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It's possible to grow 300 bushel corn, 85 bushel soybeans

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 02/19/2013 1:59 PM

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OWATONNA, Minn. – A University of Illinois professor shared the seven wonders of the corn yield world and the six secrets of soybean success with growers at a meeting last week.

Innovative Seed and Consulting of Claremont hosted the meeting, which attracted about 75 people. Fred Below, a professor in the University of Illinois Crop Sciences Department, said that progressive farmers manage for high yields every year.

The farmers who attended the meeting were interested in high yields, Below said. Last year brought both high yields and high prices for Minnesota farmers. The two rarely happen at the same time.

The yields of 2012 are a testament to better genetics and management, he said. The drought was more widespread than the drought of 1988, yet the yields were surprising in many cases. Iowa was still the nation's top corn producer, followed by Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois. Typically, Illinois is right behind Iowa.

The eastern Corn Belt is almost out of drought danger, but the western Corn Belt is still dry. The weather extremes are part of a changing weather pattern.

Minnesota farmers are well positioned as climate change moves the Corn Belt further north, Below said. Minnesota farmers will be able to grow 300 bushel corn, with a Minnesota farmer placing third in the non-irrigated category with a yield of 288 bushels per acre in 2012.

Farmers will need to produce these yields to feed a world population projected to increase to 9 billion people by 2050, Below said. U.S. average yields are now about 150 bushels per acre for corn and about 42 bushels per acre for soybeans.

The holy grail is 300 bushel corn and 85 bushel soybeans. It will be a huge challenge to achieve those yields on a field-wide basis.

Corn yield is now increasing at about two bushels per year, but that isn't enough, Below said. Yields need to increase at 4 bushels per year to reach 300 in 40 years.

If soybean yields increase by four bushels per year it will take 100 years to get to the magic 85, he said.

Below has isolated what he calls the seven wonders that have the biggest impacts on yield. There are prerequisites that must be in place before the seven factors are considered. For corn, those prerequisites are drainage, pest and weed control, proper soil pH and adequate levels of P and K based on soil tests.

The seven factors:

1. Weather.

2. Nitrogen.

3. Hybrid. The most important decision farmers make every year, Below said. He's struck by how much emotion goes into seed selection. The yields in his varietal trial varied from 216 to 129, a 85 bushel swing due to hybrid selection. Planting the wrong hybrid would have been a $600 per acre mistake. If it was planted on 100 acres, the zeros add up quickly, he said.

4. Previous crop. The biggest hit on yield on corn-on-corn doesn't occur in the second year, it's just that producers forget about it after the second year.

5. Plant population. Seed costs are only going to go up, Below said, but producers typically give up 20 bushels an acre because they don't have enough plants. If farmers are going to plant high populations, they need to be sure to select a hybrid that can tolerate it. He told of his own experiments with twin rows, which he loved until growing jaded by failure. Now, he's leaning toward 20 inch rows.

6. Tillage. It's all about controlling one of the wonders listed above.

7. Growth regulators. There is a lot of interest in this category.

For soybeans, the prerequisites are drainage, weed control and soil pH.

The secrets of soybean production:

1. Weather

2. Fertility. Soybeans get less than half their nitrogen from the nodules, the rest comes from the soil. The higher the yield, the more nitrogen soybeans remove. Phosphate is taken up over the entire season and potassium is used at seed fill time.

3. Genetics and variety. "All varieties aren't created equally," Below said. "The variety makes a big difference, just like the corn (variety)."

4. Foliar protection.

5. Seed treatment.

6. Row arrangement. He said he thinks the future is 20 inch rows.