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How to grow corn in adverse weather

Gil Gullickson 08/01/2012 @ 10:46am Crops Technology Editor for Successful Farming magazine/Agriculture.com

A little over a year ago, 81-year-old Walter Quandt sat in the shop of his farm that is now operated by his sons, John, Mike, Jeff, James, Jason, and John's son, Justin, near Oakes, North Dakota.

When asked if it had ever been this wet before, the good-natured Walter replied, “Not like this,” shaking his head.

That's an understatement. Like the rest of the state, southeastern North Dakota typically has an arid climate. The Quandt Brothers farm has managed to buffer numerous dry periods via irrigation across 40% of their acres.

In 1993, though, the weather shifted into an accelerating wet pattern. “Since then, it's been touch and go on wet soils,” says John, who handles agronomic duties for Quandt Brothers.

Through it all, the Quandts have taken what weather has handed to them and fared well. In 2006, they won several divisions of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association yield contest. Winning yields ranged from 222 bushels per acre in the no-till dryland division to 242 bushels per acre in the irrigated division.

Then again, there have been years like 2011, when rampant rainfall prevented them from planting 40% of their acres. Dealing with soggy soils may seem out of sync with the drought that has swept so much of the Corn Belt in 2012. This year's weather has even impacted southeastern North Dakota, as the U.S. Drought Monitor classified it as abnormally dry in late June.

Long term, though, wet weather may be part of the equation for some Corn Belt areas. Jeff Vetsch, a soil scientist at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center at Waseca, notes center precipitation levels were annually 1.02 inches higher during the 1981-to-2010 time frame, compared to the 1971-to-2000 time frame.

“We are also seeing more intense storms, more flash floods,” he says. “More water means more drainage, erosive events, and more leaching.”

Thus, you may want to eye what the Quandts have done to cope with prolific precipitation in case long-term wet trends continue. Here's a look at eight of the strategies they've adopted.

1. Move to more corn

The Quandts are mainly in a corn-corn-soybean rotation, with some ground rotated with potatoes.

“Soybeans don't like waterlogged soils,” notes John. “We were in edible beans until about five years ago, when wet soils put an end to that.”

2. Shift hybrid selection strategy

The Quandts plant corn with relative maturities ranging from 92 to 100 days, with the bulk ranging between 93 to 95 days. That's three to four relative maturity days shorter than they used to plant. This helps them dodge early frosts and wet harvests if planting is delayed beyond their preferred April 20 planting start.

“We've found that 93- to 95-day maturity hybrids run competitively with 100-day hybrids,” says Mike. “Then again, we haven't hit the perfect weather for the 100-day hybrids to maximize yields. We have had cool summers.”

“Lots of early-maturing products have fought off the stigma that they won't yield like full-season hybrids,” says Brian Humphries, Wyffels Hybrids national sales manager. However, some earlier products rival later-maturing ones while drying down more quickly, he notes.

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