Corn prices have been good the past few years and really good right now, as we head toward planting season for 2011.

The natural inclination is to produce more corn and make more money. Good in principle, but maybe not so good in practice, says veteran North Carolina State University Corn Specialist Ronnie Heiniger.

A couple of years back Heiniger gave a rousing speech entitled, “Corn — A miracle waiting to Happen.” He stands by that concept, but says corn growers in 2011 need to keep a few things in mind before they go crazy planting corn.

“The first outlook for corn this year is all roses, or ears, he jokes. Corn is a miracle that is now ready to happen. Our time is due and the price is right — I believe that firmly,” he says.

“Hopefully, we learned some valuable lessons from the 2010 crop, which was stressful due to near record heat and drought across much of North Carolina. In 2011, corn growers are going to want to grow as much as they can, but they need to remember some lessons from both recent and past history,” he adds.

“First, spend whatever time is needed to pick the right variety for your farm. Last year corn growers saw first hand that when the chips were down, the varieties capable of tolerating heat performed well. Look at which varieties performed well in 2010 in areas that were most affected by weather-related stress.

“Last year heat tolerant and moisture efficient varieties were the difference between making virtually no corn and making 120 bushels per acre. It was that dramatic! Variety selection will be everything in most years and especially so when corn prices are so good,” Heiniger says.

In addition to being the corn guru that most North Carolina growers turn to for information. Heiniger has become something of a weatherman. His meteorological skills are beginning to be almost as in demand as his corn production expertise.

“Last year, based on weather patterns, I urged corn growers to plant their corn early. It was advice that paid off well for corn growers in North Carolina. In most areas of the state,” he says, “growers who planted their corn early, made the best corn.”

Similar weather pattern expected

In 2011, a similar weather pattern is expected, so Heiniger urges corn growers to get their crop planted early and to do whatever they can to insure it comes out of the ground growing as early as possible.

Early June is the most critical time for corn and moisture. The La Niña weather pattern that seems to be in place into the late spring and early summer is likely to produce hot and dry weather when we get over to the summer months, he says.

To take advantage of what moisture is going to be available, growers have to get their crop planted in a timely matter to take best advantage of the critical pollination period that occurs in early June, he says.

“The next critical factor in making money growing corn in 2011 is to not leave bushels on the table. Getting the most out of your corn crop is dependent on two critical factors: Plant population and starter fertilizers.

“Last year 33,000 plants per acre performed just as well as higher or lower populations. If you get the crop up and growing early and get adequate rainfall, the difference between 28,000 seed per acre and 33,000 can be dramatic. Putting the extra seed in the ground at only a nominal higher cost won’t hurt you, but if conditions are right it can really put a lot more money in your pocket.

“However, planting too many seed can really cost a grower. There is a definite breaking point at which a grower can plant too many seed. If you want to plant more seed, do it gradually. While planting an extra 1,000 seed per acre may not cost you in production, planting an extra 5,000 can actually cost you yield, plus the extra cost for the extra seed,” he adds.

The benefit of starter fertilizer is one element of corn production that growers simply can’t afford to ignore. Last year, growers who planted early and used starter fertilizer produced the best crops, he says.

Even for growers who planted later, on into mid-May, starter fertilizers continued to do well because it gave the crop a running start. 

Finding the right starter fertilizer formulations isn’t a problem, according to the North Carolina State specialist. “We have found that growers using five gallons or less in furrow can do just as well as using 20 gallon in a two-by-two in-furrow application. Look at what is most economical to use and go with it,” he explains.

As far as formulations go, Heiniger says he looked at everything from 10-10-10 to a 10-27 to a 11-37 to a 11-18-18, and didn’t see any one that looked better than another. “You did need phosphorus, but how much in the blend and balance doesn’t seem to make much difference.”

If a grower has narrow rows, they may need a two to one ratio to get enough nitrogen. Or, if they have plenty of nitrogen, maybe a 3-18-18 will work fine.

The tendency is when the price is good, for any crop, is to apply more nitrogen. Don’t do it in corn, Heiniger stresses.

“We have nitrogen in the soil that growers can take advantage of, and when you have good management practices, nitrogen rates in the 150-180 pound range are plenty enough to make 300 bushel per acre corn.

 “Nitrogen is not a key to higher yields. In fact, higher yield are a key to nitrogen efficiency. More nitrogen will produce wider, broader leaves and you put that corn under drought stress and too much nitrogen will have the same effect as too many plants per acre,” he says.

rroberson@fampress.com