New varieties and production know-how make corn work in cool climates
It wasn’t that long ago that a field of corn north of Red Deer, AB, would be as likely a sight as a field of cotton.
While summer days are long in this area, the growing season is short and the heat units low. However, over the past decade, hybrid seed development has made it possible to economically grow highyielding corn for grazing and silage in areas that had never seen corn grown successfully before.
“About six years ago, we started to replace our oats and barley with corn silage because we were intrigued by the idea that we could get more volume off of less acres,” says Leonard Mark, owner of Mark Land and Cattle, a cow/calf operation in Irma, AB. “We were able to get 20 more bushels of corn per acre than we could from barley, and we were able to wean our calves onto the corn easily.”
For the most part, corn is being grown by three main groups in the Edmonton area: dairy farmers, who use it for feed and to manage manure; feedlot operators who grow corn for silage, a high-energy food source; and cattle producers, who grow corn for grazing.
“The Edmonton-area has had more success with corn than some areas further south in the province,” says Corny VanDasselaar, a sales support specialist with UFA and an expert on corn production. “That area is a bit warmer than some areas just south like Lacombe and Ponoka. This is due to the proximity to the mountains and its elevation. So some of the areas around Edmonton are actually quite successful at growing some of the newer corn hybrids.”
HOW THE WEST WAS WON
In 1998, the earliest maturing hybrids were 77 days, and needed 2,250 corn heat units (CHU) to be viable. While these varieties could be successfully brought to harvest in non-traditional corn growing regions, the yields were still less than ideal.
Since then, breeders have been improving corn hybrids for growing conditions in the West, aiming for even earlier maturity and lower CHU requirements, while improving yields by one to three per cent, per year.
“We’ve been working with corn growers for years, breeding these earlier maturing hybrids so those who try to grow corn have a good experience the first time,” says Ron Rabe, market development agronomist with Bayer.
And it seems to be working. “In Western Canada, corn acres have grown from 650,000 acres five years ago to 1. 1 million acres two seasons ago,” he says. “The fact that growers can get good production out of less land makes it an appealing option. Corn silage is also a higher-energy feed source versus barley.
“But there are things you need to focus on if you want to make corn work in cooler climates,” says Rabe. Not the least of which is a whole new mindset toward crop production.
Field selection and nutrition. Field selection and field preparation are where growers need to start. “You need to feed your corn and keep feeding it adequately to get it to the finish line. Increased nitrogen and phosphate can shift maturity earlier by up to three days,” says Rabe.
“For our operation we are able to haul our manure and spread it all without the worry about nitrate poisoning, like we had on our barley crop,” says Mark. “It’s corn, so it still needs a lot of nutrition so we put down ESN (a urea granule with a polymer coating for slow release) with the blend in the spring. It releases when the crop is about waist high and needs lots of energy to grow, and it keeps feeding the crop all the way through to harvest.”
Changing your habits. Producers in more northern regions, who are new to growing corn, face different initial challenges over growing crops more traditional to these areas, says VanDasselaar. Growing a warm season crop in a cool season area takes an adjustment to well-worn habits, such as when to seed, ideal plant populations and how to manage weeds.
“Patience is key,” says VanDasselaar. “You want to wait to put it in the ground at the ideal temperature and then get it going. What’s intuitive in a cool season crop is the opposite in corn. Wait until it is a solid 10 degrees average soil temp in the middle of the day. If you put it in sooner you will get cold inhibition and delay the crop and reduce your yield.”
Planter versus seeder. Corn needs to be seeded evenly and slowly so that every plant emerges at the same time. “Shifting from the mindset of a seeder to a planter is one of the most operational changes a producer can have,” says Rabe. “Corn demands that you plant perfectly spaced corn seed at a level depth and at higher plant populations — as long as you have the moisture for it.
The very real power of weeds. Starting clean and staying clean is especially important when you need to make every day count, and weed management can be the biggest contributing factor to a crop’s success, says VanDasselaar. Even a little weed competition will cause the corn to grow high and thin, and the ensuing weak structure will lead to a poor result.
