Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Corn on Corn Strategies for 2015 – Don’t Go Crazy and Don’t Cut Corners

Corn on corn is a difficult prospect in 2015.  Regardless of location within the Burrus footprint, continuous corn lags behind other cropping systems in average per acre estimated income. 
There are reasons that individuals will still practice continuous corn:
  • Landlords sometimes demand it.   
  • Local marketing opportunities sometimes encourage it.  
  • Past government policies have sometimes promoted it.   
  • Previous chemical and/or fertilizer programs sometimes dictate it.   
  • Pest management issues sometimes force one into it.   
  • Cropping plans sometimes necessitate it.  
Continuous corn can yield 10 to 25 percent less than rotated corn, land costs run higher, diseases and other pests tend to be a little more prevalent, etc.  Those facts are not new to continuous corn or to explanations for lower income potential.  Yet, 2015 will present unique income challenges for this cropping system.  

The difference between continuous corn in 2015 and continuous corn over the last few years really comes down to a change in the market and a lack of change in the marketplace.  Commodity prices have tumbled back to 2007 pre-boom levels while input costs have remained flat.  What does that mean?  Managing income potential in continuous corn is even more important in the coming growing season.  The correct approach is this “do not go crazy but do not cut corners.”  That approach must be taken in each area of investment – in seed, in field prep, in planting, in weed management, in insect management, in disease management, in fertilizer, in harvesting/storage, and in marketing.


Let’s begin by discussing how we might “go crazy” when it comes to seed (how we might go beyond what is necessary).  Let’s do so by asking some probing questions.  First, does your situation really require a pyramid or single trait RIB hybrid (i.e. does it require a hybrid with multiple traits targeted against the same pest or does it require a single trait pour and go/no-refuge hybrid)?  A resistant rootworm population or a bulk fill planter may require both, but if that doesn’t describe you then ignoring a cheaper single trait/non-RIB product may be “going crazy.”  If a cheaper single trait/non-RIB product helps you get to “necessary,” does it really make sense (given the market) to aim for “extraordinary?”  Are there other seed-related issues that might trend toward going a little crazy?  Carefully consider what you need and what you want.  There is a difference, and continuous corn will dictate “need” rather than “want” to cash flow.
 Let’s now discuss how we can “cut corners.”  It is tempting to go cheap in 2015 when it comes to seed, to merely look at price and discard all other considerations.  Saving dollars should always be on the grower’s mind, but it must not come via cut corners.  Seed selection holds the most potential to make corn on corn work.  Conversely, it can also make corn on corn a disaster.  Yes, a Burrus sales agronomist is making that statement, but that doesn’t make the statement less true.  A poor seed choice will negatively impact continuous corn and will likely tighten up margins.  A selected hybrid must fit the actual productivity level.  It must fit the most likely environment encountered.  A selected hybrid must perfectly fit the seeding rate desired by the grower.  It must have a good synch between pollen shed and silk emergence (i.e. good nick).  These considerations are always important in hybrid selection, but they are not negotiable in continuous corn.  Continuous corn does not allow the grower to simply pull any hybrid off the shelf. 

Planting is another area where “don’t go crazy” seems to be the appropriate starting point.  Bluntly stated, unless you are already in the market for a new planter or new planter attachments, and have been for a while, dramatic investments in equipment or attachments will often fall beyond what is necessary in continuous corn.  Any dramatic “gadget investment” had better yield lots of additional bushels the majority of the time.

What about “not cutting corners” when it comes to planting?  Take some time to calibrate the thing.  New attachments won’t make a difference when a planter is dropping lots of doubles or when the spacing between kernels begins to swing wildly.  Make sure you are getting uniform drop, stand and planting depth.  Then...  check things out throughout the season.  Calibrating and observing planter performance post-calibration is not wasted time.  Poor calibration costs growers income each year, and you can’t afford lost income with continuous corn.

Field Preparation

Fuel costs are one of the biggest line item expenses for the grower, and growers are rightfully on the hunt for ways to reduce that fuel bill.  Even with recent positives in the fuel/energy sector, fuel expenses will remain significant.  It is tempting to save dollars by eliminating tillage.  The suggestion “don’t go crazy and don’t cut corners” applies when we speak of no-till in 2015.  Let’s again ask some probing questions.   
Does the hybrid selected lend itself to no-till or to conditions that might accompany no-till?  Do you have experience with no-till or would this be your first shot at the practice?  Will the continuous corn field lend itself to your skill with no-till or will it not?  A hybrid with a low no-till score is not going to suddenly perform at its’ peak when the grower places it in no-till.  A hybrid less suited to “wet feet” is not going to perform well if no-till causes a field to hold excessive moisture.  Placing such a hybrid in such a situation is “cutting a corner” and kind of “crazy” at the same time.  You are ignoring the necessary and expecting a good result.
Embracing no-till is admirable and possibly a great long-term goal.  However, the tight margins of 2015 may not be the time for tillage-prone growers to jump exclusively on the no-till wagon.  No-till takes a skill set.  Well practiced no-till takes a well-earned skill set.  Eliminating tillage minus any experience in doing so may potentially “cut corners,” and if you really aren’t very good with it – you’re going to look “crazy.”
Any piece of ground can be no-tilled.   However, some tracts are more easily no-tilled than others.  For instance, bottomland gumbo can be no-tilled – but it proves a difficult prospect for many.  The decision to go continuous corn is not the time to play bold and pretend a practice is within your comfort zone.  Be honest with yourself.  If you know you cannot make the practice work in your situation and you none-the-less try it anyway, you are “cutting a corner.”  You are “going crazy” when you try to cram your square peg into the field’s round hole. 

