With the certainty of a dry spring looming, there are several things corn growers can do to better manage their crops for the weather ahead, says David Wright, University of Florida Extension agronomist.

Forecasters are pretty much in agreement that the La Niña weather phenomenon will continue through early spring for the lower Southeast, says Wright, meaning warm, dry conditions that’ll be reminiscent of those seen in 2011.

Ironically, the data shows that corn producers with irrigation make higher yields during a La Niña phase, he adds. “In an El Niño, corn yields are usually below normal if you’ve got irrigation. You normally don’t see the record corn yields like we saw in 2011. However, if you are not an irrigated grower, that is not the case.

“Throughout north Florida, Georgia and Alabama, with irrigation, we usually have higher corn yields during a La Niña weather pattern.

“But we still have large amounts of non-irrigated corn in the U.S., especially when you get into the northern parts of the states, and I’m not sure this always would be the case,” says Wright.

Compared to last year at this time, drought severity in the lower Southeast is much worse, he says. “A lot of our winter crops look okay, as far as wheat and winter grazing, but many people have been working in swamps and cleaning out ponds because there is no water.

“A lot of irrigation wells dried up this past year. In south Georgia and north Florida, we’re in an extreme drought situation now.

“We’re in a long-term drought situation, along with parts of Texas and Oklahoma. That means more than six months of drought. We actually came out of 2010 about 20 inches below normal in rainfall.

“We came out of 2011, at least in the Florida Panhandle, at about 30 inches below normal. So we’re a total of about 50 inches below normal in rainfall.”

Most corn in the lower Southeast is planted in February or March, says Wright, which places the main pollination period in May.

“During this period last year, we were in a severe drought across north Florida, southern Georgia, southern Alabama and on out into Texas. So we had to do a lot of irrigation during this time period if we wanted to make adequate corn yields.”

Some growers made more than adequate yields in 2011, says Wright.

“In Georgia, we saw about 350 bushels per acre, and the second highest corn yield in the U.S. was made by a Georgia grower.

“We had irrigated growers around the Live Oak, Fla., area in deep sand, with 500 to 700 acres, who averaged 275 bushels per acre. That’s unheard of for that part of the country, but it happened.”

Some of the factors behind these high yields were high photosynthesis and low plant disease, he says.

“We didn’t have to worry about fertilizer leaching because we didn’t have enough rain. But we did have more potential for aflatoxin, with the hot, dry weather.”