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Improve your corn’s nitrogen efficiency

Corn farmers will be seeking ways to improve nitrogen efficiency in order to keep a check on costs without hurting yields.

John Hart

January 27, 2023

3 Min Read
Green corn ears in a field.
Brad Haire

With high fertilizer and fuel prices continuing in 2023, corn farmers will be seeking ways to improve nitrogen efficiency in order to keep a check on costs without hurting yields.

North Carolina State University Extension corn specialist Ron Heiniger acknowledges it will be a challenge, but he said it can be done. At the North Carolina Commodities Conference at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham Jan. 13, Heiniger said one important key is to develop nodule roots early to ensure the corn plant uses the nitrogen you apply.

In addition, Heiniger said it is important to plant in a good environment with 40 to 50 growing degree units over those first four or five days after you plant. Good, stable temperatures and not too much rain at planting is important.

Certainly, weather will play a role, with Heiniger joking he was selling snake oil when he made his weather predictions for the year ahead. He said La Nina conditions should persist into Spring 2023.

“It will be cooler than normal at planting with a high likelihood of frequent rain events from the March through May period. When you see opportunities to plant corn this coming season, you need to jump on it and not trust that you’re going to another opportunity in late April and another opportunity in early May,” he said.

He noted that in the summer, the weather will return to El Nino very quickly which bodes well for late May through early July rainfall patterns. “If you look at our 50-year pattern for planting corn in and El Nino summer, you need to plant early. We will get more rainfall than we saw certainly last year in June, which is helpful. This is where we make most of our crop as far as yield is in June. However, we will see a return to hot weather in late July or August.”

“You have to get planting done so you can get this pollination done by the first week in July. Most of the time if you can get it in by the first week in May, we can beat these late season silking dates,” Heiniger said.

Heiniger emphasized there is nothing more important than how you start your crop.

“The weather this spring, the choices you make are going to set the stage. I talked with farmers who got almost no rain in June and made 130- and 140-bushel corn. They made a profit. How did they do that? They did it by getting a good start in that crop and getting those roots and finding those nutrients and water. Nothing beats a good start,” he said.

Heiniger also pointed out that starter fertilizer has less impact when planting conditions or ideal or when fertility levels in corn are very high.

“We can make large gains when we understand the optimum practices for our corn. We know that the right seeding rate matched to the right spacing, the right hybrid. I don’t need those 220 pounds of nitrogen that many of us put on, I can easily get by with 160 if I do the right management.”

At current corn prices, Heiniger said farmers need to shoot for yields of at least 130 bushels per acre to make a profit but yields over 150 bushels per acre would be better.

And while soybeans appear more competitive this year, Heiniger said corn still has its advantages. “The question is, ‘Can I get the rainfall to make a corn crop?’”

“Corn prices are showing signs of weakening due to planting intentions and fear of lower demand. But this could change overnight with change in planting intentions, changing demand or changes in yield projections,” Heiniger said.

About the Author(s)

John Hart

Associate Editor, Southeast Farm Press

John Hart is associate editor of Southeast Farm Press, responsible for coverage in the Carolinas and Virginia. He is based in Raleigh, N.C.

Prior to joining Southeast Farm Press, John was director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. He also has experience as an energy journalist. For nine years, John was the owner, editor and publisher of The Rice World, a monthly publication serving the U.S. rice industry.  John also worked in public relations for the USA Rice Council in Houston, Texas and the Cotton Board in Memphis, Tenn. He also has experience as a farm and general assignments reporter for the Monroe, La. News-Star.

John is a native of Lake Charles, La. and is a  graduate of the LSU School of Journalism in Baton Rouge.  At LSU, he served on the staff of The Daily Reveille.

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