Ron Heiniger encourages farmers who are considering giving up on planting corn next year due to astronomical fertilizer prices to think again, as long as they can pencil in a good yield.
Speaking at a Nov. 5 Zoom meeting, “Utilizing Fertilizers More Efficiently,” Heiniger, North Carolina State University Extension corn specialist said even in a scenario where there is a 230% increase in nitrogen costs in 2022, corn at good yields remains competitive compared to soybeans or grain sorghum.
“The controlling factor is yield. How convinced am I that I can get these yields,” Heiniger said.
Higher corn prices will certainly help, Heiniger said, but yields of 150 bushels per acre are the breaking point for profitable corn in times of high fertilizer prices; yields higher than 180 bushels per acre are even better.
“Soybeans can return more than corn at a lower cost figure. If I can get soybean yields up to 60 bushels, I can make soybeans very competitive with corn at these increasing nitrogen costs,” Heiniger said.
In marginal land, where a minimum yield of 150 bushels per acre is not guaranteed, soybeans become a good choice. “If you cannot guarantee a good yield, and you have higher risks because of the cost impacts, soybeans are a far less risky choice,” Heiniger said.
“If we see 300% to 400% increase in nitrogen, that corn yield has to be higher and higher and higher. If we have to go to something other than soybeans, then sorghum becomes a crop that has some role in our decision making here,” Heiniger said, noting that many new sorghum varieties are resistant to the troublesome sugarcane aphid, which makes grain sorghum a better option in North Carolina now. He says a yield of 100 bushels per acre is needed for profitable sorghum in North Carolina.
And indeed, planting conditions make all the difference in the world. Heiniger said the 2021 corn crop, the best ever for North Carolina — where many farmers made well over 200 bushels per acre — is testament to that. Heiniger pegged the 2021 average yield in North Carolina at a record 155 bushels. Some farmers achieved yields of a staggering 500 bushels per acre, while many made 300 to 400 bushels per acre.
“It was one of the best planting seasons I can remember and as a result we had the best crop anyone can remember. Uniform emergence and early growth favor root development which provides the foundation for nutrient uptake. Let’s make sure we have the best planting conditions in this coming year so we can rely on reducing some fertilizer rates and using more of this fertilizer we have stored in our soil,” Heiniger said.
In ideal planting years, such as 2021, starter fertilizer isn’t as important. But Heiniger cautioned against eliminating starter fertilizer all together, especially when planting conditions aren’t ideal. He advised at least 50 units of nitrogen at planting time. and phosphorous must also be part of the starter mix in order to increase yields.
In 2020, Heiniger said North Carolina farmers saw a 40 to 50 bushel per acre increase in yields by using starter fertilizer because planting conditions that year weren’t ideal, with cold wet weather. Starter fertilizer was needed to give corn a good start.
“You’re using starter to try to enhance growth and early root development. Can I just eliminate starter and forget about it entirely and save that money? Well, maybe not. One of the things starter does is it takes into account some of the different environments you have,” Heiniger said.