Managing Corn for Greater Yield Potential: 4 Lessons From 2021 NCGA Winners | Pioneer® Seeds
 2/8/2022

Managing Corn for Greater Yield Potential: 4 Lessons From 2021 NCGA Winners

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Crop Insights by Mark Jeschke, Ph.D., Agronomy Manager


Key Points

  • Improved hybrids and production practices are helping corn growers increase yields. Over the past 20 years, U.S. yields have increased by an average of 1.9 bu/acre/year.
  • NCGA winners in the non-irrigated yield contest classes have increased their yields at more than double the rate of the national average. What are they doing differently?
  • The NCGA National Corn Yield Contest provides a benchmark for yields that are attainable when conditions and management are optimized.
  • The 2021 contest had 418 entries that exceeded 300 bu/acre, more than double the number from 2020 and easily surpassing the previous record high of 224 entries in 2017.

4 Lessons for Increasing Corn Yield

  1. Selecting the right hybrid can affect yield by over 30 bu/acre, making this decision among the most critical of all controllable factors.
  2. High-yielding contest plots are usually planted as early as practical for their geography. Early planting lengthens the growing season and moves pollination earlier.
  3. Rotating corn with another crop generally reduces its susceptibility to yield-limiting stresses.
  4. Maintaining adequate nitrogen fertility levels is critical in achieving highest yields. In-season applications can help supply nitrogen when plant uptake is high.

Benchmarking Your Corn Yield

Since the introduction of hybrid corn nearly a century ago, corn productivity improvements have continued through the present day. Over the last 20 years, U.S. corn yield has increased by an average of 1.9 bu/acre per year. These gains have resulted from breeding for increased yield potential, introducing transgenic traits to help protect yield, and agronomic management that has allowed yield potential to be more fully realized.

As growers strive for greater corn yields, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) National Corn Yield Contest provides a benchmark for yields that are attainable when environmental conditions and agronomic management are optimized. The average yields of NCGA winners are about double the average U.S. yields.

Photo - Aerial view - field harvesting operation.

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest Trends

The 2021 growing season was a good, but not necessarily exceptional, year for corn yields. The USDA estimated average yield was 177.0 bu/acre, which was the highest ever but was not above the long term trendline. Regional variation in yield was largely driven by rainfall. Corn yields were up over 2020 in most of the eastern U.S. where rainfall was generally adequate, while hot and dry conditions pushed yields down slightly in Minnesota and Wisconsin and down sharply in the Dakotas.

However, 2021 was a big year for big yields in the NCGA National Corn Yield Contest. The number of high-yield entries – defined for the purposes of this discussion as all entries yielding over 300 bu/acre – set a new record in 2021 with 418 in total (Figure 1). This was more than double the number of 300 bu/acre entries from the 2020 yield contest and easily surpassed the previous record high of 224 set in 2017.

Contest yields exceeding 300 bu/acre were achieved in 33 different states, which was also a record. The majority of high yield entries were right in the heart of the Corn Belt. Nebraska alone accounted for nearly 100 high yield entries, most of which were irrigated. Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana accounted for another 104 high yield entries, and Kentucky and Ohio added another 49 (Table 1).

Bar Chart - Total entries in the NCGA National Corn Yield Contest exceeding 300 bu per acre by year from 2014 to 2021.

Figure 1. Total entries in the NCGA National Corn Yield Contest exceeding 300 bu/acre by year from 2014 to 2021.

Table 1. Number of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries over 300 bu/acre by state, 2017-2021.

Table - Number of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries over 300 bu per acre by state, 2016-2020.

Table - Number of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries over 300 bu per acre by state, 2016-2020.

Select the Right Hybrid

Hybrids tested against each other in a single environment (e.g., a university or seed company test plot) routinely vary in yield by at least 30 bu/acre. At contest yield levels, hybrid differences can be even higher. That is why selecting the right hybrid is likely the most important management decision of all those made by contest winners.

