Using the popular television series Duck Dynasty as a model, North Carolina State University Corn Specialist Ronnie Heiniger laid out his plan for a ‘Corn Dynasty’ in the state at the recent All Commodities meeting in Durham, N.C.
Heiniger says the Carolinas are in desperate need for grain to feed the region’s growing livestock industry. In the Carolinas alone, he says, livestock growers need 350 million bushels of corn to feed animals.
Imported corn from the Midwest costs livestock growers an additional $1.30 in shipping cost, and they cannot stay in business with those expenses, he adds.
If North Carolina were an independent country, the state would be the fourth largest importer of corn in the world.
“If we lose some or part of our livestock industry, corn and grain growers will lose their biggest and best customer — that’s why we need to develop a ‘corn dynasty’ in our region, Heiniger says.
Looking at production a little differently is going to be a key to building a consistent high yielding corn dynasty in the state, Heiniger adds. “Depending on having consistent years of good weather, like we had last year, is probably not going to get us where we need to go in corn production.”
Last year North Carolina corn growers averaged 126 bushels per acre, but over the past few years yields have been up and down, primarily due to unusual weather patterns. “It’s clear we need to see more irrigation — our landscape needs to look more like the Midwest, dotted with irrigation pivots, if we are going to start a new dynasty,” Heiniger says.
“Irrigation alone isn’t the answer, but can be an integral part of a high yield corn system. Because of ongoing weather changes and the sometimes dire impact on corn yields and quality, we have to take a more flexible look at planting dates, and irrigation gives us some added flexibility.
“We have technology in place today that allows us to plant corn late, if we need to, and some years we do need to plant late, he adds.
Avoid the butt feathers
Getting the planting date correct is critical to getting high yields. “It’s like Uncle Si on Duck Dynasty says, ‘If you don’t pull the trigger on time, all you get is butt feathers,’ and that’s equally true with corn planting dates.”
“In 2012 most North Carolina growers planted early, and statewide we got good moisture through May. Then we got another window of opportunity from Mid-May until early June, and growers who planted in that time period also got good yields.
“Last year in North Carolina there was plenty of 150 bushel per acre corn that was planted the last week in May. In tests across the state, looking at double-crop corn planted in June, we also got yields better than 120 bushels per acre in many cases,” Heiniger says.
“Over the past four years in tests looking at planting dates from early April until June, at the James Research Center in Plymouth, N.C., our best yields came on corn planted on May 17. That date isn’t the best planting date for every corn grower in the state, but year in and year out, it’s a good bet — usually better than planting in late April and early May,” he adds.
“If we’re guessing when to plant corn, the best guess is around May 15, but we can do a lot better than guessing, if we look at weather patterns and use some science-based formulas for predicting what weather will be during the growing season.
“If we are in an El Niño weather pattern, which it looks like we will be in this spring, planting corn as early as possible is the best bet. As in the past few years, if we are in a La Niña weather pattern, then the mid-May or even later planting date is going to be better. So far things are shaping up this year for an early planting, but we will likely again have the second opportunity to plant in mid- to late-May, he says.
Last year Heiniger’s research team conducted a series of tests in which he compared a standard corn management system to an intensive management system, using fungicides, starter fertilizer, higher seeding rates, and some new seed treatment technologies in an effort to boost yields.
Standard still acceptable
He points out that the standard treatment was still acceptable, with adequate inputs to grow a good crop of corn. Seeding rate, for example, for the standard system was 33,000 seed per acre. And, the same five popular corn hybrids were used in both systems.
Some of the yields for the intensive management treatments were really good, Heiniger says, revealing several sites with well over 300 bushel per acre yields. Regardless of the site, across the board, the intensive management system produced an average of 48 bushels more per acre than the standard treatment.
The North Carolina State researchers didn’t have universal success with the high intensity management system. In one test one of the very top producing varieties didn’t respond well at all to intensive management.
“The reason, we think, is when we upped the seeding rate the plant population was too high. This variety, simply didn’t respond and our yields were actually better in the standard test plots,” he says.
“This points out an important aspect of creating a corn dynasty — grower awareness of what’s happening to his or her corn crop. In some cases increasing plant populations resulted in a significant yield increase, but in a few cases it went the other way,” Heiniger adds.
At a recent national meeting, Virginia grower and world corn yield record holder David Hula was asked to give one tip for growing high yielding corn.
His response was, “Never ride by a field of corn at 55 mph, with the windows up and the AC on, and say, yep, that’s a good looking field of corn.”
“Be in your field and know what your plants want and give them what they need every day to be as productive as is genetically possible.”
Heiniger has been an advocate of starter fertilizer for a number of years, and says using some of the popular ‘pop-up’ formulations can significantly boost yields, if conditions are right.
“Last year in most of the Upper Southeast we had plenty of moisture early in the growing season. Under these type conditions, get a good starter fertilizer down and get as much growth as you can before moisture plays out. “However, as with each of these high intensive components, the need for grower awareness increases.
“Last year in one of our tests we got no response to starter fertilizer. We didn’t know the complete field history, and when we found out cabbage had been grown in the field the previous year, the reason for lack of response was clear — plenty of fertilizer was left over from the previous crop.”
To keep corn yields high, much less create a corn dynasty, Heiniger says knowledge of the corn plant, the soil and all the inputs used in producing a crop is going to be more critical than ever, but putting all the pieces of the puzzle together can pay off big time over a long period of time for corn growers.
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