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Bagging bushels in the Bootheel

Gil Gullickson 11/01/2012 @ 11:28am Crops Technology Editor for Successful Farming magazine/Agriculture.com

Widespread drought devastated many cornfields across the Corn Belt in 2012. “This year's drought was far worse than 1988,” says Jerry Cox, who farms with his son, Matthew, near Delta, Missouri. “In 1988, even our nonirrigated corn made a crop. Lots of our dryland didn't make any corn this year.”

Irrigated corn fared better, though. “We started around May 5, normally a month earlier than we usually start,” he says.

This boosted input costs. Still, it helped make a significant yield difference for irrigators in the southeast corner of the Show-Me State that's also known as the Missouri Bootheel.

“I don't think yields on irrigated corn suffered as much as they did in 2010 and 2011,” says Joe Henggeler, University of Missouri (MU) Extension irrigation specialist. “Both were hot years. But what hurt more in those years than anything were the hot summer nights. Although we had five to six days of 100°F. weather strung together this year, we didn't suffer as much yield loss. A lot of it went back to nighttime temperatures, which weren't as high as in 2010 and 2011.”

University of Illinois research notes that high nighttime temperatures in the 70°F.-to-80°F. range waste plant respiration and slice plant sugars produced by daytime photosynthesis. Thus, less sugar is available to fill kernels or seeds. This cuts yields.

Weather is an uncontrollable factor. Still, there are other steps Cox and his son use to be regular winners in the National Corn Growers Association contest. Since 1995, the father and son have been winners and runners-up in the contest's various divisions 21 times. Better irrigation management and other agronomic practices have boosted Bootheel corn production.

“When I came here in 1997, we looked at irrigated corn yields in Missouri,” says Henggeler. “At the time, we were only making 180-bushel-per-acre yields.”

This paled compared to frequently occurring 200-bushel-per-acre dryland yields in Iowa and Illinois. “So, we set goals to shoot irrigated yields up to around the 200-bushel-per-acre goal,” he says.

Following are five steps Cox and others have used to boost corn yields.

1. Select the right seed

Cox chooses hybrids based on on-farm tests that include Impact plots, a testing program used by DuPont Pioneer. He plants the bulk of his corn acres to fast-growing racehorse hybrids.

“It's all about yield,” he notes.

He says each hybrid has drawbacks, however. “A good standing hybrid might not always be the best yielding hybrid,” says Cox. “You always sacrifice something for yield.”

So it's always important to recognize any hybrid shortcomings in advance. For example, he targets high-yielding hybrids with standability concerns for harvest first.

2. Plant on time

Cox started planting corn this year on March 29. He planted all but 220 acres before April rains dashed planting plans. “The early-planted corn pollinated under almost ideal conditions,” he says.

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