Scattered success found in dry corn production year

Georgia corn producers, plagued this year by season-long drought conditions and extreme heat during the summer months, harvested their lowest average yield since the drought of 2002.

But there were many success stories in 2006, thanks primarily to what University of Georgia Extension Agronomist Dewey Lee calls “Midwestern days.”

“We had some phenomenal yields, some in the 250 to 300-bushel per acre range, and there were many reasons for that — some that could be controlled by growers and some that could not,” says Lee. “But one of the biggest reasons for the successes was that we had a lot of days that were like Midwestern days, with brilliant sunshine and low humidity.”

Weather conditions allowed the moisture that was available to move easily through the plant, carrying nutrients and carbohydrates, he says. “The canopy was open and food was moving through the plants. The bright sunshine provided high radiation for the plant. In addition, the low humidity meant low levels of disease, and there were no leaching rains to cut soil fertility programs,” says Lee.

Of course, considering the drought conditions of this past spring and summer, those growers with irrigation fared much better than their dryland counterparts.

“If you had water, the rest of the conditions were extremely favorable for corn production. But it was a very expensive crop to grow because of the high cost of diesel fuel to run the irrigation systems,” he says.

One of those fortunate growers was Drew Collins of southwest Georgia's Calhoun County, who calls the 2006 corn crop his best ever. “We beat our best crop by about 20 bushels this year, averaging 238 bushels over 325 acres. We had a test plot that averaged 300 bushels per acre,” he says.

Collins agrees that conditions were perfect this year if a grower had irrigation. “We had bright, sunny days and low humidity — perfect for growing corn. But we can always grow a better corn crop in a dry year.”

Once the corn begins growing, Collins aims to put about three-fourths of an inch on the crop every two to three days. This meant a lot of irrigating this year due to drought conditions.

“We watered more this year, and we had a lot of money in the crop early in the season because it started off dry,” he says.

Some growers in the eastern part of Georgia had surprisingly good corn yields because of timely rains during pollination, says Lee. “A lot of our hybrids now are more stress tolerant, and timely rainfall created enough moisture to sustain the grain. Even some of the dryland growers made decent yields,” he says.

It's important to remember, he continues, that those growers who did make excellent yields this year also did a good job with their cultural practices, including maintaining a good plant population along with a good fertilization program and controlling insects as needed. A timely harvest also is vital in insuring a good finish to the crop, he adds.

When determining plant population, Lee advises growers to check with their seed company agronomist and use the higher-end plant population for the specific hybrid they're planting. For irrigated growers, this can range from 28,000 to 34,000 plants per acre. For dryland acreage, plant populations normally run from 18,000 to 20,000 plants per acre.

Looking ahead to next season, Lee says there currently is tremendous interest among Georgia producers for growing corn in 2007. “The good prices already are causing a lot of interest in corn production. I'm expecting a significant increase in our corn acreage for next year,” he says, adding that Georgia growers planted about 230,000 acres of corn in 2006.

Lee strongly encourages potential corn growers to be “aggressive” in purchasing seed for next year. “This past year was not a stellar year for corn production in the Midwest, and that's where most of our seed is grown. This, coupled with strong corn prices, means that the seed supply will be tight for corn.

“I strongly urge growers to book their seed now and go ahead and get on your dealer's list so that you'll have a chance of getting the hybrid that you want to plant next year. I've already been told by representatives with the seed companies that there will be allocations of certain hybrid corn seed for next year. Considering the potential demand, there definitely will be a shortage of some varieties,” he says.

Collins has already booked his corn seed and he has his crop contracted through 2008. “The thing that worries us the most is having the ability to get it harvested to fulfill the contract. We don't have the ability to store and dry corn,” he says.

Collins plans to increase his corn crop to about 500 acres in 2007, but some of his neighbors are planning more significant acreage increases. “We have reniform nematode problems in our cotton, so corn helps us out there,” he says.

Lee says growers who haven't made a decision yet on which crops to plant next year should make a decision early and stick with it.

“Growers are still looking at all their options. Most of our farmers grow cotton and peanuts, but there are no peanut contracts and cotton prices are in the doldrums. If peanut shellers anticipate a pullback in acreage next year, they might start offering contracts. I would encourage growers to seek a balance on their farm in whatever they plant.”

Lee says the corn seed situation could play out much like the wheat seed situation this fall. “There was tremendous interest in planting wheat this year because of the surge in prices, and we ran out of seed. As a result, some growers bought wheat that is not adapted to this region. In many cases, the grower was uninformed or the dealer was uninformed. To make matters worse, some growers planted these varieties late — that's a recipe for disaster.

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