Darrell Smith, Farm Journal Conservation & Machinery Editor
Experience is the best teacher, and winter is an ideal time for reflection. So, before your memory of 2006 grows hazy, take a few minutes to think about what you learned from last year's corn crop. Then, decide how you can put that knowledge to work in 2007. Here is a list of items to consider.
Apply fertilizer only where it's needed. "Dealers tell me some farmers are saying they're going to apply more ‘insurance' nitrogen [N], phosphorus and potassium because corn prices are high,” says Richard Vanden Heuvel of VH Consulting in Hudson, Wis. "They figure they can afford the additional fertilizer, and they don't want to sacrifice bushels. But, that is not the way to make an agronomic decision. A corn plant doesn't know whether corn is selling for $2 a bushel or $4.”
Have a backup plan for strip-till. Wet weather in parts of the Midwest last harvest was a reminder that if you strip-till, you must have a plan B ready in case you make ruts through the field or can't get strip-till completed.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of being patient at harvest, letting the soil dry, keeping the combine light and keeping your grain cart on the ends,” says Ken Ferrie, Farm Journal Field Agronomist. "But, if 35% or 40% of a field is down, you can't delay harvest any longer because you may lose the rest.”
If you put ruts and compaction in the field, give up strip-till for that season and chisel the field, he advises.
Sometimes you get the crop out without problems, but then the soil is too wet to build a good strip. In that case, Ferrie recommends doing your strip-till in the spring. Use N solution instead of anhydrous ammonia or just pull the bar and apply N later. You will need a rain between spring strip-till and planting to settle the soil for optimal field conditions.
Scout for pests before planting. In parts of the Corn Belt, corn populations were cut by an unusually high population of white grubs and Japanese beetle grubs.
"Those are not really aggressive insects,” says Tim Smith of Cropsmith Inc. in Monticello, Ill. "But, high populations of the two—combined with cool soil conditions that slowed seedling growth and gave the grubs more time to feed—led to reduced plant populations in some fields.
"The solution is to scout fields ahead of planting. If you have high populations of those insects, you can change your insect control plans.”
"There are various options, depending on the insect,” Ferrie adds.
Be patient—then roll when the sun shines. "Because of cool, wet planting conditions and insect pressure, some farmers did not get the stand they anticipated,” Smith says.
Wet springs emphasize the need to wait for soil to dry, and then be ready to cover lots of acres when planting conditions are right. Dig down and examine the area beneath the tillage layer. Even if the surface is dry, if that lower area is wet, any field operations will cause compaction.
"If you feel you must plant when soil conditions are less than ideal, take the time to locate your driest fields and start with them,” he says.
Match population to soil. Any time you have less than optimum population you are potentially giving up yield. Your main goal should be to optimize population on your better soils. "If the soil will support it, an additional 2,000 plants may equate to 10 bu. to 15 bu. per acre more yield,” Smith says. "If you're not set up to vary planting rate within a field, make the adjustments on a field-by-field basis. Start by following the seed company's recommendation, and then adjust the rate based on your own experience.”
Count bugs before pollination. "In central Illinois, where we have the variant strain of corn rootworm that lays eggs in soybean fields, we have seen enough beetles in some corn fields to reduce pollination,” Smith says. "In those fields, insecticide treatments have proven very beneficial.”
Plan ahead for harvest. Through the years, you have formed a harvest routine based on the maturity of the corn and soybean varieties you grow. Last year, some farmers discovered how a small change in agronomics can result in downed corn, added harvest expense and lost income.
Planting an earlier-maturing hybrid threw a wrench into these growers' harvest game plan. "Farmers who normally grow 110-day corn seized upon a new, high-yielding, knock-'em-out hybrid, which happened to be 102-day maturity,” Ferrie says. "Those growers were used to harvesting their soybeans first. They had a rainy fall, and by the time they got to their corn, that new hybrid had dried to 14% moisture, and a lot of it was flat on the ground.”
You might also choose an earlier hybrid in order to get all the herbicide- and insect-resistance traits you want, Ferrie notes. Just make sure you also get all the standability you can. "Healthier stalks will buy you some time at harvest,” Ferrie says.
"Early maturing hybrids usually possess less disease resistance,” Ferrie points out. "So, plan to apply a fungicide, if needed. Plant your less disease-resistant hybrids in fields that you disk ripped or chiseled, rather than in no-till or strip-till because burying residue helps control disease.
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More corn changes the rules. Disease will also become a bigger concern if you begin growing more second-year or continuous corn.
"Although your crop mix changes, the number of days available to harvest, do not,” Ferrie points out. "You need a game plan. You can either start harvesting earlier, work longer hours or use bigger equipment.
"If you double your corn acres, you must double your harvest capacity. If you have been harvesting in three weeks, can you still do that if you add more people and equipment?”
Ask yourself if you have enough lights around the farmyard and on equipment for night operation and enough safety lighting for road travel. Will you have a big enough crew? Do you have a place for corn to go after the elevator closes for the day?
If you can't work longer hours, you might have to start harvest earlier, with higher-moisture corn. "If you start earlier and handle your own corn, you must know the capacity of your dryer,” Ferrie says. "A dryer that can handle 500 bu. per hour at 17% moisture might handle only 100 bu. per hour at 25%.”
One option is to haul higher-moisture corn to the elevator and switch to your own dryer when corn is coming out with less moisture, Ferrie says. "You'll want to apply a fungicide on the corn you plan to harvest later to maintain standability,” he adds.
Finally, look at the added cost. After paying to dry higher-moisture corn, does continuous corn still cash flow? Are landlords willing to share the cost?
Scout, scout, scout. "Don't stop scouting your corn crop until the combine goes through,” Ferrie says. "You need to know which fields are in trouble so you can harvest them first.
If you plant Bt corn borer-resistant hybrids, don't forget to scout your refuge areas. In 2006, corn borers caught some growers by surprise, Ferrie notes. "We hadn't had much pressure from borers for six or seven years,” he says. "Last year, we had more borers than we were used to, and refuge areas took a pounding.”
Understand your yield monitor. "Say you calibrated your monitor,” Ferrie says. "Then, you get into one of those refuges where rootworms hit and the corn is down, so you slow down 2 mph. Because there is less corn going through the machine, the corn will be thrown harder against the sensor, and there's a good chance the yield reading on the monitor will go up. This could lead you to assume that the refuge corn yielded better than it actually did and make you think the Bt variety in the rest of the field has a yield drag. We see this phenomenon in test plots all the time.”
In these conditions, if you want an accurate yield check, you need a weigh wagon or elevator scale. "Most software will let you enter the scale weight and correct your yield maps,” Ferrie adds.
Protect yourself in the market. Don't forget that marketing corn is just as important as growing it. Make the most of today's high corn prices. If you aren't sure how to do that, hook up with an expert who can help.