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Corn recipe: good agronomics, patience and luck

Last fall, Gary Shepard, a long-time rice and soybean producer, decided 2007 was the right time to give corn a go. The third-generation producer was excited to branch out and try a new, lucrative crop.

Then, with hybrids ordered and field prep work done, he waited. Even while farmers all around him were planting in March and early April, while corn was the talk of the South and the itch to put seed in the ground was almost intolerable, Shepard waited.

And all the while, Roger Gipson preached patience. Go too early, the Pioneer agronomist cautioned his long-time friend, and a freeze could take the new crop out.

So, when corn was lost to the Easter freeze, Shepard’s wasn’t among it.

“Let’s be honest,” says Shepard, who farms outside Corning, Ark. “I was lucky and it’s often better to be lucky than good. It was tough sitting out while everyone else was planting.”

At the time, Shepard had worked the soils and pulled his beds. But with rather dry soils, the two men feared there wasn’t enough moisture for most of the seed to germinate.

“We talked about it and figured if we planted into the dry soils, there would be seed that emerged,” says Gipson. “But we figured there would be a bunch of misses.”

A few days before Easter, Shepard’s acreage finally caught a rain.

“I started planting Thursday or Friday. So when the freeze happened, I didn’t have any corn emerged.

“In fact, I was only able to plant for two hours the first day. The next day, I began planting hard.”

When the freeze arrived, “that first little 20 acres I planted turned out skippy. That’s how close I was to losing the stand.”

Gipson says a farmer nearby with the same Pioneer hybrid — 33M57 — “planted one day in a field and the next day planted across the turn-row in another field. Turned out, one day made a huge difference. He ended up with 20,000 plants per acre in the first field and 30,000 plants per acre in the second.”

Happier harvest

One reason Shepard — who farms 2,200 acres — was drawn to corn “is I grow a lot of rice and soybeans and harvesting them quickly isn’t easy. Turned out, corn allowed harvest to run a lot smoother, with less rush.”

With about 25 percent of his land in corn, he “was able to begin harvest in late August/early September. That’s acreage I didn’t have to worry about sitting too late and tough rains or hail falling on it. The last few years have been kind of rough late in the harvest here.”

Last year, when he began considering corn, “it was at $3.25, or so. Beans were still at $6.50 to $7. Economically, it looked like I could make more money with corn.”

Even under gray skies, the row of bins — 230,000 bushels of storage space — behind Shepard’s office shine.

“Some were already up to take care of our rice. But since corn came into the mix, I needed more storage. That’s why the four new bins were put in.

“Bins are a very important part of the farm. At this point, you have to make money every way you can. There aren’t any ‘free’ spots in farming now. You’ve got to be on top of everything. Bins are just a part of that.

“If I had hauled my corn off, all it would have brought was around $2.07 per bushel. Now, it’s up to $3.70 to $4 — just for holding it a few weeks! And I can dry the grain down cheaper in the bins.”

Agronomics and varieties

In the past, Shepard’s cropping practices hewed to the traditional. “We’d plant a year of soybeans and then the next year it’d be rice. With 2,200 acres, half would be in soybeans and half in rice.”

On a five-year average, he likes soybeans in the 50-bushel range. “This year, we averaged 64 to 65 bushels. With rice, the average is between 175- and 180-bushel yields. This year, we had about 220- to 230-bushel rice (see sidebar for more on Shepard’s NCGA yield contest field). This was a very good yielding year. I’m just trying to make the maximum money per acre.”

Gipson says Pioneer 33F85 was planted on a 105-acre field behind rice. That isn’t a typical rotation and “many people are frightened of it. But if you do it right, corn can be raised behind rice. The field (which yielded around 210 bushels per acre) is sandy and excellent corn ground. I think he’ll plant more corn there.”

Gipson and Shepard have worked together for at least 15 years. Originally, Gipson was an area Extension agent before moving to Pioneer as an agronomist.

“When you’re pushing someone to try something new, it helps to have a track record with them,” says Gipson. “And I told him, in Arkansas, corn hybrid selection should be based on two factors: soil type and how well a specific hybrid can be managed. In other words, if you’ve got large pivot fields where you’ll encounter stress, it’s best to go with a hybrid that has decent drought tolerance.”

Shepard’s corn was all furrow-irrigated. “That’s where a crop can really be managed and yield potential maximized.

“Gary had some fields — excellent soils, good fertility, plenty of water — where I knew a hybrid like 31D61 would work well. That was planted on about 150 acres. It’s a racehorse with extremely high yield potential.”

Shepard also planted 33M54, a 114-day hybrid. Another he utilized, 31D61, is a 120-day hybrid that will be available in 2009. The 33M54 was selected because it does well on mixed-type soils and in heavier soils.

Shepard is diligent with taking soil samples and following test recommendations. The standard recommendation for the past year “was about 100 units of phosphorus and 120 units of potash.

“As for nitrogen, in the majority of fields, we incorporated a three-way split. We applied 80 units of N either at planting or just when the corn was coming up. Then, we came back at V4/V5 with another 100 units of N. At pre-tassel, we flew on 100 pounds of urea.”

The exception to that was in corn following rice. In those fields, another 40 units of urea were applied.

One of the main things Shepard has learned with corn is the need for properly drained soils. If a field holds water, “you simply can’t put corn on it.”

As for irrigation, “I watered about 12 times. Sometimes it was a weekly watering. But during pollination and grain-fill, I was irrigating every three or four days. It was very difficult to keep up.”

Being willing to keep irrigating can “really separate operations,” says Gipson. “Those willing to stay out in hot fields may not get top yields. But I guarantee you those that aren’t willing to even try won’t get top yields.

“Yeah, you’ve got to have a good hybrid planted. But if you don’t keep water and fertilizer on corn, it won’t matter.”

From tassel to almost dent, a corn plant can utilize 0.3 inch of water daily. A single irrigation a week usually isn’t enough.

“Gary stayed with his irrigation and it paid off. A first-year corn grower averaging 220 to 225 bushels across his crop is fantastic.”


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