Boosting corn yields doesn't always result from doing just one thing right. It's often a combination of many key management decisions, with help from mother nature, that turns a good corn stand into a great corn stand.
And while no one can control the weather, management decisions are another matter. So we've selected four key areas that crop experts say most impact your bottom line. Here's how to stack the odds in your favor:
- HYBRID SELECTION
Todd Berg, Blairsburg, IA, spends a lot more time on hybrid selection than he has in years past. “We match up maturities and go with the hybrids that have worked well on our farm. We keep an eye on the new products, but still use some older hybrids that have a proven track record on our farm,” Berg says. An ever-changing lineup of new hybrids can make decisions difficult. “And the number of choices when it comes to hybrids makes the selection process a lot more time-consuming.”
Hybrid selection sounds simple enough: Look at the yield trials and pick the best performers. But Bob Nielsen, Extension agronomist at Purdue University, says hybrid selection is perhaps the most overlooked. “It's not only important to identify hybrids that perform well, but perform consistently well,” he says. “And the only way to determine that is by studying a lot of yield trial data over a large area.”
Joe Lauer, Extension corn specialist at the University of Wisconsin (UW), says just choosing hybrids that consistently perform can have a significant impact. Take, for instance, the 2008 UW yield trial results. The difference between the best hybrid and the worst: 70 bu./acre.
But it's not just choosing the best of the best. “To be successful, growers should focus on the hybrids that consistently perform in the top 20% of yield trials,” Lauer says. “When you look at last year's yield trials, you are only selecting for last year's growing conditions. That's why it's important to study each hybrid and see how it performs in a variety of conditions. And choosing in the top group of hybrids can on average mean a 12-bu. gain.”
And once the top hybrids are selected, other management factors (and weather) can ultimately impact final yield results. “Being in the top 20% gives growers a distinct advantage. It doesn't have to be the top hybrid every time,” Lauer says.
As Berg says, hybrid selection is a one-time decision with a lasting impact throughout the year. “You only have one shot to get it right, so we make sure we take the time to choose what we think will work,” he says.
- PLANT EARLY
With 2,100 acres to plant, Dean Lowry, Francesville, IN, likes to start planting as soon as the weather and his soils cooperate. A lot of fall fieldwork helped Lowry start planting by April 10 on some of his lighter ground. “We were pushing,” he admits, “but after 10 days of planting, the rains came and we were out of the field for two weeks. The late-planted corn never caught up.”
Experts say developing a strategy to identify fields that can be planted early can pay dividends. “Growers can get nervous when talking about early corn planting,” says Tim Maloney, a crop consultant in Janesville, WI, “but today's hybrids can handle early planting.” And that window of opportunity in the spring might shut quickly, like it did this year.
Lauer says planting date sets up the entire season. In Wisconsin, some growers were planting on April 10, while the “normal” planting date is May 1. “In the past five to six years, the most economical and productive time to plant has been in mid- to late April,” Lauer says. “After May 1, yield response begins to drop.”
Lauer's advice: “Be ready. If the conditions are right, plant.”
- WATCH THE PLANT POPULATIONS, AND INCREASE IF WARRANTED.
Bob Little, Hebron, IN, had corn populations hovering around 30,000 ten years ago. “At the time, that was considered fairly high,” he says. “Today, it scares me to be that low.”
On his better soils, Little's plant populations now approach 40,000. Even on his less productive ground, he plants about 36,000. “My soils can tolerate higher populations, and that means more yield,” Little says. “It makes me more money.”
Plant population is the first component in determining final yield. “Yield consists of the number of ears, then the number of kernels on the ear and then the mass of the ear,” Lauer says. “And plant population is the key determinant of yield that growers have control over.”
Nielsen says final plant stands in the low-30,000 range is ideal for most growers in Indiana, but there is a lot of room for improvement - and USDA numbers point that out. Data shows plant stands average below 29,000 in the state. “And that's the average, which means there are a lot of growers well below that number,” Nielsen says. “Today's hybrids can handle pushing the populations, and for many growers it makes economic sense to do so,” he says.
- CROP ROTATION
While economics are driving more growers toward corn-on-corn production, crop rotation still has a place on the farm for Dustin Marolf, Moscow, IA. “We have soils that simply can't handle corn-on-corn production, so we look at a more traditional corn-soybean rotation,” he says. “Producing corn on corn can be done, but it takes a lot more management of our inputs and impacts hybrid selection.”
Lauer calls crop rotation “one of the least expensive ways to gain corn yields.” On average, growers will see a 10-18% yield increase in a corn-soybean rotation.
And while there are growers who are effectively growing corn on corn, Lauer says a traditional crop rotation breaks up disease and insect cycles, which can reduce the need for additional inputs on those fields. “And the yield impact is more prominent in years when we don't have the best growing conditions,” he says. “On average, in less-than-ideal growing conditions, fields in rotation generally perform better.”