With forecasts of lower corn prices in 2015, many corn growers are wondering if they should continue trying to increase production or cut costs.
Most growers try to do both, according to. Joe Lauer, University of Wisconsin-Extension state corn specialist, who spoke recently at the Wisconsin Corn/Soy Expo at Wisconsin Dells.
Lower corn prices mean farmers must know their cost of production. "Concentrate on the basics and realize that timing is everything," Lauer said. "Question every input in the farm's production practices, and increase efficiencies by relying more on scouting for in-season decisions."
Selecting the right hybrids is the most important management decision, Lauer said. He noted farmers should use independent yield trial data and multi-location averages.
"Hybrid selection is really critical because it dictates your management style," Lauer explained.
Pay attention to seed costs. "If you are looking at two hybrids that are $50 to $75 apart in seed cost, pick the cheaper hybrid," Lauer said. "Every hybrid has to stand on its own.
"Buy only the traits you need," he advised. "Traits do not add to yield. They protect the yield you've got out there."
Conventional hybrids might be an option this year, he said.
"But I think everyone should consider planting Bt hybrids that have the European corn borer trait."
UW corn hybrid trials show the difference between the top yielding hybrid and the lowest yielding hybrid in the trial is 70 bushels per acre. That puts the average yield swing for a hybrid selection decision at 42%.
Since 2010, conventional hybrids have yielded similar to the trial average in four of five years, Lauer noted. The exception was during drought in 2012.
The easiest yield bump a farmer can get is from crop rotation, which has been shown by UW trials to increase corn yields between 10% and 19%.
"The rotation effect lasts two years at most," he said.
Lauer said a seed treatment is needed in Wisconsin for corn production. At least 20% of untreated seeds die but treated seed reduces seed death to between 5% and 10%.
Another key ingredient to growing corn, Lauer said, is the planting date.
"The planting date sets up the season."
Years when farmers are forced to plant late due to cold and/or wet conditions result in lower corn yields and higher moisture at harvest.
The disadvantages of planting early are increased seedling diseases, soil crusting, late spring frosts and problems with European corn borers.
"The number of days from planting to emergence is a key factor in determining the amount of seedling disease infecting the crop," he said. "Growers need to minimize early season stress."
UW-Extension research at Arlington shows the planting date when maximum yield is achieved ranges from April 10 to May 3 depending on the year.
"The optimum planting dates at Arlington are between April 28 and May 1," Lauer said.
Yield is still at 95% of maximum as late as May 12-19, Lauer said, noting grain yield decreases 0.9 bushels per acre per day after May 10 and increases to 2.6 bushels per acre per day lost after June 1.
"Once you get past May 20, you are looking at a 3% yield loss per day," he said. "Just be ready to go and don't miss the opportunities you may have."
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Fertilizer, especially nitrogen, is not the place to cut costs, Lauer said. He advised farmers to soil test and efficiently apply needed nutrients using the cheapest form of fertilizer per unit of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Manure and legume credits can help reduce purchased fertilizer cost.
Plant density, according to Lauer, has the most potential to improve yields.
"You should be growing 3,000 to 5,000 more plants per acre than you were 10 years ago," he said.
The plant density that maximizes grain yield is 39,000 plants per acre. Forage yields continue to increase up to about 48,000 plants per acre, but there is a yield and quality trade-off. Lauer put the economic optimum for silage, as measured by milk per acre, at about 6,000 plants per acre greater than the grain maximum yield plant density.
He said, 30,000 plants per acre translates into a yield between 140 and 200 bushels per acre.
"The economic optimum yield is around 33,000 plants per acre," Lauer noted.
He advised planting one round with 3,000 to 5,000 more seeds per acre and then figure out the yield.
"You should do this every year."