FROM PLANTING TO HARVEST – FOLLOW KELLY’S JOURNEY
The rolling terrain and odd-shaped fields that are common in Western Iowa factored into Kelly Garrett’s decision to install drip irrigation, but it was the idea of getting more income out of the land he already has that made drip irrigation a “no-brainer” three years ago. The investment has paid off in a big way as Kelly has won Iowa state yield titles in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, we are following Kelly’s progress as he aims to push yields on his drip-irrigated corn even higher.
“We are building the soil,” says Kelly Garrett when asked why he thinks his drip-irrigated corn crop keeps getting better each year. Just a few weeks from finishing up his third season with drip irrigation, the western Iowa farmer says that he has learned a lot in the past three years with his drip system. “When I first started looking at drip three years ago I was trying to find a way to get water to a field with 100 feet of elevation change,” says Kelly.
Like most farmers that are using drip, Kelly quickly realized that his new drip system was much more than a water delivery system. “I knew that drip would be a pretty good solution for getting water to a crop on some challenging fields, but I did not think much about the nutrient delivery benefits,” he says.
Three years later, Kelly says his ability to micromanage nutrient delivery has given him much greater insight into the interactive relationship that occurs between the soil, water, nutrients, and plants.
“Most guys put a whole lot of anhydrous on their field and then throw all the nitrogen they can afford on their crop. They don’t give much thought to the affect that the other soil components might have on a plant’s uptake level,” adds Kelly. According to Kelly, his first three years with drip irrigation have changed his nutrient management philosophy. “You can’t just put 400-bushel worth of fertilizer on a crop in one year and then expect to grow 400-bushel corn,” he says. “It’s a system with numerous components that need to be in balance for the plant to uptake nutrients efficiently. With drip, we can manage that system with precision.”
Kelly says that no one knows for sure where critical nutrient levels need to be in the soil, but he has a strong feeling that most soils are well below the threshold. “My crop fertility program has taken a longer-term view that is focused on giving the current crop what it needs, while at the same time building a better soil profile for the next crop,” he says.
“Drip allows us to do that.”
On August 21, 2017, a fast-moving storm came through western Iowa and dropped 6 inches of rain in a short period. The damage to Kelly Garrett’s bean crop was significant, as many of the plants had lost more than half of their pods due to the torrential downpour unleashed by the storm. “It was pretty devastating to watch a late summer storm roll through and take money out of your pocket,” said Garrett. “It was a freak storm, and all we could do was watch and hope for minimal crop damage.” Kelly knew he had to make some changes to try and protect his crop from the next “freak storm” that decides to visit western Iowa.
It did not take long. Almost one year to the day of the 2017 weather event, Kelly Garrett once again found his farm in the path of another fast-moving storm packing high winds and heavy rains. “The storm knocked some corn down in the area, and some of the bean fields around us look like they were thinned out by the storm like last year,” said Garrett. But, while the storm packed a powerful punch, Kelly’s fields stood firm this time.
“After 2017, we couldn’t just sit here again and watch mother nature destroy a season’s worth of effort in a matter of minutes, so we made some changes,” he says. “We planted a higher population of beans and used a few different hybrids this year.” Kelly believes that by planting a higher population and utilizing a few different hybrids that he could create a tighter canopy that helped to shelter the pods from the grunt of this year’s storm.
“Drip gave us the flexibility we needed to increase the plant populations without sacrificing the strength and health of the plants,” he says. “Drip changed the way we were able to think about a solution.” Kelly also attributes the regular feeding and watering of his corn crop through his drip system as the prime reason that his corn could withstand the high winds.
“It’s a happy crop right now,” he says. Having just pulled an 11-inch ear from his field, Kelly could not be happier about the look of his drip-irrigated corn at this point in the season.
“A lot of the early season nitrogen leached away on neighboring fields due to rains in June,” he says. “We’ve been able to deliver nitrogen and other nutrients throughout the entire season through the drip system. You can see the results in the dark green coloring of our corn crop compared to other fields in the area.”
Now in his third year with drip irrigation, Kelly says he has learned how to better manage the flow of nutrients and water to his crop. “We are still aggressive, but just a lot smarter about it,” he says. “It’s not about giving the crop more; it’s about giving the crop what it needs at the right time.”
Kelly says he is also learning to trust his soil monitoring equipment as a guide for what the crop needs, and when it needs it. “When the crop is hungry we can feed it right away with the drip,” says Kelly. “We can also make quick adjustments as we see weather coming. If we see a rain event coming, we can get a dose of nitrogen to the crop through the drip system just beforehand.”
“Drip has not only changed the way we farm, but it’s changed the way we think.”
“My corn crop looks as good as ever,” says Kelly Garrett about the 220 acres
of drip-irrigated corn on his western Iowa family farm.
