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Young Farmer’s Giant Strip Trials Reveal Corn, Soybean Truth



Adron Belk’s farm is a giant laboratory, evidenced by replicated strips almost lined end to end across 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans. There is a calculated method and a sweet science to the madness, because Belk is a farmer with a plan, stacking truth upon truth, year after year.

Belk’s operation is a maze of replicated strip trials. In 2020, 85% of Belk’s row crop acres serve as a giant data collecting basket. In a typical year, in over 100-plus fields, he runs strip trials on a wide array of crop management factors: variety, variable rate, population, seed treatment, fertilizer placement, innocculant, subsoiling, herbicide, fungicide, and significantly more. “A lot of our data is not necessarily about big yields, but about ROI,” Belk says. “If a particular product is not doing enough to justify its expense, the strips will tell us.”

As Belk speaks from the combine box during late-August corn harvest, the vehicle rumbles across a 160-acre field split into alternating bands of equidistant strips, all planted with the same variety, but with seed treated in three separate manners. It’s a telltale cutting, and the treble of incoming yield numbers holds a surprise: The variety averaging the lowest yield received the most amount of added seed treatment. “Added seed treatment in corn looks like it doesn’t pay off for me, but that’s only one year of data for this particular trial,” Belk says. “That’s the awesome thing about these multiple year trials tailored to your own ground—the truth comes out in time.”

Devil in the Details

Straddling the line of Bolivar and Sunflower counties, Belk, 31, is a grain farmer—sans cotton—in the Mississippi Delta. While not averse to occasional rice acres, Belk is on a 50-50 rotational split between corn and soybeans, and with 10 crops under his young belt, he has run an expansive replicated strip trial system for the past four years.

Most Delta growers run on 38” rows, but Belk relies on 30” rows, a configuration that played a role in triggering his own-farm research. “I’m a grain farmer, and a lot of the accompanying equipment is made in the Midwest and is designed for 30” rows. The equipment is a little wider and provides more efficiency, and narrower rows allow me to shade out middles quicker, and push corn populations higher. The combination of all of those keeps me on 30” rows.”

Early in Belk’s farming career, he threw a raised eyebrow at splitting a field in half for a traditional 50-50 trial. The subsequent data, he felt, was based on a suspect proposition: “In my opinion, you’ve got to have at least alternating bands of equal strips across an entire field to really learn. Why? Every field contains too many variables to be generalized half and half, and I can’t trust that kind of data.”

Following the thread, Belk began heavily examining university and Extension data in 2016, gleaning what might work best on his operation, and then putting the corresponding strips into action. Simply, the arbiter for a product or technique was Belk’s ground—not a spreadsheet or pdf. “State trials have great data and provide us with great things, but the details matter. For example, in a given trial, I might not know what kind of planter was involved, how they placed fertilizer, or what tillage practices were used.”

“You can go to 100 farms in the same vicinity and you’ll find the ground at each one is different,” he continues. “That means there is only one way to find out what works best on my farm, and I can’t rely on, or expect, that someone else’s data will tell me everything I need to know about my ground. The last thing I want to do is rely on someone else’s averages.”

Critical Piece

Each winter during January and February, Belk sits down with agronomist Clay Horton, and talks nuts-and-bolts on trial results, in order to set up a strip trial scheme for the approaching planting season. (Some trials, such as subsoiling, must be determined at crop season’s end, in order for Belk to subsoil during the fall.) Once Belk and Horton have made the bird’s-eye decisions, they have a concrete projection about which varieties, population, and chemicals will be stripped, along with precise field placement. Once the bulk of logistical lifting is finished, Belk begins to prepare the physical pieces. In the fitting words of Belk’s father, Ricky: “Plan your work, and work your plan.”

“Initial planning is the hardest part,” Belk emphasizes. “People look at my acreage and think this is impossible, but it really doesn’t cut down on productivity—provided it’s done right. If you wait or procrastinate on your plan, then you’ve waited too late.”

“You’ve got to have a solid plan ready way before planting, or else you’ll get frustrated and say, ‘The heck with it.’ I love the plots and data, but a frustrating part can be dealing with planting, weather and fooling with computers all at the same time. That’s just one more reason to have things in place going in, otherwise guys get under pressure to plant, and toss the computer work overboard.”

Every year, Horton soil samples 50% of Belk’s ground—whatever corn acres are headed to soybeans: “All the time we’re looking at or reading anything ag-related,” Horton describes. “Over winter, Adron and I go through the soil data and compare notes. For the next year’s strip trials, maybe we’ll try something we saw or heard about on another guy’s farm, or read in an article. Anything—we’ll try anything that we think might have promise and provide benefit.”

Horton works on farms up and down the Delta, but he hasn’t encountered another grower as hyper-focused on trials and data collection as Belk. “I’ve never seen strip trials to this extent anywhere else,” Horton adds. “Adron is unique—so unique with all these trials. I’ve got some guys interested in trials, but nowhere near to this extent. There are just about strips from end to end across the whole place.”

Beyond planning preparation, entering data correctly into two planters (John Deere 1720s) is key because it supports the entire year’s data haul. Simply, a screw-up on data entry at planting can bring a multi-year strip trial to a screeching halt. Therefore, the data entry process—every field mapped, every row recorded—is the “most critical piece of the puzzle,” according to Belk. “The biggest place where we’ve got to be right is at planting when we must enter the data correctly.”

