A kernel count puts farmers one step closer to an accurate yield estimate.
Hot, dry weather won’t be the only thing depressing yields this year. You need to get out in the field to make an accurate prognosis.
Drought conditions have depressed corn yields in many parts of the country. That much is dead certain. But what will be much less obvious amid the carnage are the specific reasons corn plants didn’t grow to their full potential, produced stunted cobs, or are missing many kernels.
Agronomists at the recent Corn College events in Coldwater, Mich., presented the farmers in attendance with the tips they need to do proper forensic science on their corn crops. They also gave the audience plenty of sound advice to improve yields next year, when, as everyone hopes, conditions will be better.
When asked if they could project their ear count today, only a few farmers raised their hands. Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie told attendees that they need to be in their fields once a week, with a tape measure, shovel, hatchet, knife, planting schedule and historical data.
"I’m a big believer in evaluating the situation, trying to figure out how much we might have over-sold," he says. "If we changed our corn program, and we aren’t counting things, how do we know if we had success?"
Everyone needs a regular, objective measure of crop progress, especially today.
"I don’t want my morning coffee with a bunch of depressed farmers to affect what I see in the field. You need to open your eyes and take an accurate appraisal of the situation."
The drought won’t be the only critical factor negatively affecting yield this year, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Missy Bauer told the group. Some corn plants may not have received proper care and feeding during their early stages.
"I suspect this year we’ll have some of the biggest swings—field to field, hybrid to hybrid—that we’ve had in years," she says. "You could have 100 bushel swings from one hybrid to the next, depending on the timing of stress."
The secret to a high yield is stopping stress from the get-go, says Bauer, who strongly recommends using starter fertilizer.
"It advances the maturity of the corn, sometimes by 5 to 7 days. At a minimum, it should include nitrogen, phosphorous, and zinc. You get a bigger, greener plant by advancing maturity from the get-go."
There are many reasons why farmers would want to advance maturity, not the least of which is that plants will be in a better position to withstand early frost and dry conditions at harvest. They may also go through pollination sooner, improving the chances for big yields.
The healthiest corn has the best root growth, and lateral seminal roots—not just main roots—are a key part of that equation, Bauer explained. Having four roots rather than two will dramatically affect the size of corn. "We see a lot of correlation between what seed roots look like and the final corn looks like," she says.