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Published October 07, 2013, 10:08 AM

400-bushel corn

A funny thing happened on the way to Mike Larson’s 400-bushel corn experiment. While looking ahead to the future of the region’s expansion crop, the seedsman also started looking into its past.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

HARWOOD, N.D. — A funny thing happened on the way to Mike Larson’s 400-bushel corn experiment. While looking ahead to the future of the region’s expansion crop, the seedsman also started looking into its past.

Larson is lead corn product manager at Peterson Farms Seed in Harwood, N.D., one of the Red River Valley’s corn enthusiasts. PFS often brings in Iowa agricultural consultant John McGillicuddy to help farmers maximize yields and profits.

McGillicuddy advised Larson on a demonstration plot that looks ahead to 400-bushel yields, but along the way Larson discovered a new interest in the history of corn. In the end, Larson created two related demonstrations, next to each other.

“We’re shooting for 400 bushels in North Dakota, but it’s interesting to see how all this has happened,” Larson says.

Pick a number

“We all know the genetic potential of all of these hybrids,” Larson says. Farmers do their best to optimize numerous factors — spacing, depth, timing, feeding and watering — to remove the impediments toward achieving plant potential.

With McGillicuddy’s input, Larson decided to do a demonstration plot. He started with a piece of ground that had been fed for a typical 175-bushel yield target. He hand-planted 48 plants in each maturity level — 84, 90 and 96 days.

The first step was planting a high-population at 43,560 plants per acre.

“Basically, each one gets a square foot to live on,” he says. He put 28 gallons of water in a 30-gallon polyurethane tank to put the same amount on his plots, putting potassium and nitrogen fertilizer through PVC pipes, with holes drilled every 12 inches for the water and fertilizer application.

To hit a theoretical 400 bushels an acre, each plant would have to produce ears with 20 kernels girth by 42 kernels long. The corn was hand-planted in 12-inch rows.

Mother Nature threw some curves. There was early hail in June. The plots were under water for a week. There was rain and wind on Aug. 26. Nevertheless, Larson has started to hand-harvest. The 84-day corn produced a theoretical 285 bushels. He isn’t sure how the other two varieties will do. There’s always next year.

Varieties with history

In thinking about the history of corn, Larson also found that seed for the vintage crop lines is available and can be obtained online.

Initially, there is “teosinte,” an ancient plant native to Mexico, and precursor to today’s corn. “They still raise it, or so I’m told,” Larson says. “American Indians were planting this stuff when Columbus was here,” Larson says.

Next to make the plot is “Longfellow flint.” This is named for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the American poet and educator of the 1800s. “Longfellow was from Massachusetts and fascinated with corn,” Larson says. In Longfellow’s “Song of the Hiawatha” epic poem there is a passage about corn. Longfellow flint is a 70-day maturity variety.

“Then you got to 1846,” Larson says. “A fellow named Robert Reid moved from a town in Ohio, moved to where his uncle lived, near Peoria, Ill. He got there a little late, but he planted a Gordon Hopkins ‘semi-gourd’ type of corn — a flesh-colored kernel — long-maturing.”

The crop was bountiful but immature — “something we’ve experienced up in North Dakota before,” Larson says. Reid saved the best ears, dried them out and planted them the next spring.

In 1847, Robert Reid got only “half a stand” so he put in “rescue planting,” short-season Longfellow flint corn in the same hills. “There’s probably a 40-day maturity difference between the two varieties,” Larson says. The two varieties cross-pollinated into what has become the “founding father of today’s corn — known as ‘Reid’s Yellow Dent Corn,’” Larson says. Larson put it in the demonstration plot.

Reid improved on that, picking the best open-pollinated plants, saving the best. His son, James Reid took over and in 1893 won the World’s Fair corn-growing contest. “He had 127-bushel-per acre corn, when the national average was 27,” Larson says.

After the turn of the century, the first hybrid corn was evolved — a four-way cross. One of the four selections was Reid’s Yellow Dent. In 1930, only 1 percent of the American corn crop was hybrid corn, and the rest open-pollinated. By 1940, it was at 28 percent, and increased to nearly 100 percent today.

The first commercial American hybrid — U.S. 13 — was first sold in the mid-1930s.

Back to the future

The History of Corn is still evolving, and North Dakota and the Northern Plains are playing a key role. There will be surprises, and maybe 400-bushel yields here as farmers work to feed an expanding world population that is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, or sooner. Farmers elsewhere in the Corn Belt have been shooting for the goal for more than a decade.

This year’s plot produced an outside stalk with two ears. That’s not unusual, but Larson pondered why the first, primary ear was smaller (14-kernel girth) than the second (16-kernel girth). That means the plant “decided” mid-season that the environment was good enough to produce an ear with more kernels, Larson says.

Larson’s Iowa adviser, McGillicuddy, didn’t think the potash had gotten far enough into the soil this year. So Larson will do some fall application this year and some pre-plant fertilizing in the spring. He thinks the plot might have a theoretical yield of some 300 bushels, which is about what scientists have achieved in some irrigated plots near Oakes, N.D.

The 400-bushel experiment makes Larson think 12-inch row width might be in the future for corn. He notes that Geringhoff has a corn head that can be used like a flex head for soybeans. “You can go any direction you want to,” Larson says. “You don’t have to be right on the row. That takes the harvesting problem out of it. You use them for downed corn, pick in any direction.”

Larson acknowledges there are critics of intensive cropping, but he thinks producers are “more dialed-in” to feeding crops on a precision basis today and use less fertilizer to produce an ear of corn than they have in the past.

He says David Franzen, a North Dakota State University soil scientist, is studying how much nitrogen it takes to produce a bushel of corn. In the past, that was 1.25 pounds of nitrogen per bushel of corn. “Today, that’s dropped down to what we’re seeing: eight-tenths of a pound,” Larson says.

Increasing yield is a worthy goal, he says, it’s a goal worth dreaming about. “This isn’t science,” Larson acknowledges. “It’s a demonstration 400 for the fun of it, but it gets you thinking.”

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