Jeff Littrell and son Rhett are squeezing every bushel of corn out of their fertilizer dollars on the family farm near Rochester, Minn. So you can imagine the Littrells were pleased to see 200-bushel yields per acre on their combine monitor last fall — especially since they did it with just 41 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre.
The kicker? They’re organic.
“When someone says you can’t grow high yields with organics, that’s crazy,” says Jeff, who also spent 30 years consulting with farmers on lowering nutrient costs while still keeping yields high.
“In school, they taught us 1.6 pounds of N was needed to grow 1 bushel of corn, but we found we could get that number down to 1.4 or less, and now we’re far below that,” he says.
But not without some unusual methods and key hybrid selection.
Last year they applied 15 gallons of liquid N as starter, an 8-0-0 amino acid and an organic fertilizer called TerraFed, a liquid carbon-based fertilizer derived from sugar cane molasses — all in furrow.
“We add liquid so it ends up 30 gallons per acre,” Jeff says. “We use reverse-osmosis water, which is devoid of all minerals and elements, like distilled water. That way, believe it or not, the water will take on the properties of what you add to it, similar to what happens in the coffee business. Some people call it ‘hungry water.’
“We also put microbes on everything we plant; microbes we grow ourselves,” he adds. “When the microbes are there, they make nutrients more available to the corn.”
Rhett says hybrid selection is important, too. Racehorse hybrids need more N compared to workhorse hybrids, which make use of N throughout the growing season.
Lowering nutrient cost without sacrificing yield also requires multiple applications. “I’ve been a big foliar fan,” Jeff says. “We put nitrogen on with the crop at planting and sidedress, or put it over the top as needed.”
They also applied dry organic poultry litter at planting, sulphate of potash, soft rock phosphate, calcium and Chilean nitrate of potash.
With dry material, the Littrells add humate soil conditioner, a black powder material from coal mines. “It holds dry or liquid materials floating in the upper profile, so you don’t lose nutrients as readily as when you apply anhydrous,” Jeff says. “In row crops, we often lose too many nutrients to volatilization or leaching.”
Most all of these products haven’t had price jumps like anhydrous ammonia, simply because they’re not in high demand, Jeff says. And while it may not win yield contests, 200-bushel corn sold at, say, $11 a bushel for organic can pay a lot of input bills and still leave a profit.
“Bathing the crop in nutrients is what makes high yields work. What we’ve learned is, you can grow a crop synthetically, or grow it naturally with whatever is available,” he says.
“Whatever is available,” in this case, includes things like coffee — even Mountain Dew.
“It’s full of phosphorus, after all,” Jeff jokes. “Once we sprayed wine and beer over the crop when someone was hauling it away as a waste product.”