The yield potential of many hybrids now exceeds 300 bu/acre. Realizing this yield potential requires matching hybrid characteristics with field attributes, such as moisture supplying capacity; insect and disease spectrum and intensity; maturity zone, residue cover; and even seedbed temperature. To achieve the highest possible yields, growers should select a hybrid with:

  1. Top-end yield potential. Examine yield data from multiple, diverse environments to identify hybrids with highest yield potential.
  2. Full maturity for the field. Using all of the available growing season is a good strategy for maximizing yield.
  3. Good emergence under stress. This helps ensure uniform stand establishment and allows earlier planting, which moves pollination earlier to minimize stress during this critical period.
  4. Above-average drought tolerance. This will provide insurance against periods of drought that most non-irrigated fields experience.
  5. Resistance to local diseases. Leaf, stalk, and ear diseases disrupt normal plant function, divert plant energy, and reduce standability and yield.
  6. Traits that provide resistance to major insects, such as corn borer, corn rootworm, black cutworm, and western bean cutworm. Insect pests reduce yield by decreasing stands, disrupting plant functions, feeding on kernels, and increasing lodging and dropped ears.
  7. Good standability to minimize harvest losses.

Pioneer® brand products were used in 207 state-level winning entries – more than any other seed brand. State-level winners included a total of 92 different Pioneer brand products from 58 different hybrid families ranging from 91 to 120 CRM (Appendix).

The brands of seed corn used in the highest yielding contest entries in 2017 through 2021 are shown in Figure 2. In all years, Pioneer brand products were used in more entries exceeding 300 bu/acre than any other individual seed brand.

Seed brand planted in National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre from 2017 to 2021.

Figure 2. Seed brand planted in National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre from 2017 to 2021.

Yields exceeding 300 bu/acre have been achieved using Pioneer® brand products from 65 different hybrid families over the past five years, ranging from 98 to 121 CRM. The top-performing Pioneer hybrid families in the National Corn Yield Contest are shown in Table 2. The Pioneer brand P1197 family of products has been the top performer in the contest over the past five years, topping 300 bu/acre 69 times since 2017. Pioneer brand P1185 and P1563 families of products were top performers in both the 2020 and 2021 yield contests, and the Pioneer brand P0953 family had a strong debut in 2021.

Table 2. Pioneer hybrid families with the most entries over 300 bu/acre in the 2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest.

Table - 2020 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest national winning entries using Pioneer brand products.

Table - 2020 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest national winning entries using Pioneer brand products.

High-Yield Management Practices

Top performers in the NCGA yield contest not only have produced yields much higher than the current U.S. average, they have also achieved a higher rate of yield gain over time. Over the past 20 years, U.S. corn yields have increased at a rate of 1.9 bu/acre per year while winning yields in the non-irrigated yield contest classes have increased by 5.0 bu/acre per year. Contest fields are planted with the same corn hybrids available to everyone and are subject to the same growing conditions, which suggests that management practices are playing a key role in capturing more yield potential. The following sections will discuss management practices employed in contest entries yielding above 300 bu/acre.

Line Graph - Average yields of NCGA National Corn Yield contest non-irrigated class national winners and U.S. average corn yields, 2002-2021.

Figure 3. Average yields of NCGA National Corn Yield contest non-irrigated class national winners and U.S. average corn yields, 2002-2021.

Optimize Planting Practices

Establish Sufficient Population Density

One of the most critical factors in achieving high corn yields is establishing a sufficient population density to allow a hybrid to maximize its yield potential. Historically, population density has been the main driver of yield gain in corn – improvement of corn hybrid genetics for superior stress tolerance has allowed hybrids to be planted at higher plant populations and produce greater yields.

Harvest populations in irrigated and non-irrigated national corn yield contest entries over 300 bu/acre from 2017 through 2021 are shown in Figure 4. The average harvest population of non-irrigated entries (36,300 plants/acre) was slightly greater than that of irrigated entries (35,900 plants/acre) over five years. Both are well above the USDA average plant population of 29,000 plants/acre, as would be expected for high-yielding environments. However, yields over 300 bu/acre were achieved over a wide range of populations, from 28,000 to 56,000 plants/acre, demonstrating that exceptionally high populations are not necessarily a prerequisite for high yields. Although population density is important in establishing the yield potential of a corn crop, it is just one of many factors that determine yield.

Bar Chart - Harvest populations and corn yield of irrigated and non-irrigated NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre, 2017-2021.

Figure 4. Harvest populations and corn yield of irrigated and non-irrigated NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre, 2017-2021.

Plant Early

High-yielding contest plots are usually planted as early as practical for their geography. Early planting lengthens the growing season and more importantly, moves pollination earlier. When silking, pollination and early ear fill are accomplished in June or early July, heat and moisture stress effects can be reduced.