Weed Management

A weed management program in corn doesn’t need to be extravagant (i.e. crazy), but it does need to provide a good product mix.  An appropriate mix of chemical options/applications may at first look extravagant when compared to past one-pass post-emerge programs – but a good product mix is far from being “crazy.”  Pre and post applications should be used.  Residual products should be used along with less persistent products.  Resistant dictates this approach, and moving to a one-pass post-emerge program (with the hope of hypothetically reducing herbicide costs) is production suicide.  Resistance is lurking.  On paper, a one-pass program may look appealing, but for most growers the practice will only save money on paper – not in reality.  When that program fails, subsequent (often futile) trips will continuously thrust the sprayer back into the field.  When done right, a mixed and multiple application herbicide program will provide great control while reducing the number of trips across the field.

Insect Management

Savings in this area really depends upon the quality of the grower.  Are you good at scouting?  Do you know how to do it well?  Do you scout when, and as often as, you need to?  The answer to those questions will determine if insect management qualifies as a cheap risk-filled endeavor or insanity embraced.   

Growers with well-honed and frequently practiced scouting skills can save money when it comes to insect management.  They will be able to spot the rise of a problem, control that problem when it hits threshold, and reap the financial rewards.  Applying insecticides prophylactically when scouting skills are well-honed and frequently practiced is “crazy.”  Trust in that skill and save yourself some money.  Do what is necessary, but don’t shoot for extravagant or extraordinary.

Growers less skilled/less vigilant when it comes to scouting must do two things.  First, they need to correct that lack of skill.  Economic thresholds have been designed to benefit the grower’s bottom line.  Scouting is a tool that can detect when those thresholds are met, and it should be used.  However, if you must plant corn on corn and you don’t have those skills, you need to invest in traits that will control a broad spectrum of butterfly/moth larvae and rootworms.  To both ignore traits and ignore scouting represents a serious cut corner.  It will likely harm grower income.

Disease Management

Pathogens responsible for disease can afflict any field, be it corn after beans or corn after corn.  However, some diseases are a little more likely in continuous corn.  Additionally, the reduced yield potential of continuous corn makes the impact of disease that much more potent.  Don’t go crazy by applying fungicides to a crop that fails to show economically significant evidence of disease.  Likewise, don’t cut corners by investing in a hybrid that does not have a good resistance package.  Choosing a good resistance package can reduce pesticide costs.


What does your current nutrient situation look like?  Would your fertilizer program qualify as insane or potentially harmful in continuous corn. Let’s start by considering phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).  If P and K are currently at adequate build up levels, leave them there and merely replace what you remove (i.e. go with a maintenance fertilizer rate).  To invest in more than what the soil needs right now would be crazy.  If soils are not adequate though, you must invest in both buildup and maintenance.  Not getting the soil where it needs to be will reduce yields, and it is a cut corner.  Nitrogen investments represent another area where balance is necessary.  Return on investment must be the goal (i.e. achieving what is necessary while straying well from potential harm).  Now is the time to embrace a Return to Nitrogen approach, the approach promoted by many Midwestern universities. The evidence for other nutrient investments is pretty sketchy/pretty thin.  Because we must squeeze more dollars out of continuous corn, it makes little sense to invest in much more than needed lime, P, K, and N.

 The thoughts here mirror those of planting.  Unless you are already in the market for new equipment, bells, and/or whistles  - do not purchase equipment, bells, and/or whistles.  To do so is crazy.          Don’t cut corners though.  Once again, make sure the thing is calibrated before harvest, and make sure you are satisfied with performance during harvest.  Are you blowing too many kernels out the back?  Are concaves set right?  From a storage standpoint, reduce some energy cost by selecting a hybrid that dries down well in the field.  A bin fan can represent considerable saving over the LP needed by a drying bin.


We have stated, throughout this article, that continuous corn systems must seed to optimize income.  Striking a healthy balance between not “going crazy” with inputs and not “cutting corners” with inputs is the only way to press income potential higher in corn following corn.  We therefore must mention marketing.  Because continuous corn income potential is already at a disadvantage, a grower simply cannot pick and sell in the fall.  Nor can the grower flippantly sell at other times of the year.  Corn on corn is not a system suited to marketing all one’s corn at once, and it is not a system suited to ignoring the commodity market.  At the very least, pick some evenly dispersed days out on the calendar and market a fraction of your grain each time.  Better yet, work with people skilled in squeezing additional value from the market. 

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