The Corn King of Pennsylvania

This champion grower is about as far from the Corn Belt as he can get, but you wouldn’t know from looking at his yields. And he doesn’t mind telling you what it takes to be a winner.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

David will get on his hands and knees and show you his recipe for success.

David will get on his hands and knees and show you his recipe for success.

David Wolfskill will share the secrets of his success; he just won’t guarantee you can follow his recipe.

He held the Pennsylvania state corn yield record for 2 years, and last year was the National Corn Growers Association yield champion in No-Till/Strip-Till Non-Irrigated Class A, beating out growers from the Great Plains and the South. His official yield in the 5-acre contest plot was almost 297 bushels an acre. And he says he doesn’t do anything different on that 5 acres than he does on the rest of the farm.

Wolfskill welcomes a good many visitors to his farm in southeastern Pennsylvania—everyone from reporters to producers on farm tours. If you follow him through his high-yielding, prizewinning corn fields, he’ll more than likely get on his hands and knees and show you what more than three generations of solid stewardship will do for soil.

Wolfskill farms 1,400 acres in Wernersville, just west of Reading, Pa., with his father, Mark. He and his father have a long-standing relationship in the business, going back to David’s childhood. Even as a little boy, David went out into the fields with his dad. “And my dad still puts in a full day,” David says.

That kind of family investment pays dividends in the soil. And this is why it may be hard for other growers to catch up: decades of rigorous, meticulous management.

David’s father, Mark, still works on the farm, and helped continue the generations of stewardship on the original family farmstead that contributed to making his son a yield champion.

David’s father, Mark, still works on the farm, and helped continue the generations of stewardship on the original family farmstead that contributed to making his son a yield champion.

The Wolfskills have practiced no-till for 20 years. A 20-year buildup of organic matter and continued no-till practice mean he doesn’t have to dump artificial fertilizers on the fields. “I’m pulling organic nitrogen out of the ground,” David says. “They say you need 11/3 to 11/2 pounds of nitrogen per bushel of corn. I only put down 150 pounds an acre. The rest I’m pulling naturally. I figure 30 to 40 pounds that the previous crop of soybeans has fixed in the soil, and then I pull more from decomposing residual.”

What he’ll proudly show you on his hands and knees is the castings from an exploding worm population he credits to no-till. “Worm castings are one of the most nutrient-rich fertilizers,” he says. “Plus, we get more aeration, and more water infiltration.”

Worms make the most of residual, too. Wolfskill shows visitors the tiny mounds of nutrient-rich residual around worm holes where the creatures have collected it and taken it down into the soil. “Worms pretty much do our tillage.”

Nutrient plan. It takes year-round management to get to that point, though. Wolfskill does soil sampling in fall and early winter, and any fertilizer needs are addressed then and there. This way any deficiencies can be handled early on, and the nutrients have time to work their way into the soil naturally before planting.

Wolfskill’s 280-head dairy herd is a built-in fertilizer advantage. Wolfskill applies liquid manure when fields are dry or frozen. The 90,000- to 100,000-pound tankers that carry the manure don’t compact the soil; the structure stands up to the weight, thanks to the organic matter.

Meticulous equipment maintenance. Winter is time for maintenance, too, but Wolfskill takes it to extremes by necessity. “I tear everything down on the planter, and put it back together, checking every aspect. Everything has to be 110% ready to go.” No-till makes that all the more vital. “That machine is doing everything for me: moving the residual out of the way, making the slot, placing the seed, closing the seed,” he says. “So everything has to be gone over, and I want every row unit doing exactly the same thing. The corn planter is only as good as the person sitting in the tractor seat.

“If you take a planter that’s not in great shape into a conventional tillage situation, you can have a decent run. But you do that with no-till and you’re a failure out of the starting gate,” he adds.

He customizes his planter with spiked wheels on the back, which don’t “pinch the trench” as tight as smooth wheels. “It’s the equivalent of pouring loose dirt over the trench instead of packing it. It saves me a lot of time on emergence.”

This was Wolfskill’s first year in the fields with a new 16-row White Planter Model 8831, an upgrade from his 8-row 6515. “I’m always looking at equipment upgrades,” he says.

Seeding rates. Wolfskill wants to continue pushing plant populations. Last year he seeded the winning plot at 35,600 per acre. This year he’s pushing 40,000. Eighty to ninety percent of his corn is two passes and done: one for the planter, one for the sprayer, and he’s done until he comes in with the combine.

From there, it’s a combination of genetics and Mother Nature. He’s always reviewing new hybrids. “I’ve been in the contest 3 years, and planted three different hybrids,” he says. The winning plot was a stacked hybrid from Dekalb—DKC61-69—that helped the stand survive a rare July drought.

Damage from storms isn’t typically a problem, nor are droughts and extreme heat. “We get enough moisture from the coast, and we’re in a perfect temperature situation.” In fact, he calls Berks County, Pa., the perfect growing environment for, well, anything. “We can grow it all here.” Besides that, he says bug pressure is almost a non-issue.

Winning a contest goes a long way to helping Wolfskill expand into rental property. About 60% of the land he farms now is rented, and both the landowners and the neighbors appreciate Wolfskill’s conservative management approach.

He’s competitive, but not for the competition itself. “When you challenge yourself, you improve yourself. You push to do better.” As a national winner, he also gets a trip to Commodity Classic. “When I take that trip, I’m comparing notes with the best corn growers in the country.”

What are his chances to repeat? Early on this year, it was uncommonly cool and wet in Berks County. But Wolfskill is optimistic. Confident, in fact. And it helps that for him, working is more fun than anything. “When I’m in that combine shelling corn, I’m a kid in a candy store. You’re seeing the fruit of your labor . . . it’s magical.”

Nothing magic in those high yields, though—just generations of hard work. For others in the competition, that’s a tough act to follow.