Severe drought cut North Carolina corn yields from the previous record-setting year of 2001. But timely rains along the coast and management practices designed to give farmers a head start on the weather lessened the gash.

“We had two diametrically opposed years from 2001 to 2002,” says Ron Heiniger, North Carolina State University Extension corn specialist. North Carolina growers set a record average yield of 134 bushels per acre in 2001. The statewide average yield will be right at 100 bushels per acre this year. He had been expecting average yields as low as 50 bushels per acre due to the drought. “I'm not totally disappointed with that. In some areas you couldn't buy a rain to save your soul.”

Severe drought in the Piedmont forced some growers to abandon acreage. Aflatoxin was a problem in the Piedmont. Farmers in other drought-affected areas “got in early and got the harvest completed,” Heiniger says.

Along the coast, it was a different story. “This year shows the value of a timely rain,” Heiniger says. Benefiting from one or two timely rains from the Gulf Stream moisture, corn farmers in the Tidewater area of the state had yields of 240 bushels to 280 bushels per acre. Farther to the south in Onslow and Duplin counties, producers also had good yields.

Heiniger says management practices statewide helped mitigate the damage from the drought.

“There are two things I'm seeing farmers doing right,” he says. “More farmers are calibrating their planters and going slower when they plant. The other issue is I'm seeing farmers putting at least 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre on early. This year they got the early growth before the (drought) stress started to hurt.”

Growers also increased plant populations and got good results. “With the new hybrids and good management, we can push plant populations and reduce the risk.”

“Given the weather, it would have not been unusual to expect 50 bushels per acre,” Heiniger says. “Farmers did a good job and that's why we saw better statewide yields than we would have expected.”

As for 2003, Heiniger expects to see a slight increase in corn acreage in North Carolina, despite the disappointing season in 2002. “The market looks strong for corn and a lot of growers were disappointed with cotton yields. My prediction is that we could see an additional 50,000 acres of corn in the state for the coming year.” In 2002, North Carolina farmers planted 700,000 acres of corn.