Midway through his third season using drip irrigation, he is enthusiastic about what he sees so
far in his cornfield, but it’s what Kelly can’t see that has him most excited.
“The results of the tissue sampling are the best I’ve ever seen,” he says. “The crop is utilizing a very high
percentage of the nutrients that we’ve put on through the subsurface driplines and the levels are right
where we want them to be heading into grain fill.”
With his drip system, Kelly can micro-manage the water and nutrient levels in his soil to create the perfect
environment for growth.
“Our soil samples are showing fertility levels that are higher than we’ve ever seen before,” says Kelly, adding
that the latest samples show a large concentration of available water and nutrients residing in the top six
inches of the soil profile.
He theorizes that the combination of drip and minimal tilling practices over the past few years has had the
effect of restructuring the soil and in turn has greatly improved the soils ability to hold water and nutrients.
“We are using a crop management system that monitors the moisture levels in real time,” he says. “As soon
as we see the moisture level drop below field capacity we can turn on the drip and refill the soil profile within
hours before any stress begins to set in.”
He says that the nutrient-rich soil profile and the high uptake efficiency is the perfect recipe for a high yield,
but the early spring heat has put the crop ahead of schedule and some growers are concerned about the
possibility of an early maturation resulting in crop stress during the critical grain fill period.
“Heat stress during grain fill needs to be tended to increase water use, transpiration and evaporation and may
cause the plant to shorten its grain fill stage which results in reduced yield,” he says.
But, unlike some of the other region’s growers, Kelly does not seem to be too worried.
“It’s reassuring to know that I can just push a button on my phone and start putting water and nutrients on the
entire field at the first sign of any stress,” he says.
“I guess you could say that the drip system has the added benefit of reducing my own stress level too.”
“The corn is definitively ahead of where we thought we’d be at this point in terms of growth,”
says Kelly Garrett about this year’s crop.
Nearly two months since he finished planting his 2018 crop, the western Iowa grower says this is “the best-looking
crop he has had at this point in the season since he started farming.”
“Within the first few weeks of emergence we were hit with a heat wave that tested some of the young corn plants in
this area,” Kelly says. “The heat came on fast, and we were able to counter the high temps with immediate delivery of
water to the entire crop using the drip system.”
2018 is shaping up to be an erratic weather year thus far in western Iowa. A heatwave at the end of May brought
100-degree temperatures to the region and spring storms dumped 4 inches of rain last week. “Farming is unpredictable,
so we use the tools we have to reduce the effect that variables like the weather will have on a crop,” he says. “With drip,
we are able to mitigate those variables and that is especially important when the corn is still young.”
“You worry less knowing that you can feed and water the crop when it needs it, without any delay,” he adds.
Kelly has expanded his drip irrigated acres with an installation on 95 new acres this spring, bringing his total number of
drip irrigated acres to 375. “I plan to get drip on every acre,” says Kelly.
He currently has two systems with a dedicated pump, filter and control station, and another three fields that are serviced
by a mobile pump and filtration station that is moved around as needed.
Each of the fields that are serviced by the mobile pump/filtration station is utilizing FlexNet’s flexible piping solution to
deliver water to the driplines buried 16 inches below the surface.
“The terrain on those three fields make FlexNet a better solution than hard plumbing the site,” says Kelly. “We built a
pump and filter station on the back of a flatbed truck, and we move it from field to field every two days when irrigating.”
Kelly has also installed a fertigation station on the mobile unit so he can deliver nutrients as well as water that he pumps
from a pond on his property. “It’s a full-service station that just happens to be mounted on a truck,” he says.
In addition, Kelly says that a crew from NutraDrip, his Netafim authorized dealer, just finished installing a new
cloud-based Netafim NMC air controller that allows him to monitor and adjust water and fertilizer delivery rates from a
“The ability to control and monitor the water and nutrient dosing in real time from anywhere in the world is going to
be a big change in the way we can manage our irrigated acres,” he says.
But, for Kelly, there is another benefit to being able to control his drip irrigation system using Netafim remote technology.
“My kids are starting to think farming is a pretty cool line of work,” he says.
“It never hurts to have the luck of the Irish on your side,” says Kelly Garrett about the atypical 2018 planting
season in western Iowa. An abnormally cool spring and a late snowstorm kept most of the region’s farmers
out of their fields until late April.
“We started planting beans during the last week of April, and as soil temps continued to warm we rolled right
into corn planting,” said Garrett. “It was one of our latest starts to the season, but in the end, we still managed
to have everything in the ground right around the same time as last season.”
As the corn and bean crops begin to break through his no-till, Netafim drip-irrigated fields, Kelly is prepping
for what he hopes will be his best season yet.
“You wouldn’t be a farmer if you did not have a lot of optimism at this time of year,” he says. But, Kelly admits that
this year feels a little different.
“I am excited. We’ve got two years of experience using drip irrigation under our belts, and we are using the knowledge
to make tweaks to our management plan this year.”
