobia bacteria associated with soybeans fixes atmospheric nitrogen.
"The soybeans end up feeding the corn nitrogen when the corn needs that nitrogen most, so that it can do more photosynthesis to be able to produce a higher yield," she says.
Kris thinks this kind of strip production or companion cropping will eventually will become more common, just like cover crops.
"It's a way to naturally address fertility needs when the plants need it most, also reducing the contamination of nitrates and phosphates into our water because we're not having to put on high amounts of synthetic fertilizers when the plant can't take those up," she says.
Nichols acknowledges that some farmers won't want to putz around with strips, but he says the fertilizer timing offers the big payoff.
"They could get 250 bushels just by putting on the fertilizer in July," he says. "That's what I'm hoping they'll do - not waste their money on fertilizer that's seeping away."
The former commissioner says he and other farmers are often slow to change, but he thinks yield means something.
"What I say to them is 50 bushels more per acre at $3 a bushel, that's $150 an acre," he says. "More importantly, if you grow 1,000 acres of corn, that's $150,000 of new income!"