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Drozds Score Big with High-Yielding Crops


by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, January 8, 2021

The two massive combines parked in front of Drozd Family Grain in Allegan, Mich. signaled the presence of a big-time ag operation.

The two shelves lined with shiny trophies inside the office suggested something a little more sporting.

Taken all together, they evoked the term "competitive farming" from a Monday-morning visitor.

That notion brought a smile to the face of Jon Drozd, who along with sons Jake and Ryan are known for winning both on and off the corn, soybean and sorghum fields.

"There you go," said Jon, who got into full-time farming in 1977 after graduating from high school. "That sounds good."

It also sums up the Drozd approach. The operation's website promotes its National Corn Growers Assn., Michigan Soybean Assn. and National Sorghum Producers awards the way some college basketball programs boast of their Final Four appearances.

Some of the terminology even sounds the same.

The award count increased to 45 last month when Ryan finished first in Michigan in the NCGA's 56th annual National Corn Yield contest with 271.7 bushels per acre on no-till, irrigated land, and Jon placed first with 307.6 bushels per acre in irrigated strip-tilling with residue left on top. Those were the farm's first state wins in 14 growing seasons, and 10th and 11th overall.

However, Ryan is especially proud of the farm's top sorghum showing for Michigan, and third-place finish nationally, in the NSP's Yield Contest dryland tillage category with 181.2 bushels per acre. What began "as a joke" about a dozen years ago, according to the website, has earned acclaim for the Drozdes in a state not known for sorghum production.

The competitive spirit grabbed ahold of the Drozd family when Jon and his first partner, brother Jay, began entering their corn in the early 1990s. The partnership transitioned last year over to his sons, who are taking competitive farming to the next level.

"It is our belief at Drozd Farms that, 'Yield is KING,'" touts the website.

The program even has a friendly archrival, Eaton County's Don Stall, whose name has consistently appeared on corn and soybean leader boards in recent years. Stall and the Drozdes were the first Michigan farmers to reach 300 bushels of corn per acre, and it happened in the same growing season.

Stall's 476.9 bushels per conventional irrigated acre in 2020 topped the next closest competitor in Michigan by 172 bushels.

"He's our target," said Jon. "Part of it is just like playing some sport; you enjoy doing it. When it first started, we did it because we said, 'Let's just enter because we had a good crop.' Then it became, it's just fun to push it to see what we could do. Then it was, 'I can learn a lot from this.'"

Winning also comes with rewards and perks, such as all-expenses-paid trips for two to the Commodity Classic, which before last year was held annually in choice locations. The 2020 event was supposed to be held in in San Antonio, Texas, but was cancelled due to the pandemic. This year's event was set for New Orleans but will be held virtually instead on March 4-6.

Just like in sports, competition brings out the best in the Drozd farm.

"You are trying different things that push yield to win, and you learn from that, which you then take into what I call your non-contest acres," Jon said. "So, that's your education side."

There's even a spectator component.

"It's fun watching it and seeing how the crop responds to different things," Jon said. "As these guys (Jake and Ryan) grew up, on a Sunday afternoon we'd go out to the field where our good corn would be and walk the corn to see what it looked like, just as a fun thing to do.

"Now, they drag me around instead. In my case, it's kind of funny because I can go back and say I remember when 100 bushel (an acre) was a big yield. Then it was 200 bushel, then 300 bushel and now we're shooting for 400 bushel. So, we've made those steps over the years and now we're disappointed with 200."

And, there's no shortage of what-ifs and second-guessing on the 7,000 acres spread across Allegan, Van Buren and Kalamazoo counties. About 3,000 of those acres are what Ryan calls "highly managed," where the crops will be cut down to 100-200 acres of the best of the best.

"Throughout the year it's about getting the right ratios," Ryan said. "More fertilizer is not the key. It's about getting it narrowed down, analyzing your crop throughout the season and seeing how you need to balance each micronutrient."

Added Jon, "We do a lot of tissue sampling. The contests probably help us with that more than anything because they tell us what it took for yield. Then you can figure out what the cost is."

A 20-second wind gust on July 8, just prior to pollination, cost the Drozdes a shot at the title in conventional, irrigated corn.

"That would have been the best of them all, by a lot, but the wind wiped it out," Jon said. "When you have high-yield corn, it's more vulnerable to things like that because it's a bigger plant and it catches the wind more. If you get hit by wind, it probably means you had a good crop coming. We couldn't get a block of corn good enough to weigh, so we scratched it.

"Good one minute, gone the next."

Despite the new trophies, Jake, sounded more like a demanding coach than a farmer when he said he was "disappointed" by last year's performance, which Ryan went on to explain.

"For the whole country, as it turns out, yields were down," Ryan said. "Overall, our best yield ever is 337 and our goal is 400, so in those eyes, combined with the potential for the crop before the wind, it is a disappointment."

"Actually, my goal is 478," said Jake. "But that's just a goal."

Nevertheless, a win's a win.

"We were happy with those yields, because it wasn't a great growing year," said Jon. "We had really nasty, cold weather in May with a lot of clouds. Summertime was hot and dry and even though it's irrigated, you can't beat Mother Nature, right? And in the fall, we had an early frost.

"So, if you look at the growing year, you'd say, 'I'm tickled pink with those yields."

Sorghum became a key part of the Drozdes' rotation about eight years ago and continues to be a pleasant surprise as the Michigan climate becomes more conducive for its growth. The Drozdes pulled off an upset of sorts by finishing only behind entries from New Jersey and North Carolina.

"In theory, sorghum isn't supposed to like Michigan at all," said Ryan. "But we've never had trouble with our contest entry."

It's a relatively inexpensive option for the farm's poorer-producing ground.

"Ours goes into bird food," Jake said. "Ours started just to win a contest because Don Stall was winning the corn every year. We put it on 20 or 30 acres just to see if we could win, but it worked out so good because the deer don't touch the sorghum.

"Now we're putting it on all our harder-to-produce ground. It turned out to be pretty good. If it wouldn't have froze off, it would have been over 200 bushel, I think."

The buyer for the Drozds' sorghum is located in Rensselaer, Ind.

"It's not a super-far haul, but we can't quite afford to put it into large production like corn and soybeans because it's probably just a tad too far," Ryan said. "When you factor everything in together, it's very cheap to grow and it's very similar to the inputs for soybeans. It'll be a decent money-maker."

For the Drozds, the Commodity Classic is a convention and trade show that's not unlike the annual national college basketball coaches' convention held in conjunction with the Final Four, where ideas are exchanged and information is shared.

"That's a big perk because it's a huge educational and networking experience for us," said Ryan, who in 2017 graduated from Purdue University with a degree in farm management. "The better you do and the more involved you get with the contests, the more connected you get and the more you learn.

"That helps your overall operation because you translate what you've learned from the competition and you kind of dumb it down to the rest of your operation. The networking has by far been the biggest benefit from succeeding."

The Drozds have forged friendships with farmers across the country, including some, like David Hula of Virginia, who are among the best in the world.

"He's the corn king with 616 bushels to the acre," said Jon. "We talk quite often, and we've walked his fields and he comes here and walks our fields. We've learned a lot from him.

"There is a select group that chases the high yields."

When it all comes down to it, the Drozds trace their competitive instincts back to Jon's father, the late Tom Drozd.

"He farmed some, but his big thing was the seed business," Jon said. "He was very, very active in helping his customers achieve high yields over the years."

"My grandpa was kind of a pioneer of advanced practices in the state of Michigan," added Ryan. "He was always the first one to spread the word about new things to try and do. I think that drive translates to what we're doing."

What's next? Full-contact farming?

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