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Hedge Your Corn Crop against Drought

December 18, 2012
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
Corn Planting Indiana

Conventional wisdom says lowering your corn plant populations will help boost yields if dry weather conditions prevail in 2013.

That may or may not be a good strategy, depending on your soil type, management practices and hybrids selected.

Here’s what the experts say to consider before you head to the field next spring.

Higher plant populations are a trend farmers have followed in recent years to boost corn yields. Last season, though, that practice appeared to backfire in some drought-hit areas. There, producers with lower plant populations often harvested better yields because fewer plants meant less competition for available moisture. The obvious question now: should farmers in dry areas lower their plant populations in 2013?

"Plant populations need to stay about where they are," says Steve Gauck, team sales agronomist in southern Indiana and central Kentucky for Becks Hybrids.

"If you want to make some minor changes that’s fine, but don’t make a huge adjustment just because Mother Nature threw us a curve ball last season," he adds.

Darren Hefty agrees. "If it’s shaping up to be a dry season, you might back off populations a tick, say 500 plants, but be cautious—you don’t want to go overboard," says Hefty who co-owns Hefty Seed Company, Baltic, S.D., with his brother, Brian.

The most important considerations in any year are to have a good understanding of the hybrids you selected, the type of ground they can perform in best and what agronomic practices will coax the most yield out of each one, adds Ken Ferrie, Farm Journal field agronomist, based in Heyworth, Ill.

"It’s important to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each hybrid and then manage for both," he notes.

Mike Kavanaugh, AgriGold agronomy manager, notes that corn growers have different soil types, row configurations, fertility programs and overall yield environments, and that this criteria should be matched to the hybrids they select each year.

"It is a fact that some genetics prefer higher populations and some don’t and that perfect growing conditions can maximize yield, but when extreme hot, dry conditions occur, all genetics are susceptible to plant cannibalization which ultimately creates another set of issues," Kavanaugh says. "Get with your seedsman and make sure you understand the limits of your hybrids."

University of Illinois agronomist Fred Below doesn’t disagree with Kavanaugh but says higher corn populations can be a benefit in a dry year if farmers manage their crop intensively.
The reason is that more corn plants in the field can absorb more sunlight, even if plant leaves are rolled. That sunlight translates to more yield.

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RELATED TOPICS: Corn, Agronomy, Crops, drought

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