High grain prices over the past few years have put livestock producers in the Southeast in a perilous financial predicament that could be helped significantly by increasing corn production in the region, but unfortunately that has not happened in recent history.
Acreage of corn and other grain crops is up significantly, but growers continue to struggle to get continuous high yields from their crops.
Weather related problems have significantly impacted the ability to sustain high yields, and overall corn yields have generally declined slightly over the past decade or so in some Southeastern states.
Take the two largest corn-producing states, North Carolina and Georgia for example.
In 2011, Georgia corn growers produced 157 bushels per acre, which is near the national average. Georgia, unlike other Southeastern states, has a high percentage of its corn crop under irrigation.
In fact, irrigated corn acres in the state have gone up by more than 100,000 acres over the past decade. However, last year, corn yields dropped to 116 bushels per acre.
In North Carolina, yields were flip-flopped from Georgia, as growers produced 114 bushels of corn per acre last year, but only 84 bushels per acre in 2011.
The pattern of up and down yields produces uncertainty among corn growers and livestock producers alike. The result is a high percentage of corn used for livestock feed is brought into the region from other states.
In Virginia, Small Grains Specialist Wade Thomason says from 2000 to 2011, Virginia corn yields have declined by two bushels per year.
Over the past five years, corn yields in Virginia have averaged 102 bushels per acre.
In North Carolina, the five-year average stands at 106 bushels per acre.
Clearly these numbers fall significantly short of the national corn trend. Unfortunately, similar trends are evident in other Southeast corn producing states.
The National Corn Growers Coalition, established in 2008 by the National Corn Growers Association, makes a poignant case for the productivity of corn: “Farmers today grow five times as much corn as they did in the 1930s — on 20 percent less land. That is 13 million acres, or 20,000 square miles, twice the size of Massachusetts. The yield per acre has skyrocketed from 24 bushels in 1931 to 154 now, or a six-fold gain.
Huge livestock industry
Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama are all among the top poultry producing states.
North Carolina is second in hog production and Virginia is home to Smithfield Farms, the largest hog producing company in the world.
Keeping these industries viable in the Southeast in the long-term is highly dependent on the region being able to grow more grain for feed.
The big questions are: Why are corn yields not increasing to national levels and what can be done to push yields up closer to national averages?
Jerry Stoller, founder and owner of Stoller Enterprises, has spent most of his professional life trying to figure out the many interactions among seed, plants, soil and the environment. He has some interesting theories about crop production in the Southeast.
“The major reasons for the lack of consistent yield increases in the Southeastern United States are primarily due to high temperatures during the period of pollination or flowering on corn, soybeans, and other crops.
“In addition, Southeastern soils do not have the moisture holding capacity to guarantee the quantity of water needed to cool the plant leaves during periods of pollination or flowering during and during the grain filling period thereafter, Stoller says.
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“Growers in the Southeast must learn to treat their plants in order to maintain good pollination during the flowering or tasseling period, even though the temperatures are higher than ideal.
“Also, farmers in the Southeast must learn how to treat their plants in order to enable them to use water more effectively internally in the plant’s cells. It does not take as much soil moisture to increase or maintain yields if the plant cells can generate enough internal water to continue a normal rate of photosynthesis.”
Stoller says, “Using the present technology, long-term yield increases will be approximately 1 percent per year. New technology must be employed if these yields are going to increase.”
Long-term, much more than the Southeast livestock industry is at risk from continuing on the current path of crop yield increases.
A look a 50-year trend lines for global production of calories and a similar look at global consumption of calories, projected into the future, provides some seemingly valid scientific certainties that farmers won’t be able to produce enough food to provide enough calories to feed the world by the time Planet Earth’s population reaches nine billion people.
Irrigation is considered to be a critical factor in raising corn yields, and indeed, researchers in Georgia found in a multi-year study that corn yields under irrigation more than doubled dryland acreage (152 to 73 bushels per acre).
