By SUSAN BLOWER
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The greatest agronomic challenge facing producers is to stress-proof crops against increasing, unpredictable, extreme weather events, said Bob Nielsen, corn specialist with Purdue University Agronomy.
Nielsen and Shaun Casteel, soybean specialist with Purdue University Extension, led a breakout session on lessons from the 2012 drought at the Indiana Livestock, Forage and Grain Forum in Indianapolis earlier this month. Nielsen acknowledged that drought is probably on the minds of farmers because last year’s drought was historic.
“Relative to corn trend yields in Indiana, the 2012 drought was the most severe single-year drought ever experienced since USDA began estimating corn yields in 1866,” Nielsen told a roomful of producers and FFA students.
According to USDA estimates, last year’s Hoosier corn yield averaged 99 bushels per acre, which was the lowest statewide yield since 1991. That was a negative 39 percent departure from the trend yield.
Nielsen said the corn crop was devastated by the early onset of severe drought conditions, combined with the excessive heat in late June and early July. To make matters worse, the height of the drought hit when the crop hit its critical flowering stage.
However, Nielsen advised against singling out drought as the only crop stressor because next season’s weather is unpredictable, as it was early in 2012. With half the crop planted by April 23, 2012, farmers had good reason to expect a much better result last season, he said.
“Record yields were in the minds of farmers at planting. The early planting resulted in the earliest silking progress on record. Pollination would have escaped the usual hot, dry weather of mid- to late July, except that last year was not usual,” Nielsen said.
Instead, the crop silked during the worst of the summer heat in July, and that magnified the effects of the drought.
Since extreme weather events seem to be more prevalent, Nielsen urged producers to pick hybrids that excel in tolerance to a wide range of crop stresses.
“I don’t want farmers to focus on drought only” when selecting hybrids to plant, Nielsen said.
He also pointed out that drought-tolerant hybrids still need some water to produce grain but apparently in lesser quantities than regular hybrids.
While rainfall and soil texture may be out of the control of growers, Nielsen directed his listeners to focus on a few areas: improving soil drainage, employing less tillage, using a starter fertilizer, adding nutrients, and lowering seeding rates.
Nielsen also encouraged planting seeds further down to find moisture when seed beds are dry.
While Indiana is officially out of drought conditions, the Central Plains area, where there are major corn- and wheat-producing states, is still rated in severe or worse drought.
“Those producers are struggling with how to grow crops. At the moment, we are in good shape,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen and Casteel are looking for additional farms across Indiana to participate in test plots for their research.
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Soybeans less stressed
While the 2012 drought was a perfect storm for corn plants, it was more of a nuisance for soybeans.
Because of late rains, soybeans “gained a lot of ground” in August and September, Casteel said. Also, the soybeans were patient.
“Last year we learned that soybeans can hold on a long time (to get rain) … The plants bloomed and bloomed until conditions were fit,” Casteel said.
USDA estimates that last year Indiana farmers harvested an average 42 bushels per acre, which was a negative 10 percent departure from trend yields. By comparison, in 1988, soybean yields dropped 30 percent from the trend.
Sound management of the crop is needed to make the most of what Mother Nature dishes out, Casteel said. From variety selection to timely planting, plant establishment to inoculants, the farmer can improve his results.
In selecting a variety to plant, Casteel reminded the group that the genetics of a seed provide the yield potential, but many factors influence its consistency, such as weather, soils, cultural practices, diseases, insects, and soybean cyst nematodes.
From data gathered in 2010, Casteel found that yield was consistently greater when the soybeans were planted early. This is not always the case, but Casteel believes in timely planting. Timely planting for Indiana is normally in the first three weeks of May, he said.
“Plant early to spread the risk because you don’t know what the growing season will be,” he said.
Plant establishment above and below the soil is another management tool. Plants that are seeded at the right depth will “set the stage for maximum” return, Casteel said.
He offered other tips such as the following: inoculants may be warranted in extremely drought-stressed fields; check for correct marginal soil fertility, especially potassium and pH; narrow (less than 15 inches) rows canopy faster and out-yield wide rows by 5-10 percent, and target plant population is 100-120,000 plants per acre.
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