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Sticking with corn-on-corn

Ask Robert Jones what he'll change about his family's 2013 continuous-corn strategy after the 2012 drought, and he'll tell you nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.

“It's no use trying to outguess the weather,” says Robert, who farms near Palmyra, Indiana, with his son Chris; his brother Mark; Mark's two sons, Logan and Casey; and two other nephews, Tony and Scott. “Only the good Lord is in charge of that.”

What the Joneses consider are factors they can control: seed selection and placement, weed control, fertility, crop residue, and risk management. Then, they take these factors and others, and align them into a well-honed plan.

“We make a plan and administer it,” says Robert. “We need to be proactive and head off weed and fertility problems before they happen.”

Equally important is the gumption to stick with the strategy.

“Continuous corn is not for puddle jumpers,” he says. “If I were talking to a farmer thinking about continuous corn and he wants to skimp on grain bins, the session would be over.”

Skimping on one component can bring the entire system down. “You have to be committed,” he says.

The Joneses switched to continuous corn in 2004. After hitting a yield wall with soybeans, they returned to corn.

“With continuous corn, we could repeat good yields year after year,” he says.

Last year's drought and corresponding lower yields crimped this strategy. Still, the Joneses plan to stay the course across their 4,500 acres of corn-on-corn in 2013. “We surely won't plan for anything like that in the future,” says Chris.

Here are six components they use for successful corn-on-corn production:

1. Workhorse hybrids

The Joneses spurn fast-growing racehorse hybrids for slow-but-steady workhorse hybrids. Racehorse hybrids tend to have higher yield potential in high-yielding environments, but they also exhibit less tolerance in low-yielding situations. Meanwhile, workhorse hybrid yields vary less with more consistency.

“With racehorse hybrids, everything has to be perfect — deep, rich black soils and lots of rainfall. We don't have those conditions here,” says Robert.

That makes hybrid selection all the more crucial, particularly when it comes to root systems.

“A strong root system helps make it drought-tolerant,” says Robert. “A good root system will find water and nutrients.”

Disease resistance is something the Joneses prize in a hybrid. “We have to look for corn hybrids that will face multiple grass fungi in multiple years,” Robert says.

2. Placement

SST software varies planting populations between 26,000 to 32,0000 plants per acre. This matches optimum planting populations with the correct soil type. The Joneses also equip their planter with Precision Planting's 20-20 SeedSense that helps to accurately plant seed at a 2-inch depth.

The Joneses plant as soon as the soil is fit. They delay planting, though, if a cold front is forecast. Waiting for warmer temperatures enables seed to better germinate and to emerge than it would battling cold and waterlogged fields.

3. Weed control

Mike Owen, Iowa State University Extension weed specialist, typically doesn't recommend fall herbicide applications. There's one exception, though.

“If you're looking to control winter annuals during fall, they can make good sense,” says Owen.

The Joneses get a head start on winter annuals like henbit and purple deadnettle after harvest by applying residual mixes like Princep and 2,4-D.

On fields with scant winter annual populations, the Joneses apply spring burndown mixes, including Gramoxone that create a clean seedbed.

They also mix and match a variety of weed-management strategies to introduce different modes of action to forestall herbicide-resistant weeds. So far, the Joneses have detected no glyhosate-resistant weeds on their farm. Still, they proactively manage their farm to nip any weed problem in the bud.

For example, they've applied Lexar (a three-way cross of S-metolachlor, atrazine, and mesotrione) prior to emergence. If weeds surface prior to canopy, the Joneses will come back with a post-emergence application of a nonselective herbicide like glyphsoate on glyphosate-tolerant corn.

4. Fertility

The Joneses use Veris technology to measure soil electrical conductivity. The end result is a detailed map of the soil texture variability in the crop rooting zone.

“NRCS has good soil maps, but Veris steps them up and takes them a step further,” says Robert. There is no guessing with fertilizer applications. At the end of the year, the Veris map and the yield map match up pretty well.”

This prescription fertilizer approach begins with a preplant broadcast blend of 18-46-0 and 0-0-60, followed by a liquid orthophosphate pop-up at planting. Next, they sidedress 32% nitrogen to growing corn.

5. Crop residue

Clearing prolific residue is key for excellent emergence. Breakdown begins following harvest with a spray of residue digesters, a mix of 32% nitrogen, and other fertilizers and ingredients.

On heavier ground in the fall, they'll break compaction with a vertical tillage tool. On lighter soils where there is a threat of erosion over winter, they'll use the tillage tool in spring, prior to planting.

They mount their planter with residue-clearing Martin row cleaners.

These strategies work well to clear the residue and to enable over 99% of the seed to emerge, says Robert.

6. Risk management

Raising corn doesn't always work out as planned. Many of their fields ran one half of normal in 2012.

“Harvest last year was disappointing, but we have insurance and other means to get through,” says Chris.

They insure corn with federal crop insurance up to an 85% level, with remaining production insured with a policy from The Climate Corporation. This brings crop insurance costs up to around $75 per acre. “If we don't use it, that means we have good to very good yields,” says Robert. “It fills the gap that crop insurance doesn't cover.”

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Corn-on-corn leaves lots of residue, but Chris (left) and Robert Jones note that a well-managed system can clear it for optimum emergence the next spring.

Did You Know?

Optimum nitrogen rates for corn after corn requires 30 to 50 pounds per acre more nitrogen than for corn following soybeans.


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