Auburn University Extension agronomist Charles Burmester was doing something this past December that he hasn't done in many years — holding corn production meetings in his cotton-rich region of north Alabama.

It's a sign of the times this year as interest in planting corn appears to be sweeping across the lower Southeast.

“There's quite a bit of interest this year in north Alabama,” says Burmester, who works in north Alabama's Tennessee Valley. “A lot of it is being influenced by the price of corn, but the other attraction in our area is the benefit they receive from rotating corn with cotton.”

Reniform nematodes have become a problem in areas of north Alabama, he says, and growers desperately need a profitable rotation for cotton. “This is going to be a real good thing for a lot of our farms. We have a few folks who have never grown corn who are talking about growing it this year. I've been surprised that some of our producers are talking about going 50/50 with cotton and corn. It's possible we could have a 15 to 20 percent corn acreage increase moving from cotton alone,” he says.

Final acreage numbers, says Burmester, will depend primarily on weather conditions in March. “In north Alabama, early planted corn is considered the best, and most of our farmers have been planting on about March 10,” he says. “Some of them plant even earlier, and that has been the best corn for several years now. That planting date seems to match up better with our rainfall here. But it's a very narrow window for planting.”

One thing that concerns Burmester, however, is the lack of corn storage capability in north Alabama. “We're concerned about our storage situation, especially if we have a good crop. There might not be enough trucks, and unloading could be a problem. A few or our farms actually have added on-farm storage in the past two to three years, and that'll be a huge benefit to those growers. But most farmers won't add storage until they've been into corn production for awhile, and until they're certain the price will stay at a good level,” he says.

Those farmers who grow cotton should be convinced of the value of rotation, he says. “We had a terrible cotton production year last year. But a lot of those who were growing corn in rotation with cotton were making 150 to 200 pounds per acre more of cotton than those growers with continuous cotton in these fields with severe reniform nematode problems. In a bad year, if a grower only makes about 400 pounds of cotton per acre, but he could have made 500 to 600 pounds with a corn rotation, that's a good percentage increase,” he says.

For first-time corn growers, Burmester says his best advice is to talk to their neighbors who have been growing corn and try to learn as much as possible from them.

“Of course, there are basic cultural practices they need to know, but there aren't as many problems with growing corn as there are with cotton. The biggest hurdle is probably harvesting the crop — that's where most potential problems lie. They need to be able to get it out of the field, get it to market, and get it unloaded in a timely fashion. There could be a real backlog this year, because we don't have that many buying points up here anymore,” he says.

Corn acreage already had been moderately increasing in the Tennessee Valley in recent years due to farmers needing a rotational crop for cotton, he says, with much of the increase coming in Lawrence County. But the increase this year will be on another scale, he adds.

“Seed company representatives tell us that seed is so short some growers might have to plant whatever seed is available at the time. This shouldn't be much of a problem because the difference in yields from the top of the tests to the bottom isn't as great as they once were. Our corn crop was poor this past year, but what we saw from the Tennessee Valley tests showed there was only about a 20-bushel difference from the top to the bottom. Hopefully, growers won't take too big of a hit on yields if they have to choose an alternative hybrid.”

The strong interest in corn production in north Alabama is being mirrored elsewhere in the Southeast as prices continue to drive the market. Farmers are getting the best prices for corn in more than a decade amid strong demand for ethanol and feed, according to USDA.

Average prices for this past year were forecast at $2.90 to $3.30 a bushel, up significantly from previous estimates. “We think about 50 percent of the corn crop has been marketed this year at an average price of about $2.70 per bushel,” said USDA Chief Economist Keith Collins in December. “As we look for the other 50 percent to be marketed, we think it could probably average about $3.50 a bushel.”

The last time prices were as good was in 1995, when the average was $3.24 a bushel. This past year marked the fifth time corn prices have risen above $3 a bushel. The average for 2005 was $2 a bushel.