Easter freeze damages corn crop

Freezing temperatures from Jacksonville, Fla., to the northern neck of Virginia have put the large 2007 corn crop in the upper Southeast in jeopardy.

The Easter weekend storm dumped 8-10 inches of wet snow on the northern peninsula of Virginia and a light dusting as far south as the North Carolina line. Temperatures hovered in the low to mid 20s in Virginia and set an all time record of 31 degrees in Jacksonville, Fla. The bulk of the damage will be done to corn that was in the ground at the time of the freeze.

The early April cold weather will likely have a lasting effect on the 2007 corn crop in the Southeast. Much of the corn planted in the Southeast in March had not germinated fully when the cold weather hit on Easter weekend.

When corn seed and young seedlings absorb moisture and freeze, the seed membrane or coleoptile toughens and does not allow the seedling corn plant to emerge properly.

The result of a coleoptile that fails to “release” the developing leaves is a plant that “cork screws” underground, or leaves that rupture out of the coleoptile on the side rather than emerging through the tip. The problems with the coleoptile are primarily the result of the cold and wet conditions.

In Bowman, S.C., Landy Weathers, who grows corn and peanuts, says it's a wait and see situation. “We will wait until Wednesday or Thursday to see what our corn looks like, then make the decision what to do next,” he says. Weathers says in his area many growers are already searching for sources of seed.

Further north in Cove City, N.C., Billy McLawhorn, president of MCSI Agricultural Consultants, says they have a mixed bag in terms of corn production. “We have some growers who planted in mid-March and have corn up and growing, many who planted the week before the freeze, and some still waiting to plant,” he says. Growers who have seed in the ground are at the most risk, he contends.

Not only has the freeze left many growers in the same wait-and-see mode as Landy Weathers, once the damage is assessed, it will put many in the unenviable situation of living with the damage or replanting.

Isle of Wight County Extension Agent Glenn Rountree says even in southern Virginia, where temperatures stayed well below freezing for many hours, damage to corn in the ground will likely be spotty.

Farther south, a likely scenario in a 90 foot row of corn will be 30 feet that may be destroyed, 30 feet damaged to some degree and 30 feet unharmed by the cold weather.

Rountree, along with a number of Virginia Tech Extension members, put out warnings to growers to wait for warmer April weather to plant corn. “In many cases large acreage growers couldn't wait, they have a limited time frame to plant corn and getting some of their acres planted was to them worth the risk,” Rountree explains.

Waiting too late can cause some serious problems as well. North Carolina State University Corn Specialist, Ronnie Heiniger, says research indicates corn can be planted as late as June 15 in most areas of North Carolina. However, he points out later planted corn runs a high risk of greater damage from European corn borer and corn ear worms. If Bt-corn varieties are available some of this risk may be reduced.

Of bigger concern is the threat of heat and drought during the two weeks prior to the critical silking stage for corn. Selecting hybrids with maturity that better match late planting is an option, if seed for these varieties is available.

Growers who had corn seed in the ground when the Easter weekend cold hit should begin making assessments of damage once corn breaks the ground. Guidelines are being developed to help new corn growers identify levels of damage and to make management decisions on re-planting.

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