Planting dates for entries exceeding 300 bu/acre ranged from March 12 to May 30 in 2021 (Figure 5). Mid-April to early-May planting dates have typically been the most common for high-yields in the central Corn Belt. The 2021 contest had several high-yield entries planted in mid- to late-May (35 entries over 300 bu/acre were planted after May 15), demonstrating that high yields can still be achieved under favorable conditions if planting is not delayed for too long.

Graph - Average planting date and planting date range of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre in 2021.

Graph - Average planting date and planting date range of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre in 2021.

Figure 5. Average planting date and planting date range of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre in 2021. (States with 5 or more high-yield entries shown.)

Determine Row Width

The vast majority of corn acres in the U.S. are currently planted in 30-inch rows, accounting for over 85% of corn production. A majority of 300 bu/acre contest entries over the past five years have been planted in 30-inch rows (Figure 6). This proportion has increased slightly in recent years as wider row configurations (most commonly 36-inch or 38-inch) have remained steady and narrower row configurations (15-inch, 20-inch, 22-inch or 30-inch twin) have declined.

Row spacings narrower than the current standard of 30 inches have been a source of continuing interest as a way to achieve greater yields, particularly with continually increasing seeding rates. However, research has generally not shown a consistent yield benefit to narrower rows outside of the northern Corn Belt (Jeschke, 2018).

Line Graph - Row width used in NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre, 2017-2021.

Figure 6. Row width used in NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre, 2017-2021.

Rotate Crops

Rotating crops is one of the practices most often recommended to keep yields consistently high. Rotation can break damaging insect and disease cycles that lower crop yields. Including crops like soybean or alfalfa in the rotation can reduce the amount of nitrogen required in the following corn crop. A majority of the fields in the 300 bu/acre entries were planted to a crop other than corn the previous growing season (Figure 6).

Bar Chart - Previous crop in NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

Figure 7. Previous crop in NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

The so-called “rotation effect” is a yield increase associated with crop rotation compared to continuous corn even when all limiting factors appear to have been controlled or adequately supplied in the continuous corn. This yield increase has averaged about 5 to 15 percent in research studies but has generally been less under high-yield conditions (Butzen, 2012). Rotated corn is generally better able to tolerate yield-limiting stresses than continuous corn; however, yield contest results clearly show that high yields can be achieved in continuous-corn production.

Tillage

Over the past five years, over 40% of the high yield entries in the NCGA contest have used conventional tillage, with the other half using no-tillage or some form of reduced tillage (Figure 8). The proportion of high-yield entries using conventional tillage has declined over time, offset by increases in no-till and strip-till.

Bar Chart - Tillage practices in NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

Figure 8. Tillage practices in NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

Optimize Nutrient Management

Achieving highest corn yields requires an excellent soil fertility program, beginning with timely application of nitrogen (N) and soil testing to determine existing levels of phosphorous (P), potassium (K), and soil pH.

Nitrogen

Corn grain removes approximately 0.67 lbs of nitrogen per bushel harvested, and stover production requires about 0.45 lbs of nitrogen for each bushel of grain produced (IPNI, 2014). This means that the total N needed for a 300 bu/acre corn crop is around 336 lbs/acre. Only a portion of this amount needs to be supplied by N fertilizer; N is also supplied by the soil through mineralization of soil organic matter. On highly productive soils, N mineralization will often supply the majority of N needed by the crop. Credits can be taken for previous legume crop, manure application, and N in irrigation water. Nitrogen application rates of entries exceeding 300 bu/acre are shown in Figure 9.

The N application rates of 300 bu/acre entries varied greatly, but over half were in the range of 200 to 300 lbs/acre. Some entries with lower N rates were supplemented with N from manure application. As corn yield increases, more N is removed from the soil; however, N application rates do not necessarily need to increase to support high yields. Climatic conditions that favor high yield will also tend to increase the amount of N a corn crop obtains from the soil through increased mineralization of organic N and improved root growth.

Bar Chart - Nitrogen rates - total lbs/acre N applied - of NCGA corn yield contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

Figure 9. Nitrogen rates (total lbs/acre N applied) of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

Total nitrogen applied in high yield entries has trended downward in recent years. In the 2016 contest, over half of high yield entries had over 300 lbs/acre of N applied, compared to less than a quarter of entries in 2021.

