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Thinking of going corn-on-corn?

Jeff Caldwell 01/06/2012 @ 2:24pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

If you were starting to plant your corn and soybeans tomorrow, would you know how much of each crop you'd be planting?

There are a lot of questions surrounding the big variables influencing what will go into the ground this spring: What will South America's drought situation do to prices? Will the market reward more corn? Can you afford the inevitable yield drag with continuous corn acres? What about the prospect of another dry year?

There's a lot of talk right now about the possibility of more continuous corn acres this spring. Some say the major variables are lining up in favor of corn-on-corn. But still others remember those continuous acres that wound up being a bust in 2011 and are staying away.

"This past autumn was fantastic for tillage, dry and NH3 application. Corn yields were better than expected and early frost knocked back many mid- to late-season soy yields," says Agriculture.com senior contributor idalivered.

Not everybody agrees: "Corn-on-corn will not be any bigger and might actually shrink in Iowa and Illinois. Yes, tillage was done but that doesn't mean it will be corn," adds Marketing Talk senior contributor Mizzou_Tiger. "It's flat and black...it gets turned from time to time even if it's for soybeans."

Then, there are those in the middle. Marketing Talk senior contributor sw363535 says this spring will see a more "traditional scenario" once planting begins, mainly because current corn prices won't last. "Following a short crop and some production questions in South America, we will see the $7 range again, but early in the year. We will be unable to sustain it, sliding back into the $5 to $5.50 range at harvest," he says.

Most farmers agree with sw36355; 57% of more than 700 farmers responding to an Agriculture.com poll say they'll likely stick with a normal rotation, while 25% say they'll plant more corn and 9% say more soybeans. That majority is likely the most willing and able to shoulder more risk on their farms, says Purdue University Extension corn specialist Bob Nielsen.

"It depends on how you manage a continuous corn system," he says. "There's higher risk after planting of emergence and root development problems."

The toughest thing about corn-on-corn, though, is residue management. The risk of yield loss is fairly high if residue gets out of control, and adjusting tillage is a must for any successful continuous corn system.

"The residue is the heart of the risk. You get into some pretty touchy discussions about what a guy's tillage is," Nielsen says. "The more residue left on the surface, the greater the risk of wet conditions, cool conditions, slow emergence and disease in the spring. The more aggressive a guy is with tillage in the corn, the more he can manage the risk."

Then, there's cost. Continuous corn takes up to 50 pounds/acre more nitrogen fertilizer, Nielsen says. And, with current systems, it can sometimes be tough to get enough starter fertilizer applied.

And, back to the necessity of tillage, which also adds to the expense side of the balance sheet. Nielsen says a successful continuous corn crop almost can't be pulled off without it. "There's no question the yield penalty with continuous corn is not as large with tillage than with no-till," he says. "It really comes down to tillage."

Then, there are the market considerations. At a $7.00/bushel price, even if yields are 10 or 20 bushels/acre lower, continuous corn does work, some farmers say. But, that kind of market needs a lot of factors to line up the right way, especially for a corn farmer like sw363535, who farms in southwestern Kansas.

"Corn at these prices is hard to walk away from. It will take a good up  in beans pretty soon to take acres away from corn. Our experience is corn-on-corn will be within 15-20 bushels of rotation corn on average or better years -- still in the 190-200 range with decent water," he says. "These prices are $1 over last year and not going to be passed up for a starting point. Our costs are high, but we have a basis advantage on most of the Corn Belt. My pencil says this will work well. With an eye on South America. We will continue to get some more priced on upward movement soon."

Adds Marketing Talk senior contributor Mizzou_Tiger: "Between the yield penalty, more management and inputs, $7 corn helps that cause, $5 does not, even if soybeans are $11. I still see corn acres in Iowa and Illinois being flat or even down a touch unless corn prices move hard in the right direction the next 3 months."

But, will the same variables behind corn prices influence the soybean market the same way? "The real sleeper for 2012 might just be soybeans, but reality will take time to evolve," Marketing Talk member idalivered says.

"Ninety-six million corn acres at trend yields gets us what price? Our local new crop price this morning is about $5.40. Are $14 new crop soybeans somewhere in our future?"

So, when you put all these marketing and agronomic factors together, what works on your farm? That's the question to ask. Rely more on your circumstances than you do market prices or agronomic generalities, Nielsen says.

"It comes back to this broader, whole-farm question. It's going to vary so much from one farm to another. As an agronomist, we just don't like continuous corn, but we're not the farmer and dealing with these economics," he says. "They're taking some pretty hefty risks when growing continuous corn. But, some just do a good job managing it."

   

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