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A tale of two crops in 2012

Drought seemed like a distant thought as Ryan Weeks' combine purred through 230 to 260 bushels per acre of irrigated corn last October.

“We started irrigating much earlier than normal,” says the Juniata, Nebraska, farmer. “It was a grind, but it paid when it came to harvest. We were also fortunate to catch a couple timely rains.”

This bright picture was the case throughout the 75% of his family's corn acres that they irrigate.

Weeks also saw the downside of 2012. Over the summer, he empathized with farmers via social media in the central and eastern Corn Belt. He shared their frustration over wilting and dying corn. That's exactly what his family's dryland corn was doing.

“Most went between 50 and 97 bushels per acre,” he says. We had some sandy, tough ground along the Platte River that went 30 to 35 bushels per acre.”

Enough of 2012

That's behind you now. While planning for 2013, don't let images of this year's pineappled corn haunt you.

“The chances of another scenario like this year are minimal,” says Jeff Hartz, marketing director for Wyffels Hybrids. He advises planning for a normal year.

That's what Weeks plans to do next year, along with incorporating six things he learned in 2012.

1. Pick hybrids smartly

“Yields this year are a testimony to new technology,” says Weeks. Even though dryland yields were subpar, they at least existed. Corn hybrids in 1988 (the last year of a major drought) would have disintegrated under 2012's searing heat and drought, he says. That's what makes corn hybrid selection so important for 2013.

In 2012, he says triple stacks with resistance to glyphosate, corn rootworm, and European corn borer worked well. Corn rootworm isn't typically a problem in Weeks' area, but he notes that the subsequent root mass of triple-stack hybrids helps deter the effects of drought.

“They have such a root mass that they are able to scavenge the water and nutrients in a dry year,” says Weeks.

Besides yield potential, stalk quality is a key factor for Weeks.

“We do get greensnap out here, as there are lots of 90- to 100-mph winds occurring at times,” he says. “Hybrids have gotten a lot better. But it seems like every hybrid has a period when it is susceptible to greensnap. It's when the corn is growing fast that we hope a wind doesn't hit.”

Standability is also aided by a strong disease-resistance package. That is crucial for irrigated corn-on-corn, which provides a conducive disease environment.

“In the last 10 years, we've trended toward a corn/corn/soybean rotation,” says Weeks. “Ten years ago, our corn was in a 50-50 rotation with soybeans. But corn pays more.”

Still, the resulting residue creates a haven for perennial Corn Belt diseases, including familiar ones like gray leaf spot and anthracnose, and new ones like southern corn rust. Southern corn rust, a devastating corn disease in the South, rides wind currents in certain years to infect Midwest corn.

“Southern corn rust was scary,” he says. When it surfaced in 2012, Weeks sprayed corn with a fungicide.

Weeks also evaluates hybrids for Goss's wilt, a bacterial disease in corn that fungicides don't control. “Certain hybrids from certain companies are susceptible to it,” he says.

2. Treat for nematodes

Corn-on-corn mimics the native prairie, an environment in which nematodes that feed on corn thrived in before European settlers broke the prairie.

Concern regarding corn nematodes prompted Weeks to soil-sample for corn nematodes several years ago. Samples confirmed corn nematodes, although not at heavy levels. He's opted to use a seed treatment with nematode control on all his corn acres.

“It's a cheap insurance policy,” he says. “On sandy soils, there can be up to a 7-bushel yield increase.”

3. Back off on tillage

“We had some dryland and irrigated corners where we incorporated manure from a feed yard,” says Weeks. “It's great fertilizer, but we did too much tillage in tearing it up.”

In 2012, long-term no-till corn yielded in the upper 90-bushel-per-acre range, while tilled acres hovered around the 50-bushel-per-acre level.

That said, Weeks is steering the farm from no-till to ridge-till. Residue is prolific in no-till continuous corn and can interfere with stand establishment.

“Ridge-till gets the seedbed up and away from the residue,” says Weeks. “The residue instead goes to the bottom of the ridge, where it can decay. The soil warms up quicker in the spring.”

This will complement the residue chopping that occurs at harvest with a Geringhoff corn head. Residue is further broken down by the 32% nitrogen (N) or 28% N that's laced with a preplant herbicide application.

4. Fertilize high

Weeks strives for high phosphorus (P) levels to boost standability.

“When corn was $1.50 and $2 per bushel, it was hard to come up with the money to put on P,” he says. “But at harvest, I knew what the agronomist was talking about.”

To do this, he soil-samples each fall on 2-acre grids. “I used to zone-sample, but I like the 2-acre grids better,” he says.

Zone sampling hones in on sampling management zones with specific soil types and cropping histories. “There was too much variability in yields and soil types with zone sampling,” he says.

For 2013, Weeks anticipates there likely will be carryover N in the top 4 inches of soil. Still, he plans to stick with his current N-management plan by first applying the liquid N mix with his preplant chemical application. He'll continue to apply 10-34-0 as starter fertilizer at planting. He then will side-dress remaining N, and apply foliar N with a postemergence glyphosate application. On center-pivot irrigated acres, he'll add 20 to 30 gallons per acre of N through the system.

5. Pump populations

Several years ago, Weeks tested irrigated population ranges from 28,000 to 34,000 plants per acre (ppa). Results toward the higher end were encouraging, so Weeks planted 34,000 ppa across his farm's irrigated acres in 2010. After backing off to 32,000 ppa in 2011, he again bumped up populations in 2012 to 34,000 ppa. On dryland acres, Weeks scales back to between 22,500 and 24,000 ppa.

After a drought year, it's only natural to think about slicing corn population rates. Weeks isn't planning to do that. Neither should you if your population rates worked for you prior to 2012.

DuPont Pioneer analysis shows North American average seeding rates rose from around 23,000 ppa in 1985 to over 30,000 ppa in 2011 – a 270-ppa annual increase through those 26 years. During the same time frame, average U.S. yields have increased, on average, from 107 bushels per acre to 153 bushels – a 1.75-bushel-per-acre annual yield increase.

“What has really supported the yield increase is improved stress tolerance in hybrids,” says Curt Claussen, agronomic services director for DuPont Pioneer. “When you plant these hybrids at higher populations, they have to be able to tolerate stress. Fewer plants with bigger ears may look better, but more plants with average-size ears have yielded better.”

6. Plant for weather

Ideally, Weeks would like to start planting corn on April 10. Weather influences planting date more, though.

“I love to plant on that date, but not if it means planting into cold and wet soils, and not if a cold spell is coming up,” he says. So he watches the weather and avoids planting on that date if inclement weather is forecast.

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