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Tested by adversity
If Job of Old Testament fame lived in 2011, chances are he might be a southeastern North Dakota corn farmer.
In the Bible, Job was a righteous man who lost his possessions, family, and health. Through it all, though, Job remained faithful and eventually had nearly everything restored to him.
In southeastern North Dakota this year, nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong for corn farmers.
“It was a frustrating spring,” says Wallie Hardie, who farms with his son, Josh, near Fairmount in southeastern North Dakota. “During a two-week period in May, we were only able to get in the field one and one-half days. The biggest problem was trying to get the corn plant out of the ground under cold and wet conditions.”
Unlike other areas, though, the rains kept coming in July. “It kept raining 2 inches or so every four or five days,” says Josh.
This continued the wet pattern the Hardies' area has endured since 1991. In some of the region's counties, as much rainfall occurs in a month as it used to in a year. Prolific precipitation drawbacks range from delayed or prevented planting to nitrogen losses.
Compounding rain damage was a July 10 windstorm that caused several corn fields to greensnap.
“The storm was just massive,” says Josh. “It was a perfect storm as far as greensnap was concerned. After a cool June, it started to warm up in July and the corn was growing fast. That's when it's most vulnerable to snap off. We had up to 75% greensnap losses in some fields. There was a huge difference in hybrids. There are certain greensnapped hybrids we won't plant anymore after this year.”
Had enough? Not quite. A mid-September frost struck, taking the top of what yield remained. Frost can strike this early, but typically it hits later in September.
“For those of us in the frozen tundra, it takes some doing to grow corn,” says Wallie.
When weather cooperates, though, North Dakota can be a great place to grow high-yielding corn. That's one reason the Hardies plan to boost their corn acres next year.
“We don't get many 90° days in the summer,” says Wallie. That's a plus, because corn has optimum photosynthetic capacity at 87°F. Temperatures above this level do not boost photosynthesis and can hinder it at higher levels.
Low evening temperatures also can help North Dakota corn. High nighttime temperatures boost plant respiration rates, which slice the amount of sugar produced by photosynthesis during the day, notes Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist. While corn in warmer climates can bake at night, lower temperatures give corn plants a break in North Dakota.
The Hardies have leveraged this by planting corn in 22-inch rows. The resulting equidistant spacing helps harvest more light, which spurs photosynthesis, says Wallie.
Baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
Observation is part of the Hardies' three-pronged strategy that also includes preparation and execution. “That includes getting out and crawling on our hands and knees and feeling the soil,” says Wallie.
Observation has also resulted in these changes for the Hardies.
● Pick shorter-season hybrids.
“We used to plant around 100-day (relative maturity) hybrids, but we have backed down to planting hybrids around 94 days,” says Wallie. This curbs the chances of getting caught at harvest with excessively wet corn.
There is a yield penalty for shorter-season hybrids – but not as much as before.
“Lots of the early-maturing products have fought off that stigma that they won't yield like full-season hybrids,” says Brian Humphries, vice president of sales and marketing for Wyffels Hybrids. “A lot of these early-maturing products can take advantage of having lower moisture at harvest.”
● Sidedress nitrogen.
Sidedressing nitrogen (N) isn't foolproof. In 2011, the Hardies weren't able to enter some fields due to greensnap.
In most years, though, matching N to the plant's growth helps slice N losses. Matching N to plant growth works particularly well on sandy soils, where N is prone to leaching.
“When you have sand, N will not bind like it binds to clay particles,” says Wallie.
The Hardies have sidedressed 28% N with a spoke wheel. In 2011, they experimented with dribbling 50 to 100 pounds per acre of liquid N with a sprayer-mounted boom on 2- to 3-foot-high corn.
● Use floating trash whippers.
The Hardies equipped their planter with residue managers purchased from Pete's Repair & Manufacturing in Bird Island, Minnesota.
“On a parallel-linkage system, they can float and are self-adjusting,” says Josh. “We planted the whole season and didn't have to adjust them. They also help clear away root-balls.”
● Keep the land drained.
“The challenge of my farming career will be drainage,” says Josh.
To make the most out of soggy soils, the Hardies aim to tile about two to three quarters of their land annually with their tile plow.
Challenges exist. Flat land is harder to drain. “Because we are flat, we have to pump the water out,” Josh says. “Plus, we have some clay soils that tend to hold moisture, so tile lines have to be closer together.”
Still, prolific precipitation leaves them no choice. “It takes all the fun out of it,” says Josh. “We're always on pins and needles. When we get a 5-inch rain, boom, then we're out replanting.”
● Base tillage on soil type.
The Hardies based tillage on soil type, with sandy soils receiving less and heavy clay soils more. Excessive residue can be a death knell for continuous corn on heavy clay soils. It can particularly be compounded by high moisture.
That's why tillage is necessary on these heavier soils.
“Any type of fall tillage we get done is better than being forced into spring tillage,” says Josh. “If we do nothing, it puts us way behind in the spring.”
This year has been difficult, but we think it's an outlier year,” says Josh. “It's more difficult growing corn here, but we've had consistently good yields over the last 30 years.”
Says Wallie, “Proverbs 16:26 relates to what we face. It says, ‘A laborer's appetite works for him, and his hunger drives him on.’ We have the hunger to do better.”