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As corn prices head downward, producers find it’s important not to skimp on inputs

WEST TENNESSEE corn producer Brad Tinsley says pushing corn yield is more important than ever as commodity prices continue to fall
<p>WEST TENNESSEE corn producer Brad Tinsley says pushing corn yield is more important than ever as commodity prices continue to fall.</p>
&ldquo;Today, it&rsquo;s more important than ever to make a good yield,&rdquo; says Mercer, Tennessee producer Brad Tinsley.

As harvest season for the Mid-South corn crop was approaching, Mercer, Tenn., farmer Brad Tinsley was cautiously optimistic about yield potential.

Some of the best weather ever for corn production in west Tennessee had made for a fine corn crop for Tinsley, who also grows soybeans and wheat.

It’s difficult not to feel a little excitement about yields, he says, even though experience has taught him not to count kernels before they’re in the bin.

“We had a great stand, and corn came out of the ground growing well and never stopped. I’m really anxious to see what this crop is going to do. It’s looking like the best corn crop that I’ve ever had,” Tinsley said about two weeks away from harvest.

About 15 percent of his corn crop is irrigated, but because of ample beneficial rains this season, he expected that irrigation would likely provide only about a 20-bushel yield advantage for his 2014 crop.

Inputs are important

For Tinsley, strong corn yields are more important than ever, and in the face of falling commodity prices and the loss of direct payments, he’s not cutting back on inputs.

Lower corn prices “are definitely in the back of my mind, but today it’s more important than ever to make a good yield,” he says. “I don’t want to skimp on inputs that could affect yield. We’ll have to watch our spending a little closer and hope for a price rally this winter.”

Grain analyst Richard Brock estimates that USDA’s average corn yield projection for 2014, a record 167.4 bushels per acre, could be low, based on what he’s heard from producers in the Midwest and Mid-South. In fact, Brock says he wouldn’t be surprised if average corn yields were close to 180 bushels per acre.

Tinsley believes a lot of factors have come together that could make this year’s crop special.

Everyone’s pushing yield

“We’re all pushing our yields and trying to get as much as we can out of the crop,” he says. “The seed companies have helped, the local farmer co-ops have helped and the University of Tennessee has also helped provide information.

“A couple years ago, we could expect dryland yields of 130 bushels to 140 bushels. Today, they’re up to 150 bushels to 160 bushels. But that’s what we have to do with corn — push the yields higher.”

With two weeks still left until harvest, Tinsley was hesitant to project his corn yields. But he ventured a qualified guess: “I would be disappointed if we don’t harvest in the 190-bushel to 200-bushel range. For dryland corn, that’s great!”

On the downside, he’s concerned that corn production costs aren’t declining as quickly as corn prices.

“Nitrogen is usually the biggest cost for us, and it was down a little bit this year. But our chemical costs, especially for weed control, are becoming a big expense. With resistant weeds, and everybody trying to be proactive against resistance, it’s getting expensive.”

To keep costs down, Tinsley has implemented variable-rate nitrogen applications on his corn crop and is experimenting with variable seeding rates “to try and find that sweet spot. After last year, I upped my seeding rates across various management zones.

Constantly-improving technology

“I think with these new corn hybrids, we can increase the seeding rate, which is probably going to be a good thing this year because it was so wet. There is so much coming out in the future with the ability for variable-rate seeding and multi-hybrids — that technology is going to be incredible.”

Corn yields were promising in other parts of the Mid-South as well.

“Last year, Arkansas blew the top off our yield trend, with a state average yield of 187 bushels per acre,” says Jason Kelley, University of Arkansas Extension agronomist, wheat and feed grains.

“That was the highest yield of any state east of the Rockies. It shows that a lot of things went well. Early in the 2014 Arkansas harvest, we were hearing about a lot of good yields, too.”

Kelley says Mid-South growers began to manage corn more intensively when prices hit $6 to $8 a bushel, and good weather the last couple of years has added to that effort.

Cooler temps have helped

“The last two years, we’ve had relatively cooler temperatures. This year, Little Rock had the coolest average July temperature on record.”

It adds up to higher expectations for yield, says Kelley. “Last year really raised the bar, and this year could reiterate that.”

While lower prices are likely to reduce corn acres in Arkansas and the rest of the Mid-South in 2015, Kelley says many farmers have recognized the rotational benefits of corn on the following year’s crop, which should keep acres from falling too fast.

“Even though prices may be depressed right now, a lot of corn producers are talking about sticking to their rotation. Others are looking to play the markets more. There’s quite a bit of indecision though, because a lot of commodity prices are declining.”

Aberdeen, Miss., farmer David Fisher’s corn crop was looking average to above average as the 2014 season was winding down, but would have been excellent had it not been for another wet spring in Mississippi hill country.

Price will impact acres

“I think we got hurt a little bit early with all the rains, which caused us to lose some nitrogen. And I think that’s going to hurt our yields some.

“Other than that, insect pressure has been low. We had some southern rust, but we didn’t spray a fungicide because the corn was so far along we thought it wouldn’t get hit.”

Fisher believes lower prices could result in fewer corn acres on his farm next year, as well as a tightening up of inputs and applications. But he doesn’t want to sacrifice yield.

“Our hybrids have gotten better and produce a little more yield. We’ve also been doing a lot more soil sampling, and we’re paying closer attention to fertility.

“Those are the two main factors for the good crops we’ve been seeing, other than the exceptional rainfall that we’ve been getting the last two or three years during the growing season.”

Resistant weeds have also been problematic for Fisher and have increased his weed control costs significantly. “That’s going to be our next big challenge,” he says.

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