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By Staff | Jan 31, 2014

Every night has its morning and most cold spells have their thaws. That is what makes every season tolerable, in that we can always maintain hope that better conditions are right around the corner.

In the upper Midwest and much of the country most people were getting tired of winter while it was still technically the fall season. This brief warm-up is allowing the ice and snow to melt, so with the longer days and if the sun shines things seem much more tolerable.

We have survived so far, so with late-January just around the corner spring will slowly approach and with it the green grass and crops once again.

Yield plateaus

In the last few years we have seen prophets tell us that 300 bushels per acre average corn yields are on the horizon. Does everyone think the same thing or is it just a pie-in-the-sky dream?

A smart crops person could argue either side of the issue and quite easily discuss five or six different areas that need to be included in that discussion.

Ken Cassman, a University of Nebraska agronomist, gave his take on the topic in one of the latest UNL IPM Newsletters. Ken is usually quite solid in any debate he gets involved in and has his feet on the ground.

Everyone would like to average 300 bpa, as long as the national and statewide corn yields stay the same. Grossing the same dollars while handling more bushels seems counterproductive.

I believe we will continue to see advancing yields, but that a few hurdles need to be cleared first. One is that either irrigation will be needed by more people or fields that have lost half of their organic matter in the last two decades will need very timely rains.

Since the organic matter in most fields has dropped 2 percent over the past two decades and that represents 110,000 fewer gallons of moisture left to hydrate the crop during the dry weather in July and August, such flash droughts could become more common.

It will also take the weather to cooperate with warmer-than-average weather in May and June coupled with cooler-than-normal conditions during the pollination and grain fill months of July and August.

Keep the nighttime weather during the same two months in the 50s to minimize grain fill deposition into the kernels. Long days with close to maximum sunlight every month will be helpful to form all the needed sugars. Those last three things are somewhat out of our control.

Forming a deep and massive root system in a biologically active soil will help to solubilize and mobilize nutrients available to the root systems and plants. That means using a good microbial or growth stimulate will help this process.

Remember that Dave Hula, the repeat NCGA corn-growing champion, said feed the soil and it will feed the plants. Rootworm and other insect damage need to be minimized so as to avoid limiting root formation and function.

Another major factor these days is to understand what must be done to keep the stalk and leaves healthy and forming as many photosynthates as possible. Most growers did not recognize this past summer that the corn crop in Iowa began to go downhill about July 18, when it started to yellow as it began cannibalizing itself.

Brown piths and crown regions indicate serious problems ahead. Fungicides may help this in the case of gray leaf spot pressure, but a good micronutrient program goes a longer way in maintaining plant health.

Furthermore a strong nutrient program goes a long ways in helping plants tolerate warmer and drier weather much better.

The topic of population is bound to pop up in any high yield discussion. Kip Cullers, another corn-yield champion, from Missouri, used to get his 350 to 370 bpa yields with pops in the high 30s using twin row 7s on 30-inch centers.

Francis Childs, of Manchester, used to use pops in the low- to mid-40s, but his plants always developed a massive root system that explored at least 6 to 8 feet for moisture and nutrients.

They were like a forest. Rows narrower than 30 inches can help intercept more sunlight earlier than 30-inch rows, but it is typically wiser to pursue 300 bpa with a pop of 34,000 to 36,000 plants per acre and a deep root system, than 45,000 plants and a hardpan at 8 or 12 inches.

Weeds into alcohol

There was an interesting article in the University of Illinois IPM Newsletter where an ag engineer, working with biofuels, brought up the suggestion that it may be worth looking at using taller and competitive weeds as a source of biofuels rather than cultivated crops that require planting, fertilizer and normal harvesting equipment.

The thought was that multiple crops may be able to be harvested in a season, seed costs may not be incurred, fertilizer requirements would be minimal, and more than one crop or weed could be utilized.

While the idea may sound farfetched, but the way some of the prevented-planted fields grew solid with taller broadleaves last year, the biomass amounts from those fields would have been sizeable.

The question would be more easily answered if we end up seeing cellulosic ethanol production gain traction and become an economically viable venture.

2014’s crop

Now that most growers are working and reworking spread sheets to get as close to showing profitable results before they visit their bankers they are weighing and making decision as to what inputs are vital and which ones they may have to drop for this season.

Weed and insect control are vital; and of those two, weeds come first because they are generally present every year at varying pressures.

As to insects the presence of corn rootworm larval feeding is dependent on the beetle numbers in the field at and after tasseling during their egg-laying periods.

Whether or not those late flights were egg-layers rarely gets confirmed. Corn borers are generally a problem in year four and five of their five-year cycle.

They are expected to peak again in 2017, since 2012 was going to be the high point with 2011 being the second worst year.

Looking at insect expectations one should be weighing them when deciding what traits if any are needed and should be purchased.

Before the run up in grain prices, more producers were looking for any small niche that offered a larger margin to contribute to their bottom lines.

It may have been growing seed, raising specialty animals, or developing a hobby into a money-maker. Lots of different ideas seemed to spring forth.

Right now there is interest in growing grains that may command a market premium. These could be substantial if some of those proposed market come to fruition.

Remember the crop update sessions that will be coming to your areas.

Bob Streit is an independent crop consultant and columnist for Farm News. He can be reached at (515) 709-0143.

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