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Before 2010, corn was thought to be bulletproof. Great genetics. Amazing insect and weed traits. Precision agriculture technologies that match nutrients with plant needs. With all these tools at your disposal, corn yields would never fall out of bed.
That was the plan, anyway. In 2010, corn yields fell apart in many areas.
“We started out the best year ever,” says Brad Freesmeier, West Point, Iowa. “We got our corn planted on time. The day after we finished planting, it started raining in May and never stopped.”
Around the end of May, the skies cleared to where the region’s farmers were able to replant some flooded corn acres and to plant soybeans. Then, torrential downpours kept coming in June, tallying over 10 inches for the month in many southeastern Iowa locations.
The saying “rain makes grain” didn’t hold true in southeastern Iowa and elsewhere. In Ohio corn trial tests, May and June’s prolific precipitation triggered excessively wet soils. This limited early-season root development and led to shallow root systems and reduced emergence of some hybrids, says Peter Thomison, Ohio State University (OSU) Extension agronomist.
All this played out at harvest. “There were soybeans that out-yielded my corn,” says Freesmeier.
Despite early rosy yield projections, USDA took into account what was happening in many cornfields. Nationally, it lowered its August yield estimate of 165 bushels per acre to 154.3 bushels per acre in November.
So, what will 2011 conditions be like? Truth is, you don’t know. It’s also important to note that in some areas like southern Minnesota, 2010 brought great weather. Regardless of whether 2011 brings black-swan or bluebird weather, the following factors can help you best position your corn.
1. Pick high-yielding hybrids.
“When you pick a high- vs. a low-yielding hybrid, the impact is staggering,” says Thomison. “In some (OSU trial) locations, there is a 67-bushel-per-acre difference between the highest- and the lowest-yielding hybrids.”
So why not just pick the top yielder? Ah, if it were only so simple to do it.
Sometimes, that hybrid on top of the yield chain is a one-site wonder. Does it keep its edge over multiple locations? One way to make sure is to check multiple test plot sites.
University and private company tests are good places to start, says Thomison.
“Preferably, you want to check a hybrid from three or more sites to get a feel for how a hybrid performs across different environments. You want to know how these hybrids will perform in stressful environments, too,” he says.
Checking multiple-year performance is preferable, too, although rapid hybrid turnover makes this more difficult.
“We see the number of hybrids that have been in Ohio performance trials for two years at less than 25%,” says Thomison. “You don’t want to overlook the yield potential of new hybrids.”
2. Consider field specifics.
There are limits to hybrid performance in impossible situations, such as soaking wet soils. In those cases where you still can plant, though, some hybrids have a yield edge under these conditions.
“Some are what I called wet-footed hybrids that can stand in water,” says Freesmeier. Although these hybrids can’t withstand long periods under water, they can withstand cases where water stands for several days on slowly draining fields.
3. Ensure hybrid diversity.
Planting a diverse group of high-yielding hybrids is a time-tested way to reduce risk against variable weather. Still, how can you tell you’re indeed planting hybrids with different genetics? After all, there are those look-alike hybrids that are the same ones offered by different companies.
One way is to check tassel color. “Different-colored tassels indicate different genetic backgrounds,” says Eric Boersma, corn portfolio manager for Syngenta Seeds. “Also, when you look at different hybrids in test plots, you can see plant differences. Some hybrids are upright and have dark green leaves. Others are lighter colored and have more droopy leaves. Some hybrids will have longer, more slender ears than others. Those are visual clues of genetic diversity.”
Product technology sheets can also reveal diversity clues, says Boersma.
“If all hybrids are rated the same in all the categories, there is probably not much diversity,” he adds.
4. Check other hybrid traits.
Highly variable growing conditions and stressful conditions marked 2010. What to do for 2011?
“Hybrid stalk quality and standibility are important factors in dealing with stressful growing conditions,” says Thomison.
Factors that boost standibility include:
• Stalk rot resistance
• Stalk strength
• Good plant health that encourages greenness through the growing season
• Shorter height and ear placement
• Resistance to European corn borer and corn rootworm
• Stress tolerance
When examining lodging potential, check trials where lodging problems actually occurred. “In trials where there is a prompt harvest at moisture levels in the mid 20s, it’s pretty hard to distinguish lodging data,” says Thomison. “Most lodging damage occurs when corn dries down to 20% moisture and is standing in the field for some time.”
Thomison also advises farmers to check the disease resistance of hybrids. “Here in the eastern Corn Belt and also in the western Corn Belt, there have been major problems with foliar diseases in recent years,” he says.
5. Check for Goss’s wilt.
That’s particularly true if you farm in the western Corn Belt.
“Goss’s wilt has become endemic in many western areas,” says David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds.
Since this is a bacterial disease, fungicides will not control it.
“One way to prevent is to plant Goss’s wilt-tolerant hybrids,” says Boersma.