The 1720s are outfitted with Precision Planting technology, along with Climate FieldView. (Belk also runs Climate FieldView in his sprayer for fungicide and herbicide trials.) Chad Swindoll, precision technology specialist and owner of J19 Agriculture, takes on the big role of data entry, Belk describes. “Chad gets my varieties and data entered exactly right into the planters, and later, before we harvest, he again enters it all on to my combine computer. When I climb inside, my combine already knows the varieties and where the strip trials are, filtering data on the go. It helps so much to take out as much human error as we can.”

Data entry is important, but not everything,” Swindoll adds. “If a person takes good notes, everything is fixable. Commitment is what is usually lacking. If someone isn’t committed, they give up after the first snag.

After each harvest, Belk measures the good, bad, and ugly from each plot, hoping to gain an advantage from each trial—steady, small victories. Yield bumps shine brightest, but Belk maintains bushel skepticism, instead keeping an eye on input costs. “Yield is the fun thing, but bankers like money more than yield. There are a lot of good products and companies on the market out there, but there are a lot that don’t work. There is no magic answer. I can’t tell you what to do to guarantee a 20-bushel advantage, but I can sure tell you a lot of things that will cost you 20 bushels if you don’t do them. We do some trials hoping for a 10-20 bushel jump, but reality says if something gives you that kind of advantage, you’ve already implemented it.”

Belk has a fertilizer blend discovered through strip trials that adds a consistent 10-12 bu. per acre on his ground. However, Belk doesn’t hesitate to show both sides of the coin: “Last year, the fertilizer blend cost me $38 per acre. If you get a 10 bu. jump and corn is $3.80, then you haven’t done anything. I’d have been better off to average 10 bushels less and not spend the money.”

Typically, if a trial produces positive results for three consecutive years, Belk places the product or practice across all acres. Conversely, if a product or practice fails for two consecutive years, the trial is shuttered. A combination of a one-year failure and one-year success puts the trial in limbo, continued or ended depending on the circumstances.

The trials have a particular impact on Belk’s problematic and low-yielding ground. “We all know good ground makes good crops. I’ve got to figure out how to make bad ground produce, and improve my problem areas. When I’m talking about production acres, I’ve come to the conclusion that when the Good Lord wants you to make a good crop, He’ll give you favorable weather and it will be so. My top-end yield is in the Lord’s hands, but if I work hard and stay prepared, I can do so much to affect my bottom-end yield. Truth is, I can do a lot to mess up my bottom-end yield by not paying attention to detail.”

Attention to detail is a key characteristic of Belk’s operation, Swindoll explains: “Adron is more detail-oriented than most. He takes the steps needed on the front and follows through to the end. For many of my clients I am more focused on ‘project management’ and making sure all the dots get connected. In Adron’s case, he can handle that himself. He mainly brings me in to help fine-tune a few things and have a conversation on what we think the data means, tease out any nuances, and discuss the future of his on-farm research efforts.”

Echoing Swindoll, Horton says details mean everything to Belk. “Adron is a guy constantly doing agriculture homework and his big interest is in the small details,” Horton says. “Farming is his life and literally his hobby.”

In 2019, Belk entered the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) Yield Contest intending to push hard and win. Indeed. He threw the kitchen sink at the plot, hit 282.7 bu. per acre, and was the Mississippi Regional winner for irrigated corn. However, as is standard for the plainspoken Belk, he isn’t afraid to call balls and strikes on what transpired during the season: “I basically doubled all my inputs, but that is just not the answer. Yes, I won and was glad to win, but the truth is I lost more money on that acre than on any other acre on my operation. Folks don’t tell you that.”

In 2020, Belk, along with Horton and Paul Bodenstein, a corn specialist from Virginia, has again entered the NCGA Yield Contest, but with a revised perspective: Pull back on the spending reigns. “We’re going back to the basics of yield on 50 acres. We’re taking tissue samples every Monday, get them back on Wednesday, and then put out what the crop needs by Friday. So far, it looks better than last year, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

What trials does Belk hope to implement in the near-future? “The biggest is 20” corn rows,” he says. “That means equipment changes and it’s a little more ambitious. Also, I want to add multiple variety planter trials, and I want to do some no till trials, but that’s so hard to do with the way we have to bed everything up for irrigation.”

Perpetual Remedy

For growers interested in expanding replicated strip trials, Belk’s initial advice is basic—but crucial: “Surround yourself with good people.”

“I’ve got Clay and Chad, and I’ve got my equipment dealers. These are people I trust that know agronomics and technology. Anyone can do this with a little time and effort and it pays in a big way across a farm. I don’t ever tell anybody how to do things, but I can tell you this works and it doesn’t hurt my productivity if I prepare.”

As much value as his aforementioned team provides, there is another member who works beyond the rows, but is the most indispensable part of the operation, according to Belk: His wife, Betsy. “She is my true support, and she understands my frustration when things go wrong on the farm,” Belk describes. “Betsy takes care of the home front, and our two girls, Janie and Charlotte, and lets me chase my dream out here. That kind of true help is the best thing a farmer can have.”

Stacking detailed data over each successive crop, Belk’s ground is revealing itself. Covering 85% of 4,000 acres with strip trials is no simple task to the uninitiated, but a properly conceived plan is a perpetual remedy for success, Belk says. “Get the plan nailed down and the trials won’t be a time and management burden. Most of the equipment out there already has the needed computer technology inside. I can speak honestly about this because I’m like most guys. I just want to farm, and I sure don’t farm because I love computers. I farm because I love the smell of fresh dirt; I love the smell of harvest; I love to see corn coming out of field; and I love to watch things grow.”

“However, I’ve realized something, at least on my own ground, and it’s that computers bring another aspect to the whole farming deal and data is king,” Belk concludes. “The biggest part is being organized and being ready. It’s like my dad (Ricky) always taught me: ‘Plan your work, and work your plan.’”

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