However, last year, on a crop that features the highest percentage of irrigation in the Southeast, Georgia corn growers only averaged 114 bushels per acre.
Stoller says, “Most people are recommending the installation of irrigation systems. Although this might satisfy the requirements for water, it will not satisfy the plant’s need to be protected against high temperatures during the period of pollination and flower fertility.”
Even if irrigation alone could solve the Southeast’s grain deficiency problem, running out of potable water from over-use of irrigation could be a more pressing problem than running out of food.
“The bottom line is we have to produce more food without depleting our water supply. Raising grain yields to more than double current levels is not a futuristic pipedream, Stoller says.
Rather it’s a matter of changing a long-standing approach to protecting crops and hoping for increased yields.
“The current genetic potential contained in the seed will enable maximum yields on corn to be greater than 500 bushel per acre.
200 bushel per acre potential
“The genetic potential for maximum yield in soybeans is more than 200 bushel per acre.
“The maximum genetic potential in wheat would be more than 200 bushel per acre.”
“If accurate, these numbers indicate the current national average yield of these crops is only 25-30 percent of maximum genetic potential for these crops.
“The genetic potential of each plant is continually lost due to stresses that occur on the plant throughout its growing lifecycle,” Stoller says.
To reverse this trend in slow or no yield increase, Stoller says growers must take several steps, applying products which are already in the marketplace or will soon be there at critical times during the growing season.
His steps for dramatic plant performance and subsequently higher yields and profits are:
• Treat all seeds in order to increase the epigenetic expression of each during the process of germination and before the hypocotyl reaches the sunlight. This will program the plant to have maximum DNA expression throughout the rest of its life.
• Treat seeds so the root growth is primarily vertically downward to eliminate lateral root growth as much as possible. It is lateral root growth that attracts nematodes, soil borne diseases, and soil borne insects.
• When the plants are 2-3 leaves high, they must be treated in order to inhibit auxin movement from the top of the plant downward to the roots. The excessive movement of auxin down to the roots inhibits root growth.
• At the V4 — V6 stage of plant growth, plants must be treated with phytohormones in order to maximize the bud primordia that are being developed, which will appear during the periods of pollination. This will determine the number of rows on a corn cob as well as the number of kernels on the cob.
• The plants must be treated prior to flowering or tasseling in order to make it easier for them to undergo the hormonal transition that is involved from the change of vegetative growth stage to the reproductive growth stage. The stress incurred on the plant in doing so will maintain the energy in plant cells so that the process of pollination or flower fertility occurs with more ease and can be expressed more vigorously.
• The plant must be treated previous to the period of pollination and during the period of flower formation in order to negate the effects of temperature that is higher than normal. Any temperatures that exceed 87 degrees F will begin to have a negative effect on pollination and flower fertility on both corn and soybeans.
If temperatures exceed 90 degrees F, 1 percent yield loss occurs each day during two weeks surrounding pollination of corn.
If the temperatures exceed 93 degrees F 2 percent per day is lost in yield.
If the temperature exceeds 95 to 96 degrees F, 3 percent yield is lost per day.
• When corn is at the brown silk stage, it must be treated in order to encourage cell elasticity so that each seed can gain bigger size and transfer more sugar which greatly increases seed weight.
On soybeans, treatments should be started at the R4 stage of growth. The R5 stage of growth should be the latest that this treatment is started. Two treatments spaced 7-10 days after the first treatment are highly recommended in order to get the greatest grain size and grain weight.
• All corn and soybean plants should be treated 3 weeks before the indicated harvest date in order to stop the mother plant from taking sugar back from the seeds of the plants during periods of stress.
This is why corn ears shrink. This is why soybean pods lose seeds.
In fact, soybean pods can be teardrop shaped, which indicates a movement of sugars in the pod back into the mother plants. This problem will always be greater on long-season corn and non-determinant soybean varieties.
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