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May I cut in?

Agriculture.com Staff 07/06/2010 @ 5:21pm

Jeff Martin, Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, wanted to plant strip-till corn three or four years in a row to build up the soil on a farm he is renting from Paul Butler's family. That left Butler questioning whether it's really wise to go away from a rotation.

Corn and soybeans are to crop rotations what a bat and glove are to baseball. Yet, Martin and an increasing number of farmers are considering growing less soybeans and more corn.

Why? Corn yields are beating the pants off soybean yields.

Let's flash back to 2003, when a late summer Corn Belt drought shredded midsummer expectations of a record soybean crop into the smallest one since 1996. Meanwhile, corn thrived.

Weather conditions, especially in recent years, are simply more conducive to growing corn than soybeans. "In the Midwest, we receive more fronts moving in June and July than in early August, and those fronts bring more moisture during that time," says Palle Pedersen, Iowa State University Extension agronomist.

Thus, rain frequently falls during corn's critical pollination and kernel- setting phase in late July. In comparison, rain falls less frequently in August during the crucial soybean pod-set and seed-fill phase. That's what happened last year, when corn had already locked in yields before the drought intensified in August.

Diseases and insects -- such as sudden death syndrome and soybean cyst nematode -- have also stymied soybean yields and increased production costs. A widespread 2003 outbreak of soybean aphids heightened concerns that this pest will chronically infest soybeans, thereby adding annual spraying expenses of $10 to $25 per acre.

Finally, there's the specter of South America. USDA projects the South American spring 2004 soybean crop to exceed 2003 U.S. soybean production by more than 50%, says Bob Wisner, Iowa State University Extension agricultural economist. This level will lead to South America producing 51% of the world's soybeans.

Jeff Martin, Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, wanted to plant strip-till corn three or four years in a row to build up the soil on a farm he is renting from Paul Butler's family. That left Butler questioning whether it's really wise to go away from a rotation.

"We thought we'd better get our house in order, with South America producing more soybeans," says Jeff Martin. Martin and his family grow 400 to 500 acres of their 3,500 acres in a corn/corn/soybean rotation.

The corn/soybean rotation no longer packs the pest control punch it used to. For example, corn rootworm has thwarted the rotation by finding ways to survive until the next time corn is planted. Yet, the rotation effect is still valuable. It breaks up many weed, pest, and disease cycles and creates better soil structure and water infiltration.

Continuous corn also can enhance soil properties due to the carbon it pumps into soils via large quantities of decaying residue. "Continuous corn is the fastest way to build soil organic matter due to the large quantities of residue produced," points out Mike Plumer, U of I Extension natural resources management educator. He points to a field in a U of I trial where the organic matter rose from 0.7% to 2.5% after 10 years of continuous no-till corn.

One way is to shave the amount of residue on the field by adopting a corn/corn/soybean rotation on a share of your acres as Martin has done.

Long term, questions linger about the sustainability of both continuous corn and the corn/soybean rotation, says Doug Karlen, soil scientist at the USDA National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

I would have no objection if my tenants wanted to no-till corn for three or four years. It is a good way to build more humus in the soil and will control erosion better than soybeans. --Mike L.

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