By Marlee Moore
On-farm research pushes plants to the limit at Henderson Farms.
“We take a lot of chances,” said Chad Henderson, who grows wheat, corn and soybeans with his father, Mike Henderson, and cousin, Stuart Sanderson.
Their trial-and-error, extreme approach maximizes production by pushing plants as far as possible with inputs such as fertilizer and seed treatments, then dialing back to settle on a sustainable sweet spot they can replicate across the farm.
Personal research on their Tennessee Valley farmland has helped raise average yields by over 100 bushels in the last 20 years on both irrigated and non-irrigated land. Those eye-popping yields (their highest was 356 bushels of corn an acre on irrigated land in 2020) have scored prizes from organizations including the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).
But plaques and recognition don’t fuel their work.
“Awards come from research,” said Chad, 48. “They just help pave the way for our research and development. Then, we breed that into normal farming practices. Everyone thinks you need more fertilizer, more seed to raise yields. When you understand stress mitigation, then you open a lot of avenues.”
Take corn. A bag of corn seed covers 2.22 acres of planted land. By creating a real-time, on-farm utopia — combining seed treatments, herbicide applications and fertilizer — Henderson Farms is maximizing every seed’s potential by managing yield loss.
“All the genetics, all your good stuff is in that seed,” said Stuart, 50. “We’re not trying to capture yield. When the seed is planted, we are mitigating loss.”
On-farm research at their fields in Limestone, Madison and Morgan counties pays dividends as farm practices evolve and costs fluctuate. As Chad’s son, Jackson, joins the farm full time, he’ll manage research data and analyze its real effect.
“Nothing is more beneficial to you than what works on your farm,” Chad said. “When times get like this with high prices, I have a folder of information I can check back and figure out how to grow a crop in these conditions.”
For example, seed treatments help cut costs, increase planting efficiency and improve yields, when compared to in-furrow applications. Planting efficiency helps the farm save two-thirds on up-front fertilizer costs. That adds up.
“We’re making that plant fat and happy where it’s at,” Stuart said. “For every bushel of corn you want to make, experts say you need 1 unit of nitrogen. Some of our largest dryland yields have come from a .7-unit ratio. We’re 30% under industry standards.”
Stuart and Chad are working to leave the farm in a good place — in the black — for the next generation, just like their parents did.
“They went through some really tough times in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Chad said. “We could have come in here and operated off what our parents built. But we’re trying to make it better for the next generation.”
Henderson Farms has carefully cultivated relationships over the years. Stuart won the Alabama Farmers Federation’s 2006 Outstanding Young Farm Family contest. Connections made while competing nationally pushed him to be involved in other organizations where he is continually growing his knowledge and advocating for agriculture.
Chad values networking and idea-sharing, too. Through Xtreme Ag, he helps guide a community of farmers who share information to overcome adversity on the farm. He’s also part of “Corn Warriors,” a streaming TV show providing behind-the-scenes insights from six row crop farms. All six corn warriors won their respective states’ NCGA high-yield contests in 2021.
Chad said it’s a testament to research and time spent caring for their crops.
“The best footprints to see in a field are your own,” Chad said.