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How to grow corn in adverse weather

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.

Yield potential is the top factor the Quandts look for when picking hybrids, followed by standability. Wet weather typically fuels disease. But it hasn't yet popped up in the Quandts' fields.

“Disease resistance is on our radar, though, especially with growing more corn-on-corn,” says John.

Triple-stack hybrids that resist glyphosate, European corn borer, and corn rootworm are planted on over one half of their acreage. “Some of our fields don't need the rootworm, so we will go with a double stack on the balance,” says John.

Traits don't always ensure yield increases. “During the wet seasons of 2009 and 2010, our refuge corn yielded just as well as the traited corn,” he says.

4. Aid hybrid selection with field maps

Field maps aid their seed selection, enabling them to match the correct hybrid for each soil type. It's also tipped them off on where to boost populations to maximize yields. Surprisingly, field maps showed them that their best yields in wet years came from hilltops.

“That is backward from what we thought,” says John. “We'd usually plant less corn on hills. But the hilltops had the best yields because they are not suffering from too much water like the rest of the field.”

5. Adjust tillage strategies

The Quandts farm a mix of soils, ranging from heavy clay soils to irrigated sandy ones. Prolific precipitation has particularly made farming the heavy soils challenging.

“Our goal is to go 100% strip-till and no-till,” says John. “We hung in with it steady as long as we could; 80% of our farm is still farmed that way. I still firmly believe in strip-till because it's the best way to grow corn-on-corn effectively. On heavy soils, though, we have had to use conventional tillage with a vibra-shank tool to get planted.

“The other thing we've done is deep-rip about 10% of our fields every year, with each one getting deep-ripped every eight to 10 years,” he says. “We are concerned about compaction. It's hard to compact a sponge, but it can be done.”

6. Vary fertility strategies

Fertility strategies vary, according to tillage type and irrigated status.

Strip-till soils are banded with a dry mix including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the fall. Irrigated soils all have fertilizer applied in the spring and during the season. Nitrogen is applied in approximately 50-pound-per-acre increments every two weeks. The first two times consist of spreading dry urea, followed by two applications through center pivots with 28% N.

“We are believers in starter fertilizer,” says John. This helps get corn plants off to a quick start, particularly on cold and wet spring soils. Their main dry source is 11-52-0 laced with zinc and sulfur. Sulfur is a key micronutrient, as sulfur deficiencies have recently occurred in the area.

7. Boost drainage

Drainage is the hallmark of eastern and central Corn Belt corn production. Up north, tiling is also gaining a foothold due to sopping wet conditions.

“We started tiling three years ago with one farm, followed by another half-section,” says John. “Our goal is to tile 35% to 40% of our fields in the next five to six years.”

8. Fine-tune the machinery lineup

One way they've endured the wet cycles is with their Steiger Quadtrac tractors.

“It was never on our radar to get a big four-wheel-drive tractor with strip-till, but now we have three of them,” says John. “The biggest reason is due to the flooding and compaction. We can get in and do fieldwork instead of waiting three weeks. Timely planting makes a difference come fall.”

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