“Are we there yet as an industry for growing grain corn in the cooler climates? The answer would be no. Is it coming? Yes, it is.”
– BARRY CHAPPELL
Corn likes heat, and lots of it.
Unf o r tuna t e l y, i n Manitoba this spring, there wasn’t much of that.
A five-acre trial of grain corn seeded on June 3 under zero-tillage conditions at the MZTRA research farm showed spotty germination and slow growth at the annual summer tour recently.
Does that mean no-till grain corn won’t work in Manitoba under zero tillage?
No necessarily, according to Barry Chappell, an independent sales representative based in Hamiota for Pioneer Hi-Bred, noting that the crop is widely grown in the United States under such conditions.
“It depends on Mother Nature,” said Chappell, who provided the seed for the trial north of Brandon.
“It was a cold spring. You had to wear a Ski-Doo suit. Corn is a crop that needs about an average 10C soil temperature before you want to plant it in the ground,” said Chappell. “With the soil conditions this spring, it just couldn’t get off to a good start.”
Cool weather and poor growing conditions in early spring has set back canola and even cereal crops all over the province, not just corn, he added.
For farmers north of the Trans-Canada Highway, growing corn for grain is still a risky proposition even with the new low heat unit varieties, although many have enjoyed good success with the crop for silage and grazing.
Starting slow and learning how to grow grain corn on smaller acres is a good strategy to minimize risk, he said.
“Are we there yet as an industry for growing grain corn in the cooler climates? The answer would be no. Is it coming? Yes, it is,” he said.
Corn is a crop that needs warm soils to get going, he added, and so trying to get corn in early despite cool soil conditions doesn’t work. Although it goes somewhat against the no-till philosophy, strip tillage to blacken up the surface before seeding might help get early growth off to a better start.
“In a warm spring, with warm soils, that wouldn’t be an issue whatsoever,” he said.
Corn, as a large seed, needs to be placed down in the moist layer at about 1.5 to two inches deep. This also helps the plant develop bracing roots to help it stand up to wind.
The variety seeded at the MZTRA farm was P7213R, which at 2,050 to 2,075 heat units represents the latest developments of the past two decades towards more cold-tolerant corn genetics, and advances in biotechnology promise to push that limit even lower.
“The genetics will continue to get earlier,” he said. “They are telling us that they can get under 2,000 heat units probably within the next five years.”
Frost tolerance is also being worked on, and researchers claim that the newer varieties to come out will be able to easily withstand even a -6C dip in the fall.
“If we can just get earlier genetics and the frost tolerance, 10 years from now, with the amount of focus that all the companies are putting on corn, you will see a lot of corn production here in Western Canada.”
There’s a common misconception that corn needs a lot of nitrogen to achieve high yields, but Chappell said that in Manitoba, the same rates used for cereals are generally sufficient.
“Everyone hears about the huge rates of fertility that they are using down south of the border on corn. I think that’s one of the things that concerns people and scares them off corn, even if they are growing it for silage or grazing,” he said.
Corn needs about one pound of nitrogen per bushel, so if 80 to 100 bushels is a realistic yield target in northern areas, somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 pounds per acre – the same as some wheat crops – would fit the bill depending on existing soil N levels.
“We’re not going to grow 150-to 200-bushel corn in this area, unfortunately, so there’s no sense fertilizing at that rate. It’ll affect the maturity of it, too.”
Pioneer Hi-Bred is introducing a glyphosate plus Group 2 herbicide-resistant corn, which would allow producers to control RoundupReady canola volunteers in their rotations, he added.
Lindsay Coulthard, manager of the MZTRA farm, said that the first-ever grain corn trial seeded on June 3 at the location north of Brandon was also handicapped by the lack of a dedicated no-till planter, which may have affected seeding depth and consistency.
This fall, the farm will try 10-inch wide strip tillage on 30-inch centres to blacken the soil up ahead of spring planting and monitor the temperature difference there with the residue covered with standing stubble to see if the tactic might be a viable solution. [email protected]