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10 ways to de-stress corn

Gene Johnston 10/01/2012 @ 1:54pm On the scene at the 2012 Cattle Convention, Nashville

Not many corn farmers will miss the past two growing seasons. In 2011, the season was very wet early, very dry late, and extreme wind, hail, and heat in between. This year started out great, with timely planting occurring and ample early-season moisture.

Then the worm turned in June. Relentless drought and heat continued throughout the summer. The result was the worst drought since 1988. At presstime, USDA yield estimates hovered around 123 bushels per acre. That's well below 2011's 147 bushel per acre average, and 2010's 152.8 bushel per acre level.

While corn farmers everywhere wish for a year with no crop stress, recent years should teach that this will not happen. If anything, weather experts say there will be even more weather extremes and crop stress.

“It's the norm now, and we can get used to it,” says Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension agronomist.

There is some good news. “None of those stressors alone ends up being the kiss of death to a corn crop,” Nielsen continues. “We can work around them, and the crop can recover.

Your challenge is to identify the other yield-limiting factors – the ones you can control – and de-stress those things. Then you'll be in a better position to handle the unpredictability of a growing season.” Here is Nielsen's 10-point checklist for stress-proofing your corn.

1. Improve field drainage

This reduces several risks over the course of a growing season: field ponding, compaction, cloddy seedbeds, nitrogen loss, and poor root development. “Young corn plants do not like soggy soils, and nobody seems to be working on corn hybrids that do,” says Nielsen. “And besides that, soil nitrate-nitrogen disappears by leaching or denitrification when soils are saturated. We see it over and over: Good tile drainage pays.”

2. Conserve soil moisture and minimize soil erosion

While this can seem counter to point number 1, it's not. Some fields are simply better drained or are subject to erosion because of topography. Practices such as using reduced- or no-till, terracing fields, and planting cover crops will conserve surface moisture and carry a crop through a dry stress, particularly early when roots are shallow. In 2011, that late-season heat in the mid-90°F. was not particularly stressful to corn if it had moisture that it could access, says Nielsen.

3. Identify corn hybrids that best tolerate your stressors

“I encourage you to be very involved in the hybrid selection process. Don't simply let your seed dealer tell you what to plant,” says Nielsen. “You're the one who has to pay for it and live with the outcomes, so trust yourself first.”

This also includes managing the technology package in your hybrids. “For instance, we know that corn rootworm is wonderfully adept at overcoming our control strategies,” he says. “So don't rely on one control mechanism or even one Bt event in your hybrid choices.”

Some farmers make the mistake of only evaluating hybrid trial results close to home. “You don't know what stressors you're going to have this year,” he says. “It may be something that was experienced far away last year,” he says. “Look for hybrids that are consistently in the upper 10% of yield trials in a variety of locations and conditions.”

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