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What if there's no late frost?

Jeff Caldwell 03/29/2012 @ 10:34am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The weather's nice now, but the window for frost and freeze potential is far from closed. But, what if it doesn't freeze? What if the May-like March weather will stick around through spring and into early summer?

There was some anxiety floating around in the western and central Corn Belt earlier this week about frost prospects later in the week and early next week. But, that anxiety faded a bit Wednesday as forecasters said temperatures are more likely to stay above the lower 30s in both wheat country and the Corn Belt.

If things stay frost-free, what can we expect from the corn crop, some of which is already planted and emerging? There's not a huge correlation between early planting and higher yields; Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist, says yields could be slightly higher if conditions hold up, but it's more about avoiding late planting, which can be a real yield-robber.

So, say the corn in the ground already, or the corn that will be planted in the next week or so, has a growing season uninterrupted by agronomic catastrophe. The biggest benefit will likely be during pollination. The chances of the crop having optimal conditions during this critical juncture improve the earlier it's reached.

"when we can move pollination up, it's usually a positive thing. If we can tilt the odds in our favor to have water when the crop is pollinating, with cooler temperatures, the last week of June is typically better than the third week of July," Nafziger tells Agriculture.com "Anytime you can move that up, it tends to be positive."

But, just because the corn pollinates earlier than normal doesn't mean you've got a bin-buster-in-waiting. Growing-degree days (GDD) are critically important to early crop development, making not just the weather during planting important, but also the weeks sandwiched between planting and pollination.

"Growing degree days are not very high, on average, in April and if weather returned to average conditions for temperature, I think our average GDDs run in the 200-250 range depending on where you are in the state," Nafziger says. "That's less than 10% of what the crop needs. If we get this crop ahead by 200-300 GDDs by planting it early, that's not very many days in July, but a lot in April."

If Mother Nature provides that kind of boost in GDDs, it could mean a crop that's ready for harvest by mid- to late-August.

"we could easily be at a point, if we're 300 GDDs ahead of normal, that would move maturity from the 10th of September to the 25th of August, in terms of maturity," Nafziger says. "If it's drying fast, combines tend to roll a lot earlier with full maturity."

But, if the growing season's not interrupted by frost, there's also a lot outside the field to take care of before the combines roll. If the gamble of early planting pays off, Iowa State University Extension ag economist William Edwards says it's important to keep up with the crop's accelerated schedule with other sectors of your farm's management, namely with machinery and other year-round inputs.

"You want to make sure you have all your machinery up and ready to go and in working order earlier than you normally think about it," Edwards says. "And, the grain could certainly be dried quicker in the field, so that's good on the cost side."

Also consider how having new-crop grain on hand may affect your grain marketing strategies. If the harvest grain glut comes earlier, be ready to adjust marketing plans to avoid the typical slide in cash grain prices.

"You'd see the cash price going down earlier than usual because the grain's being delivered earlier and the bottleneck is happening earlier," Edwards says. "That cash grain/futures spread could come earlier."


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length of day 03/29/2012 @ 1:21pm When corn is planted extra early, what effect does the shorter day and less hours of sunlight. I know that early planting causes the corn plant to be shorter. My father used to say "You cannot make a good hog out of a runt pig" meaning that if the plant were stunted, it may never reach it's full potential.

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