Cattle and corn

by Sally Colby

Farming in New England can be challenging, but Tyler Bartlett and his family are willing to take it on.

Tyler grew up on Applewood Farm, the New Gloucester, Maine, farm established by his father, a first-generation farmer. The operation began in 1986 with beef cattle and hay production for local horse stables. Today, the Bartletts continue to raise beef cattle along with 600 acres of hay and 190 acres of corn.

The farm is home to 90 beef cows along with replacement heifers and steers. Breeds include Red Angus, Black Angus, Simmental and Hereford. The Bartletts raise about 16 feeders for their own retail beef business, and the rest go to Pineland Farms Natural Meats program.

The cowherd is bred by bulls, which are placed with cows the second week in April for late January/early February calving. Tyler said they’ve used AI to breed the cowherd in the past and may use it again.

Cattle and corn

The growing season in Maine can be difficult – Tyler sometimes harvests in December – but that didn’t stop him from winning the corn yield contest this past year. Photo courtesy of Tyler Bartlett

Tyler started growing grain corn about nine years ago. Growing crops in Maine involves a lot of trial and error, but Tyler has taken on the challenge of tweaking his corn program and improving yield each year. For the past five years, Tyler has entered the National Corn Yield Contest, and his 2021 yield resulted in being named the Maine state winner of the conventional, non-irrigated class.

“We don’t grow any corn grain varieties that are more than 89 days because we don’t have the growing season for anything longer,” said Tyler. “We’re limited to a handful of varieties to select from, but over the past ten years, we’ve found some varieties we really like.”

Although Tyler said there isn’t a lot of competition among corn growers in Maine, he has entered the corn yield contest for five years, each time pushing for higher yields. “A few farmers enter the different categories,” he said. “We’re constantly striving to beat the previous year’s record.”

Since the Bartletts grow corn in various locations, ground preparation requires careful attention at each site. “We plant 190 acres of corn, and our biggest field is 15 acres,” said Tyler, adding that he’s experimented with a variety of tillage practices. “We’ve tried no-till, but mostly we do fall tillage which includes a little bit of ripping. We’ll go back in spring with a harrow on conventional tillage ground.” Tyler said the ground was too wet for any tillage this past autumn, so he’ll run the disk harrow in spring to manage some of the residue, then go over the ground with a harrow to finish and prepare the seedbed.  For the contest, Tyler chooses the field he predicts will result in the best yield.

On rented ground picked up recently from other farmers, Tyler takes extra care to sample soil to ensure proper nutrients are in place. “I started taking soil sampling much more seriously when we started growing grain corn,” he said. “We try to put some potash on in fall. The ground we own is in pretty good shape, and we add any nutrients that are deficient.”

Each property he farms presents unique challenges, so he pays close attention to the field requirements of fields for optimal yields. “I like doing the farm work,” he said. “I take the soil samples, prepare them and send them off. After I get the results, I forward them to my crop advisor and he’ll give me a fertilizer prescription.”

In spring, when soil temperature is a key factor for successful germination, the challenge is choosing a planting date. Last year, Tyler planted corn on April 28. “For us, that’s early,” he said. “The year before we planted on the same date and the corn was snowed on twice.”

Tyler is always willing to try new varieties suggested by his crop advisor. “This year was really fun because we did a test plot,” he said. “We tested nine different varieties and did side by side comparisons of two similar varieties in the same field. For us, a lot of it is trial and error, but we’re still at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

To stay ahead of potential nutrition issues, Tyler takes tissue samples on some acreage. “If we notice a field that’s lacking a nutrient, we’ll tissue test,” he said. “We tissue test a lot on the contest field – we’ll test it three or four times throughout the season until we can’t get on the field to make changes.” The Bartletts apply cattle manure as part of the nutrient prescription, and alternate manure with commercial fertilizer.

Tyler’s corn yield win was with Channel 185-30VT2PRIB. While variety sometimes influences population, Tyler’s winning yield of 205.4 bushels/acre was with 38,000 on 30-inch rows. “We’re out there in the combine and have to choose 1.25 acres out of a 13-acre field,” he said. “I think a lot of it comes down to selecting that 1.25 acres to enter in the contest.”

Although Tyler would like to rotate crops, the farm currently has one grain bin and it’s used for both drying and storage. “For small grains, we’d need more bins,” he said. “And with getting corn off so late – sometimes we harvest in December – I can’t get a cover crop established.” Some area farmers rotate corn with potatoes, and he has considered interseeding a cover crop with corn.

Tyler said his biggest crop challenge is field size and available land. “I would love to have a field that’s 60 acres,” he said. “We plant corn in April or early May and leaves aren’t on the trees yet. But when we go back and harvest, there’s a lot of loss on the headlands where the crop is shaded and doesn’t produce as well as the center. A yield of 40 bushels around the outside rows really wrecks the average.”

Timing is another challenge for spring planting – Tyler is often preparing ground for corn at the same time cattle are being moved to summer pasture.

Like other farmers, Tyler has found that paying attention to details such as proper tillage, ensuring a level planter with the correct settings and herbicides applied at the right time throughout the season and at harvest all pay off.

“The only time I learn is when I fail at something,” said Tyler. “Last year we had a late herbicide application on one of the fields and it showed. This year, I’m going to pay much more attention to when I apply herbicide.”

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