“Early weed control is counterintuitive to a barley farmer,” says VanDasselaar. “They will wait and wait (to spray) to get as many weeds as they can get. But corn thinks everything is a weed, even other corn that is at different stages. So anything that you’ve done that delays maturity and causes staging issues will weaken your crop and impact your yield.”
Mark also has learned that, as far as field competition goes, don’t expect much from a corn crop. “When you are planning to spray, spray before the crop comes up, as soon as it comes up and then (again) when it is about six inches high,” he says. “If you can keep it weed free, by the time it is about two feet high you will be fine. But if it sees a canola plant when it emerges you can lose up to 40 per cent of your yield.”
“There are things you need to focus on if you want to make corn work in cooler climates, not the least of which is a whole new mindset toward crop production”
MARKET DEVELOPMENT AGRONOMIST BAYER.
Heat units matter. In Mark’s area of Alberta, there are just enough heat units (2,100 CHU) for the earliest maturing corn hybrids available today. It’s pushing the minimum for a successful corn crop, but it works for him. Mark says that 2,100 CHU usually gets him to first frost and as long as the frost hits only the upper leaves and not those next to the ears, there is no impact on his overall yield.
Disease is less of an issue, but still an issue. Corn in the Edmonton area hasn’t been impacted by disease as much as its eastern counterparts, primarily because the dryer western climate, with its cooler nights, makes it less conducive to the development of disease.
But, as with any field crop, tight cornon- corn rotations puts growers at risk of increased disease pressure. With this in mind, Mark has decided he has enough corn in his bins for this season and is going to seed canola or wheat this spring to help manage disease risk.
“Corn growers in this area tend to be more progressive producers because they have to think differently,” says VanDasselaar. “They have to say ‘no’ to seeding early, they have to say ‘yes’ to higher inputs, and they have to say ‘no’ to spraying late. When they do all this with the hybrids that are available today, they can grow corn and have an economic feed source that makes good use of available land.” FF
Silage options for the new grower
Colette Thurston, market development agronomist with Bayer, says DEKALB has two 2,100 CHU hybrids that work for silage growers in Leonard Mark’s area of Alberta, about 180 km southeast of Edmonton.
“We have DKC24-05 RR2 corn which is a 74-day, 2,100 CHU corn,” she says. “It has good standibility and good agronomics, but the only thing it doesn’t have is a trait for European corn borer which can be an issue. For those growers we have DKC24-06RIB. We do also have an ultra early hybrid DKC21-36RIB, which is a 71-day, 2,025 CHU. Its early maturity helps reduce the risk of fall frost.
Have Eastern Canadian corn growers reached peak income per acre?
With a good selection of corn hybrids for growing conditions in Eastern Canada, effective crop protection products and fine-tuned fertility, have corn growers in Ontario and Quebec hit maximum income per acre or is more still possible?
“Growers are always going to look for new ways to economically and environmentally maximize their returns,” says Ben Rosser, corn specialist with Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Yields have been steadily increasing by about two bushels per acre, per year for the past number of years. At this point we don’t necessarily know what the theoretical yield limit is, or if the cost of reaching that limit is economically sound.”
Each year, growers are going to look at the price of corn and determine the economics of that year’s crop, says Rosser. For example, when they look at the fertility in their soil, then look at the price of fertilizer — a key input cost in corn — and what they can expect to get for their crop at the end of the year, they can then decide how much they are going to invest in the crop or how much they are going to push for things, like disease control, in order to reach that peak yield.
“Fertilizer recommendations are not always tied to crop prices,” he says. “Even if fertilizer prices are high, if soil fertility is low, adding fertilizer to low fertility soil can still provide a very good yield response. They then do the math to determine if the investment is going to have an impact on their return on investment.”
Many corn growers still run a lot of trials on their farm, follow what seed and crop production companies are doing and are always looking at new technology and key information to grow a better crop, says Rosser.
“I don’t think a grower is going to willingly leave yield on the table,” he says. “While they won’t break the bank throwing everything they have at it, if there is a good probability that they can economically attain a better yield, growers will keep trying to reach it.”