Kelly says his 2018 plan is a simple one, “Eliminate plant stress and make every day a good day for the crop.”
“We’ve learned a lot over the past two years about how the crop responds to the delivery of nutrients and water through
the drip system,” says Kelly. “Using what we have learned over the past few years about how the crop responds to drip,
we plan on adjusting some of the fertilizer formulas and incorporating a few of the high-performance inputs from the
Crop Production Services Loveland line.”
Working with his crop consultant, Kelly has also made some changes to the plant population of his corn crop, reducing
the average population from 42,000 per acre to 36-38,000 per acre this season.
“Based on what we have seen over the past two seasons, we are confident that we will be able to generate higher yields
with fewer plants due to the way drip nurtures each plant,” says Kelly. “It’s not about more plants; it’s about getting
more yield out of each plant.”
Kelly is also working with a team from NutraDrip, a Netafim dealer-partner, to perform some necessary spring
maintenance on his drip system to ensure that the system is running at peak performance.
“The crop is up, and we are ready to face whatever challenges Mother Nature decides to hurl at western Iowa this year,” he says.
“It’s cold!” That is how Kelly Garrett describes the spring weather this year in western Iowa. “We woke up
to a layer of ice earlier this week, and the forecast is calling for snow next week. I am ready to get the 2018
crop in the ground.”
2017 was a good year for Kelly Garrett, a farmer from Arion, Iowa. His 312.463 bu/ac yield on his drip irrigated-corn was the
highest irrigated yield in Iowa and bested his 2016 award-winning yield by more than 20 bushels per acre.
He admits that he was a little concerned last July when he didn’t see the kernel count that he expected, but that all changed later
in the season.
“The corn crop reached maturity much later than in neighboring fields, and we knew that was where our yield boost was going to
come from,” he says. “By using drip irrigation to deliver nutrients to the crop later in the season, we were able to give the plants
an energy lift going into the grain fill stage.”
Kelly says that while his corn ‘turned on’ later in the season, his average soybean yield fell short of his expectations.
“Based on recent pod counts, we were expecting 100-bushel beans. But, when we got in there with the combine, the monitor was
only showing double-digit numbers. We thought the monitor needed calibrating. Then we started walking the field and noticed
a significant number of pods were lying in the dirt,” he recalls.
Kelly later determined that a late-season downpour had knocked pods off the plants and tore into his projected soybean yield.
“You realize that some things are out of your control as a farmer, and all that you can do to mitigate the effects of external
variables is to keep that plant healthy and strong from start to finish. That is precisely where the drip system comes in,” he adds.
Turning to 2018, the colder-than-usual April is keeping soil temperatures low. Kelly is using the extra time to prep the soil
with manure stored up from his family’s cattle operation in Dunlap, Iowa.
“We learned a lot last year about nutrient management, and we are pretty excited about applying that knowledge to this
year’s corn and bean crops,” he says.
Last year, Kelly finished planting Corn in early May and did not turn on his drip system until later in June. In 2018, he is
employing a different strategy.
“We aren’t going to wait,” says Kelly. “As soon as we see the development of root structures, we will start feeding the crop
with a potash solution injected into the drip irrigation,” he says.
It’s no surprise that Kelly is entering his 3rd season with drip with high expectations.
“This year should be fun. I hope.”
Read More About Kelly Garrett's Journey To Higher Yields
May 2017: Iowa Grower Sets His Sights On Breaking Yield Barriers
Kelly Garrett of Arion, Iowa, took the 2016 NCGA Iowa state title for corn yield in the No-Till/Strip-Till category with a final yield of 289.720 bu/ac on his drip irrigated corn. In 2017, we are following Kelly’s progress as he aims to push yields on his drip-irrigated corn even higher.
June 2017: Two months into the growing season showed great potential for drip irrigated corn
“I am pretty pleased with the growth thus far in the season. It is a great looking crop that is showing uniform and consistent growth across the entire field,” says Kelly.
July 2017: Kelly Garrett pictured with his son, is excited about what he sees in his drip irrigated corn
The 2016 state yield winner says July is not the time to make any predictions about what harvest will bring, but Kelly Garrett admits
that at this point in the season, his subsurface drip irrigated (SDI) corn crop is looking even better than his award-winning crop from
August 2017: Crops in the region showing signs of stress but Kelly’s crop stands out.
“It has been a drier than usual year in this part of the state, and many of the area crops are starting to exhibit signs of stress,” says
Kelly Garrett about the weather challenges that farmers in western Iowa are facing this year.
September 2017: Early September brought on concern and worry over breaking the yield barrier
“I was a little worried at the beginning of September when the kernel count on my corn crop was less than I wanted at that point,” says Kelly Garrett. “We had a field day here in early September, and I was getting concerned that the crop was lagging behind for some reason.”