Max Swinburn likes to cut corn.
“It’s the best job on the farm,” he says as he maneuvers his John Deere combine into position to empty a load into a grain cart keeping pace through a field that was averaging a tad over 270 bushels per acre. “Running the grain cart is a tough job,” he adds. “My son, Michael, does that, and it takes a lot of attention.”
Michael and another cart driver were busy on this clear, warm, October afternoon as they filled carts and scurried back to the edge of the field to unload into semi-trailers and then back to wait their turn to accept another load from the combine.
I caught up with Swinburn in a 120-acre field that he says still has good irrigation water. “Want to ride the combine awhile?” he asked. I climbed aboard.
After dumping another load into the cart, Swinburn lines the machine up according to his GPS coordinates and explains the joys of harvest time, especially in a season that received enough rainfall to reduce irrigation demand. “We probably got 14 to 15 inches of rain this year,” he says, “and much of that came during the growing season. We got 2 or 3 inches in late May. That was wonderful, and we had some good July rains and some more at the end of summer. That’s the way we like it.”
It’s been a welcome change from the previous three years. He says 2011 “was the worst, and 2012 was almost as bad. This has been the best growing season we’ve had in three years. Corn is cutting much better so far.”
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He started corn harvest the first week of October on this farm near Dimmit, Texas, up on the High Plains. “We got 700 acres cut, and we will be three weeks harvesting it all,” he says. He was happy to have used a bit less water than usual this year, conserving the resource and saving energy costs.
“We think we saved 4 or 5 inches of irrigation water but we haven’t checked the flow meters yet,” he says.
“This is a good year to run the combine,” Swinburn says as he watches his yield monitor consistently showing 270 bushels per acre or better as he works his way across the field. “I haven’t seen a stalk down; some years we have to lower the header to get lodged corn. So far this year, everything is standing well.”
Another reason he likes to run the combine is to see what worked and what didn’t during the season. “I can see where I made mistakes,” he says. He recalls one year a pilot took him up in a helicopter to get a birds-eye view of the crop. He found some areas where a mistake or two had resulted in less than optimum crop conditions. “I’d like to do that more often,” he says. “I get to see things I can’t see from the pickup.”
The field he’s cutting is in Pioneer 1625, a relatively new hybrid. He explains that this hybrid has resistance to a serious bacterial disease, Goss’s Wilt. “It hit some nearby producers on a susceptible variety and caused a wreck. Resistance is the only option we have and this Pioneer hybrid was good.”
He plants some cotton and some grain sorghum but says the market dictates planting decisions. “The last few years we’ve planted a good bit of corn behind corn, but the market was good and we had decent water.”
He does a bit more tillage with corn behind corn. “We leave as much residue from the previous crop as we can, but we disk and chisel the land.”
Plant population and timing have also changed in the last few years. “We’ve seen seeding rates reduced,” he says. “Farmers have learned we can grow a decent crop by thinning it out a little.”
He plants in late April or early May, also a departure from past practices. “We thought planting earlier was a good hedge against corn borers,” he says. “But Bt corn takes care of the borer. We also have better hybrids.”
Spider mites are his worst insect problem. “We typically spray every year.”
He’s also interested in drought-tolerant hybrids. “I tried some AquaMax, and it did well but not as good as the hybrid in this field.”
He says a year with decent rainfall and moderate temperatures is not the best test for a drought-tolerant product. The advantage would likely be more apparent in drought years.
Herbicide tolerance also helps, but he’s continued to follow a weed management system without relying solely on Roundup. “We spray behind the planter with a pre-plant herbicide and come back with Roundup and Status when the corn is about 18 inches tall. Our biggest weed problem in corn is morning glory. It can get away from us and climb up the stalks. It’s tough to control but Status hammers it. Roundup does a better job on grasses.”
He’s a bit concerned about glyphosate-resistant pigweed and has seen some in his cotton acreage. “I saw it for the first time this year, and it was bad enough that we had to hoe it out.”
Water is biggest issue
The biggest concern for farmers in his area and across the Texas High Plains is water. “Water will be the critical factor for corn,” he says. “We have a pocket of decent water.” But he contends that water availability will be the biggest limiting factor in crop production. He hopes research will provide more tools to maintain crop yields. “Seed company breeding programs are developing hybrids to help with water use efficiency.”
Michael recently came back to the family farm and works his own crops, including the grain sorghum across the road from the cornfield Swinburn is combining. “But we work it all together.”
After several rounds through the field, snapping photos and shooting some video footage while we chatted, I climbed off the combine and shot a few frames of the combine and grain carts from a different angle, shucked back some ears to reveal and photograph the golden grain against a blue sky and started walking back to my truck.
The combine got to the edge of the field before I did. Swinburn climbed out, shook his head a bit and said: “Broke a belt.”
It’s farming. It’s always something, even when the rain falls and the crop is good.