Yield obsession and a mule named Dolly

By Mike Rankin

Let's be honest . . . if you’re involved in a facet of production agriculture, yield is a big part of your life. On the farm, it’s an economic driver; at the coffee shop, fodder for bragging rights; in the agriculture retail business, a sales tool; and in agricultural research, a favorite metric to discern significance.

Most farmers won't discuss how much money they made or didn't make in a given year, but are more than willing to share yield results.

And why not?

Growing stuff is what we do, and how much we grow on a defined unit of land is an easy measure of success. Sure, bottom-line economics is the ultimate end game, but more often than not yield level plays a big role in profitability.

Corn, cotton, alfalfa or bermudagrass — high yields translate to more product and generally higher profit per unit produced, as costs are spread over a greater number of bushels, tons or pounds. Most with forage and livestock enterprises are focused on the yield of sold product — meat and milk. Inherent in those end products, however, are things like pasture carrying capacity, rate of gain, income over feed costs, purchased feed costs, and sales of excess production. All of these have their roots in forage yield.

With forage, however, it's never only about yield. There’s feed quality to strive for, often at the expense of yield. For this reason, forage yield is always capped . . . held back . . . by the need for quality feed. This makes the job of the forage breeder not one for the weak of heart. It can never be just a matter of breeding for more yield.

Another unique issue, of course, is that forage yield is more difficult and time consuming to measure than for crops like corn and soybeans. Grain lends itself to easy measurement, and within this genre of farmers you will find the greatest of those who are obsessed with yield. There have been likes of Henry Warsaw in Illinois, Iowa’s Francis Childs, and more recently David Hula in Virginia, who in 2015 had a measured corn yield of just over 532 bushels per acre. Yes, that’s a new world record . . . again.

But the greatest of these corn yield kings is probably someone you’ve never heard about but whose story is legendary, or should be. Meet Lamar Ratliff of Prentiss County, Miss.

Lamar’s story was chronicled in the Delta Farm Press by Hembree Brandon about six years ago. It begins when Lamar was 10 years old and joined the county 4-H program in 1950. He chose corn as his first project.

The Ratliff’s were small-time farmers and grew very little corn, but Lamar staked out the required 1-acre plot and hitched up the family’s 8-year-old mule, Dolly. He tilled deep, used manure, garden fertilizer, and rowed the Dixie 17 seed corn to 28 inches. The neighbor kids scoffed at the notion of growing corn in rows less than 40 inches. Of course, their dad’s had tractors.

Lamar and Dolly’s first attempt at growing corn resulted in a state record corn yield of 179 bushels per acre; but they were just getting started. In 1951, boy and mule set another state record — 182 bushels per acre. Lamar figured out a way to irrigate the corn by running water downhill from his daddy’s fishing pond. He also started adding fertilizer to the water.

In 1952, Lamar set a new state record, 214.1 bushels, and was the national winner. This effort was aided by a new Funk’s hybrid, which was given to Lamar by the company. The legend of Lamar was growing. He contacted state agriculture specialists and indicated his desire to grow 300 bushels per acre. They told him it couldn’t be done. Lamar’s next big year was 1954 when his corn measured 218 bushels per acre, another state record.

Next, an anonymous donor sent Lamar 500 feet of aluminum pipe and a four-horsepower irrigation pump. The Mississippi farm kid was going big time.

Lamar was in the 11th grade in 1955 when he grew the state, national, and world record corn yield of 304.38 bushels per acre. That crop was planted in 24-inch rows at 35,000 seeds per acre. He thinned the stand to 30,000 plants per acre. Unheard of at the time, but pretty close to what is done today.

Lamar was asked to speak about his corn growing skills in every corner of the United States. He even addressed the Congress. Lamar joined the Navy after high school where he served a distinguished career as a submarine crewmember. He eventually made it back to the family farm where he and his brother planted trees.

Lamar Ratliff, who with antiquated equipment and a mule named Dolly, showed the world that if a crop has access to water and needed nutrients, and it’s well managed, high yields are attainable. It's a lesson that rings just as true today — for corn or forage — as it did in the 1950s.