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Delta’s future: 300-bushel corn?

Hi! And welcome to the college of corn, where your challenge will be to master the know-how for producing a top-yielding crop — at least 300 bushels per acre.

But be forewarned, say Illinois agronomists and corn experts Chris Kaufman and Jerry Hartsock, it won’t be a sop course.

“If you’re going to be an exceptional corn producer, it’s going to take total belief and total commitment,” says Kaufman. “You’ve got to think and act like a 300-bushel producer. It’s going to hurt — there’ll be pain every single day of the year.”

To borrow the mantra of the buff dudes at the local gym: No pain, no gain.

Kaufman, who’s general manager of AgVenture PureLine Seed, Princeton, Ill., and Hartsock, with Cutting Edge Consulting, Geneseo, Ill., were at Clarksdale, Miss., recently to conduct the first in a planned series of AgVenture University maximum profit seminars for Mid-South growers, sponsored by Dulaney Seed, Inc.

Although widespread corn production is a latter-day phenomenon for a Mid-South agriculture long steeped in cotton, soybeans, and rice, Hartsock — who, Kaufman says, “knows more about corn production than anyone I know” — thinks growers here have only scratched the surface of corn’s potential.

“I believe corn has a great future in the Delta. You have a great competitive advantage because of your soils and water. On your ‘ice cream’ ground, there’s no reason you can’t achieve maximum yields with continuous corn year after year.

“I know you’ve been told that monocropping is a no-no,” Hartsock says, “but most of the country’s record corn producers have grown corn on the same land year-in and year-out. These pioneers in corn yields are not researchers working with small plots, but real world farmers who’ve set goals for themselves and determined to do everything that’s needed to get the most out of a crop.

“I believe corn is going to be the new ‘king’ on a lot of Delta farms, either in a rotation program or as a monoculture crop.”

Many experts say modern corn varieties have the potential to produce 600 bushels,” Kaufman notes. “If that’s possible, why can’t we realistically expect to produce half that? A lot of producers are growing 200-bushel corn, but why settle for only a third of what the crop is capable of? If you have an open mind and you’re willing to learn, you can become a 300-bushel producer.”

So, you may ask, why isn’t every producer doing it?

“Most farmers believe yield is out of their control, that weather is the major influence on crop destiny,” Kaufman says. “But you set what your goal is, and you’ve got to resolve to be better than everyone else.

“300-bushel corn is going to be the national average one of these days. The pace is picking up. You have to want to get there first. You have to think and act like a 300-bushel producer. You have to get your head and your heart right — then the agronomy will follow.

“The marketplace we’re in now is a totally new ballgame, and you need to do all you can to enhance yields to take advantage of it. You need to raise the bar on every field you have, based on your specific conditions.”

In analyzing top-producing corn crops in 2007, Kaufman says some of the commonalities were:

High ear count was a more critical factor than plant population. “There is a definite correlation between the number of full ears and high yield. If you don’t have a sufficient full ear count, everything else is secondary.”

Producers used the best, most balanced fertility program for their target yield.

Traited varieties were used for maximum protection from insects and diseases.

Foliar fungicides were used at least once, often twice, resulting in most cases in a 10-bushel to 20-bushel response.

The crop was harvested early.

“You want a crop that never lacks for anything,” Kaufman says. “You’ve got to have all the elements working together, in a series of planned steps. You can’t skip one of them.”

Stand quality overrides plant population, he says. “Looking at Mid-South fields, we’ve seen many instances where 10 bushels to 40 bushels per acre were left on the table because of poor stand quality.”

For high-yielding corn, Hartsock says, every plant should be a carbon copy of the one next to it.

“You want the most uniform crop possible — equidistant spacing, no skips, no multiple seed drops, every plant just alike in stalk diameter and height. When the crop comes out of the ground, you want uniform seedlings, and as the crop grows, you want to look out over the field and see complete uniformity.”

Too many producers don’t plant corn deep enough, Hartsock says.

“They think planting at 2 inches is too deep. But at that depth, the corn plant will develop five sets of nodal roots. If you plant shallower, you risk getting only four sets.

“Many growers think planting shallower in cold spring soils will allow warmth to reach the seed more quickly. But planting more deeply, that extra dirt over the seed acts as protective insulation until the soil warms sufficiently for germination. The fitness of the soil environment surrounding the seed is the driver for germination, not soil temperature.

“High-yielding corn is all about uniformity — if you don’t get a perfect stand, you can’t get maximum yield.

“I can’t stress enough,” Hartsock says, “that your seed should have the best warm/cold germination numbers you can get. Second best isn’t good enough when you’re shooting for maximum yield. With $6 corn, you don’t want to settle for less than top quality seed.”

Corn can be “imprinted” by early weed pressures, resulting in reduced yield, he says, so weed competition should be eliminated quickly.

Fertilizer should be in split applications — a starter of nitrogen/phosphorus/micronutrients at planting, followed by an early sidedress of one-half to two-thirds of the total N load, and a foliar application if needed.

“Apply a foliar fungicide when corn is in full tassel/early silk stage for maximum response,” Hartsock says. “This can be a one-time application at the regular rate, one-time at the heavy rate, or twice at the lighter rate, depending on rainfall/disease pressure. In the Delta, foliar fungicides should almost always be used.”

Mid-South growers “face a huge challenge in the next 10 years,” he says. “With input costs continuing to go up, you’ll need a maximum profit system to be competitive.

“Projections are that the world’s population will increase by 70 million through 2050; China, India, and other countries will continue to increase their middle class. Some analysts say we’ll need to double the world’s food production by 2050 — but it will have to come from basically the same number of acres as today.

“300-bushel corn can put you in a position to meet these changes, stay profitable, and pass on your farming heritage to the next generation. Yours is a business that builds equity, helps families to stay together, and feeds and clothes the world. But you’ve got to think and act like 300-bushel producers.”

Recalling the “huge change of wealth on America’s farms in the 1980s,” Hartsock says, “those who survived were those who adapted and found ways to cope with the challenges of a changing agriculture.”


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