Corn has been a big success story the past few years for growers across the country, but in some Southeastern states, the average corn yield has been trending downward, leaving some to wonder about the options for planting and managing corn a little differently.

Corn acreage is expected to be up slightly in the Southeast in 2012 and most of it was planted in March and early April, thanks to a warmer than normal winter, but there remain some unique options for late-planted corn that defy traditional wisdom of planting early.

Nationwide, corn production is booming.  U.S. corn farmers are on course to shatter production, yield and supply records according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in mid-May. The report predicts a record production of 14.8 billion bushels with record average yields of 166 bushels per acre. 

If projections hold, corn production of 14.8 billion bushels would surpass the 2011 crop by 2.4 billion bushels. The report indicated that this estimate includes a 5.1 million acre increase in harvested area and expectations of yields significantly higher than those seen in 2011. 

In the Southeast projections for acreage are likewise up, but the projected annual yield of more than 162 bushels per acre is little more than a pipe dream for dryland corn production in much of the region.

Ron Heiniger is an Extension specialist with North Carolina State University, based in Plymouth, and corn is a big part of his life.

Weather is a big part of corn production in the Southeast and Heiniger is also recognized as a sort of meteorological guru by some of his followers across the state.

Though he is definitely a plant on time, manage on time proponent, Heiniger says there are some interesting opportunities for planting corn on a totally different program than what has been recommended over the past 50 years or more.

Planting was ahead of schedule

The warm winter allowed most growers to get corn planted a little ahead of schedule this year, and getting corn planted early should be a good thing for North Carolina corn growers.

Heiniger says most of the corn planted in late March in the state looks really good. By the first week in May, Heiniger says as much as 98 percent of the corn was planted, compared to 80-85 percent in previous years.

For corn growing traditionalists the outlook for the 2012 crop in the Upper Southeast is good. Heiniger says except for some frost damage in the Piedmont area of the state, which set the corn crop back a little bit, and a few areas with drought problems, the early planted corn crop looks great statewide.

Normally, that’s a good thing, he says. Early planted corn, that comes on uniformly is better than corn that is planted across a longer period of time. How well it works out is going to depend on whether or not growers get rain.

So far, he says, the La Niña weather pattern that has created havoc for growers the past two years seems to be behaving the way it should and that will be good news for corn growers in general.

The past two years growers who planted later, or even those who replanted due to dry weather, fared better than those who planted early.

If La Niña tapers off in late May and on into June, growers should get the rainfall they need to produce a good crop of corn. If the weather pattern extends longer into the growing season, then it could be a different story.

For those corn growers who march to a slightly different beat, Heiniger says there are still some interesting opportunities.

For the past couple of years a small, but growing number of farmers in the Upper Southeast have planted corn in July and have done well. “They hit the weather pattern just right — La Niña definitely favored late planted crops. In a situation like that some growers may have actually produced more corn by planting as late as July,” Heiniger notes.

The strategy of planting corn in July is to avoid the intense heat that typically occurs in June and July when corn in the Southeast, planted in March or early April, is in critical growth stages. By planting in the heat, corn is at these critical growth and kernel setting stages when daytime and nighttime temperatures are on the decline.

Waiting to plant corn also gives growers multiple opportunities for planting double-crop behind a fall-planted crop, usually wheat. By allowing wheat to fully mature, the grower gets maximum production from his fall crop and gets good or better production from his second crop — corn.

When it comes to money, most farmers agree two crops is better than one.

Biggest drawback is lack of rainfall

The biggest drawback to the late planting strategy, Heiniger says, is whether the crop will get some rainfall in the hottest months. If you go totally dry in July, it will set the corn back so much it will be shorter and less productive when the rains do come, he explains.

Even if it’s hot and dry when corn is planted in July, the grower should consider using a starter fertilizer. The crop has to come out of the ground fast and begin to grow-off fast, because there are almost certainly going to be some periods of hot dry weather in the first few weeks after planting, he adds.

“There are clearly some risks to planting corn in July in our part of the world, but the past three years growers who have tried it have done well,” the North Carolina State specialist says.

The theory behind planting late to avoid the heat has some merits.

“When it’s cool at tassling and cool at grain fill, then you get heavier kernel set. There are some real possibilities to planting corn late, but we just haven’t explored these options, because we didn’t have Bt corn and planting late and fighting insects just wasn’t an option,” Heiniger says.

“Bt corn has changed the rules. Plus, growers now have a much wider array of hybrid varieties that can mature anywhere from 90-120 days.

“Growers are not going to break any yield records because the crop is compressed into fewer days, grows faster and gets less light intersects than a conventionally planted crop,” he adds.

“If I was planting corn in late June or July, following wheat, I wouldn’t go with one of the shorter maturing hybrids. I’d probably plant a 105-112 day corn. Growers have more time than they think, and the farmers I know who have planted behind wheat have not had a problem getting corn to mature prior to frost,” Heiniger says.

The corn hybrids with the shorter maturity periods were primarily bred for regions of the country that have a severely depressed growing season. In general, these varieties haven’t performed well in the Southeast, and we have 105-112 day hybrids that are bred for our part of the country and these varieties do have time to mature in the Southeast, he adds

Another option is to plant corn after corn, which has allowed growers to produce three crops in two years.

The can happen when corn is planted in late March, and is followed by a second crop of corn planted in early July, which is followed by wheat planted in November. With irrigation and some timely planting and harvesting, a few growers have done well using this planting system.

Having irrigation is a must for such a planting system, but Heiniger says growing 200 bushels of corn per acre and 100 bushels of wheat seems like a much better option than risking production of either crop by squeezing in a second crop of corn.

However, maximizing use of expensive irrigation equipment is another factor to consider, and in some cases the extra corn crop may produce enough more profit to pay for an irrigation rig.

Year after year corn will respond better to irrigation than any other crop. The new varieties we have are adapted to respond better to a uniform supply of water.

“We used to talk about a 15-20 bushel per acre increase on irrigated versus non-irrigated corn. Now, we talk about 40-50 bushels more, and sometimes a lot more than that,” Heiniger says.

(For those interested in the concept of late-planted corn, a good read can be found at Weather projection: Late-planted corn might be best).

rroberson@farmpress.com