Aiming for 300 bushel/acre corn
It’s talk for now but expect this new average corn yield in 20 years
By Brandy Harrison
Jeff Davis says he’d be happy with 200-bushel yields on the heavy clay of his St. Thomas corn fields and is surprised to hear so much talk of 300 bushel corn when that plateau could still be 30 years down the road.
"I probably won’t see it in my farming career," says Davis, who planted 460 acres of corn this spring. "That would be like talking about 200-bushel corn with my Dad and that was never a conversation you’d have back in those days."
But there’s more talk all the time. Markus Haerle, a director with the Grain Farmers of Ontario, says he hears about 300-bushel corn at nearly every meeting and he thinks those yields will be more common in the next decade.
"It was always said there is a maximum a plant can achieve. Now I think we’ve learned that there are no limitations," says the Eastern Ontario cash cropper.
Former Grain Farmer of Ontario chairman Don Kenny says those high yields are a necessity.
"If we’re going to feed this hungry world, we’re going to need 300 bushels to do it," he says. "There’s no more arable land. It’s only through technology that we’ll be able to keep up."
While OMAFRA corn expert Greg Stewart says 300 bu/ac provincial averages — which have only hit the 150 mark in the last few years — are still as far away as 2032, 300 bushels is within striking distance and the genetics are already there: in 2010, five hybrids cleared the 300-bushel mark on Ridgetown test plots.
"We used to ooh and ah about 200-bushel corn, but if you don’t have 200-bushel corn, you shut up at the coffee shop," says Stewart, adding that the odds favour the higher heat units in Western Ontario.
Better seed genetics, herbicides, and fertilizers get credit for climbing yields, but Stewart says weather and management practices, such as picking longer-season hybrids, planting earlier, and better seed placement and soil contact, are just as important.
"Is there something magical farmers could do today to ensure it? Absolutely not. If there was, then everyone would be doing it," he says.
Fred Below has put a lot of time into finding just the right formula to realize that 300-bushel dream. The professor of plant physiology at the University of Illinois has come up with "seven wonders" farmers need to pay extra attention to: weather, nitrogen, hybrid selection, previous crop, plant population, tillage, and growth regulators. (Read more at www.7wondersofcorn.com.)
While it’s a complex equation, Below says upping plant population to the 40,000 plants per acre range is one of the most crucial steps farmers can take. He’s even found benefits to using fungicide when there’s no evidence of disease.
Below says current genetics could produce 450 to 500 bushel yields and it won’t be long before 300-bushel corn is more commonplace in Ontario.
"If prices remain high and farmers set a goal, they’ll get it sooner rather than later," he says. "Ontario is blessed with long days. Climate change is your best friend because it doesn’t change the daylight; it just makes it warmer so you can plant earlier."
Stewart adds that soil fertility is also a prime consideration and while there are things farmers can do to improve soil health, such as including cover crops and being attentive to soil compaction, sometimes it all comes down to location — Kent County has a distinct advantage over the rocky soil near Peterborough.
"That’s a big factor on whether you’re going to get 300 bu/ac and nothing matters other than where your ancestors decided to say ‘whoa’ to the horse," Stewart says.
But Ken Nixon says yield is genetic potential minus growing season stress and while farmers have some control over weeds, insects and disease, water availability trumps everything.
"You can take 350 bu/ac genetics on land that has all the fertility in the world and have absolutely no insect or disease pressure and if you don’t get the water, it still doesn’t matter," says the Ilderton cash cropper.
Davis is also cautious. He says spending $300 to $400 to push yields higher isn’t economical and demand has to keep creeping up to prevent a price drop if 300 bushels becomes the norm.
Reaching the 300-bushel milestone could also have another downside — longer days at harvest time.
"I’ve been in a combine and harvested a 260-bushel crop and it just shakes," says Below. "Any farmer knows you have to slow down. It’s like mowing grass that’s too tall."