Timing of N fertilizer applications can be just as important as application rate. The less time there is between N application and crop uptake, the less likely N loss from the soil will occur and limit crop yield. Nitrogen uptake by the corn plant peaks during the rapid growth phase of vegetative development between V12 and VT (tasseling). However, the N requirement is high beginning at V6 and extending to the R5 (early dent) stage of grain development.

Timing of N fertilizer applications in 300 bu/acre entries is shown in Figure 10. Very few included fall-applied N. Many applied N before or at planting. Nearly 75% of 300 bu/acre entries included some form of in-season nitrogen, either side-dressed or applied with irrigation. Multiple nitrogen applications were also used in around 85% of high-yield entries.

Bar Chart - Nitrogen fertilizer application timing of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

Figure 10. Nitrogen fertilizer application timing of NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients were applied on nearly half of the 300 bu/acre entries (Figure 11). The nutrients most commonly applied were sulfur (S) and zinc (Zn), with some entries including boron (B), magnesium (Mg), manganese (Mn), or copper (Cu). Micronutrients are sufficient in many soils to meet crop needs. However, some sandy soils and other low organic matter soils are naturally deficient in micronutrients, and high pH soils may reduce their availability (Butzen, 2010). Additionally, as yields increase, micronutrient removal increases as well, potentially causing deficiencies.

Bar Chart - Micronutrients applied in NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu per acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

Figure 11. Micronutrients applied in NCGA National Corn Yield Contest entries exceeding 300 bu/acre in 2021 and 5-year averages.

References

  • Butzen, S. 2010. Micronutrients for Crop Production. Crop Insights Vol. 20. No. 9. Pioneer, Johnston, IA.
  • Butzen, S. 2012. Best Management Practices for Corn-After-Corn Production. Crop Insights Vol. 22. No. 6. Pioneer, Johnston, IA.
  • IPNI. 2014. IPNI Estimates of Nutrient Uptake and Removal.
  • Jeschke, M. 2018. Row Width in Corn Grain Production Crop Insights Vol. 28. No. 3. Pioneer. Johnston, IA.

Pioneer State Winners

Alabama - Colorado

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Delaware - Iowa

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Idaho - Indiana

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Kansas - Louisiana

2020 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Massachusetts - Minnesota

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Missouri - North Dakota

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Nebraska - New York

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Ohio - Oregon

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Pennsylvania - South Dakota

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Tennessee - Virginia

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.


Vermont - Wyoming

2021 NCGA National Corn Yield Contest state-level winners using Pioneer brand products.

Proven Performance

Pioneer has been leading hybrid corn development since 1920. And is just getting started.

Aerial view - corn harvesting operation

The 2021 NCGA Yield Contest Winners

To win the NCGA yield contest, you’ve got to do more than join the Corn Revolution. You’ve got to be a revolutionary.

See the Revolutionaries
Cornfield - midsummer

Local Yield Data

This year, after a decade of innovation in genetics, breeding, technology and testing, everything came together. Resulting in better results and better returns.

See Local Yield Data
man walking in midseason corn

Find the Right Seed Corn for Every Acre

Use our corn seed guide to explore Pioneer® brand corn products that will maximize yield potential on every acre.

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AM - Optimum® AcreMax® Insect Protection system with YGCB, HX1, LL, RR2. Contains a single-bag integrated refuge solution for above-ground insects. In EPA-designated cotton growing counties, a 20% separate corn borer refuge must be planted with Optimum AcreMax products. AML - Optimum® AcreMax® Leptra® products with AVBL, YGCB, HX1, LL, RR2. Contains a single-bag integrated refuge solution for above-ground insects. In EPA-designated cotton growing countries, a 20% separate corn borer refuge must be planted with Optimum AcreMax Leptra products. AMX - Optimum® AcreMax® Xtra Insect Protection system with YGCB, HXX, LL, RR2. Contains a single-bag integrated refuge solution for above- and below-ground insects. In EPA‑designated cotton growing counties, a 20% separate corn borer refuge must be planted with Optimum AcreMax Xtra products. AMXT (Optimum® AcreMax® XTreme) - Contains a single-bag integrated refuge solution for above- and below-ground insects. The major component contains the Agrisure® RW trait, a Bt trait, and the Herculex® XTRA genes. In EPA-designated cotton growing counties, a 20% separate corn borer refuge must be planted with Optimum AcreMax XTreme products. YGCB, HX1, LL, RR2 (Optimum® Intrasect®) - Contains a Bt trait and Herculex® I gene for resistance to corn borer.

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