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2 ways to help your corn survive drought

One lesson that this year's drought has already driven home for many farmers is the value of retaining crop residue through management practices that use any number of methods to prevent the scorching, dry sun from sucking out all the moisture from the soil.

One of those is planting in narrower rows. This can be easier said than done in some cases, depending on what size and type of planter you roll through the field in the spring.

"Most corn planters are set to plant 30-inch rows, and 15-inch soybeans are generally planted using split-row units placed between the 30-inch rows. The increasing width of planters -- many are now 24 30-inch rows, or 60 feet wide -- means that splitting rows with additional units makes planters very heavy," says University of Illinois Extension agronomist Emerson Nafziger. "So if a producer has only one 60-foot planter for both crops, it's likely that both crops will be planted in 30-inch rows."

If you make it work, though, a crop year like 2012 has proven the worth of most all types of narrow-row and high-residue systems.

"Bar none, the 2 practices that really have stood out this year are skip-row, where 2 rows are planted then one skipped then 2 more planted, and strip tilling wheat stubble in the fall then slotting corn in the following spring," says Farm Business Talk senior contributor GoredHusker. "I have seen some of this on dryland corn that despite the drought, is going to be very good corn."

What's so great about these systems when Mother Nature turns off the faucet? Both help soils retain moisture by adding an extra shield from the sun, says Iowa State University Extension agronomist Roger Elmore. While this is helpful, it still takes the right timing and circumstances for the crop to benefit.

"With things like twin-row and narrow rows, you have the same plant population but those rows will canopy early, and that can be one way to improve yields in a stressful year," he says.

But, there's 1 caveat; for a narrow- or twin-row system to boost corn yields, timing is critical. When the crop stress starts to occur will dictate how much an improved canopy will protect growing plants. "If you have corn subjected to stress prior to the late vegetative period, narrow rows will improve things in stress years," Elmore says.

GoredHusker says he's considering going with a hybrid system of narrower skip-row corn under a strip-till system next year on his irrigated acres, the idea being that he can keep more of the soil moisture from evaporating and shield from scorching temperatures that have slammed his area's corn this summer. This year, Elmore says, has been almost a perfect year to test how much difference that kind of system can make in yields. But, it's not all positive; the biggest challenge, besides being able to adapt machinery to such a system, is weed control. And, there's always the impulse to bump seed populations.

"As soon as you start to increase plant populations, you're increasing other variables that could hurt you in a year like this," Elmore says. "Looking ahead, be very careful with these systems and maintaining residue on the surface. I would suggest this is the kind of year you could see a big difference between highly tilled and minimum- or no-till fields."

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