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Need to power steeds boosts corn demand then and now

This isn't the first time in Mississippi agricultural history that demand for biofuel has encouraged huge corn plantings in the state.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, over a million acres of corn were planted annually in the Magnolia State to feed and power mules. Those sturdy steeds of yesteryear performed many Mississippi farmers' field operations prior to the widespread adoption of tractors.

Today, demand for ethanol has pushed corn acres in the state to the highest level since the 1960s, but it's still far short of what was planted during corn's heyday. The state grew more than 2 million acres of corn annually between 1931 and 1950 and planted as many as 3 million acres in 1942. More than 2.5 million acres of cotton were planted during back then.

But with mechanization, mule fuel is no longer a major destination for corn. Noted Erick Larson, Mississippi Extension corn specialist, “By the time we got into the 1970s, we were no longer feeding corn to livestock to work the fields, and corn went to 300,000 acres or less from 1969 through 1996, when corn prices went above $3.” This year, Mid-South corn acres are expected to jump to 2.99 million from 1.38 million last year.

According to USDA, Mississippi will plant 950,000 acres to corn in 2007, compared to 340,000 acres last year. Arkansas will increase from 190,000 acres to 560,000 acres; Louisiana, from 300,000 acres to 700,000 acres; and Tennessee from 550,000 acres to 780,000 acres.

There's still some question whether this acreage will be planted. Tennessee Extension corn specialist Angela Thompson noted in late March that some growers “haven't put any seed in the ground yet, and if they can't get a lot of planting done in the next two weeks, they may plant soybeans.”

Thompson said that west Tennessee corn planting was about 70 percent complete, but middle and east Tennessee “ have been too dry and hardly anything has been planted.”

Larson said Mississippi's final tally won't be known for a while. He estimated that about 76 percent of the state's corn crop had been planted by the end of March, a normal planting pace. But corn planters had been parked about a week due to dry weather.

“We usually don't have to worry about droughty conditions during March, but this year we basically have not gotten any rainfall the entire month. We don't have enough soil moisture to germinate corn.”

Larson expects final Mississippi corn acreage to fall between 700,000 acres and a million acres, with most of the increase in the Delta portion of the state.

Larson advises corn producers, especially those new to the crop, to pay attention to fertilizer management, particularly nitrogen. Also important — scouting for insect pests, herbicide timing and selection and irrigation scheduling.

“Corn can require water anytime between emergence and physiological maturity, so keep close tabs on soil moisture levels,” Larson advised. “Corn's maximum water use period is the four weeks from tasseling to early grain filling. But when (irrigation) needs to be initiated depends on environmental conditions during the season.

“Right now, we are rapidly depleting subsoil moisture levels. Fortunately the crop is small and water demands are relatively low. We need some rainfall to get the rest of the crop planted, but we still have plenty of time. We're within the optimum planting period. If we have some rain in the next week to 10 days (first week in April), we can plant the remainder of the crop.”

Corn producers in the Mid-South suffered extensive economic losses in 1998 due to aflatoxin contamination, but Larson doesn't expect significant problems this year. “Last year we had the second worst drought in climatological history dating back to 1895 and we had very slight problems with aflatoxin contamination. That's optimistic, but a lot depends on demand for corn at harvest. Demand eased a lot of the pressure associated with aflatoxin last year.”

Larson says over 90 percent of the corn in the Mississippi Delta is grown in Roundup Ready hybrids to combat the problem of glyphosate herbicide drift.

Larson noted that Bt corn “has proven to be a very profitable technology when corn borers are present, but the pest hasn't been as much of a problem recently, so the adoption rate is less than 50 percent of the acreage generally, statewide.”

Corn harvest is expected to stress the state's transportation infrastructure this fall. “Fortunately we have the Mississippi River and the Tombigbee Waterway and resources that utilize a lot of corn,” Larson said. “We normally consume twice as much corn as we produce in the state. We have limited long-term storage, so we cannot store a significant portion of the crop. We'll have to rely on short-term storage and moving the corn out of the state as soon as possible.”

On March 30, USDA projected total U.S. corn area at 90.5 million acres, which would be the highest acreage planted in 63 years. In the Mid-South, much of the increase is coming at the expense of cotton. If USDA's projections prove accurate, there will be a 40 percent decline this year in Mississippi's cotton acreage this year, dropping about 490,000 acres — from 1.23 million acres to 740,000 acres. This would be the first year since 1958 that corn acreage exceeded cotton acreage.

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