What’s up with corn?
By Rosalie I. Tennison
As one of the oldest crops grown in North America, corn found a growing niche in Ontario from the time farmers in that province began tilling the soil. Corn production now accounts for a high percentage of the acres currently under cultivation in Ontario.
For over 40 years, Top Crop Manager has been assisting Canadian corn growers with production advice and scientific research to encourage successful corn cultivation. In those decades, articles covered varietal improvements, agronomic advice and equipment reviews. The news just kept getting better and better over the years with yields improving from roughly 75 bu/ac in the 1950s to, on average, 160 bu/ac in the 2000s. Corn’s versatility has progressed from being merely livestock and poultry feed to a source of bio-fuel, starch, sugar, oil, syrup and distilled beverages. Perhaps the crop’s shape-shifting qualities is what keeps it at the top of most Ontario growers’ production choices.
Without question, corn is sometimes a bellwether in Ontario’s agricultural belt. If corn prices are down, other crops seem to struggle as well. If prices go up, more acres are planted to corn, if rotations allow. Of course, as corn’s star has risen, so too do the branches of agriculture that support it, from agronomic traits and production recommendations, to planting and harvesting equipment, to storage and shipping recommendations. With the advent of the Internet, websites are dedicated to successful corn production, including www.gocorn.net.
With all the improvements in the production of corn, is there anything we don’t know about producing this important crop?
“The planters have changed, but the principles haven’t,” Terry Daynard says. Besides being a corn researcher at the University of Guelph for years, Daynard has also been growing corn for just as long. After graduating from the Ontario Agricultural College in the 1960s, Daynard became a recognized expert in corn production, completing research in many areas including developing guidelines on successful planting. He says research dollars have been spent over the years improving corn production and that is why the crop remains successful.
“We learned back then that uniformity of depth is highly critical and that seed spacing is not as critical,” Daynard notes. “We now have better accuracy with modern planters, but the principles of planting corn remain the same whether you are using a state of the art planter or a hand planter.”
Daynard was on hand to initiate the long-term crop rotation project at Elora, Ont. in the 1980s that, he says, has helped the province’s growers understand the importance of rotating between crops. Before the industry understood the value of rotation, corn was often grown year after year on the same field. The rotation study has proven that corn yields are better when the crop alternates with soybeans and cereals.
“It’s true that rotation is often dependent on market opportunities, soil structure and available crops,” Daynard admits. “But we learned that any rotation is better than no rotation.” He says the rotation study proved that growing the same crop year after year would eventually lead to other problems with weeds, disease and pests, and overall soil health would decline.
“Corn is a remarkable field crop because yield increases in corn have gone up faster than any other crop,” Daynard says. “This could be due to breeding and the introduction of hybrids, which give breeders an incentive to improve the crop.” He adds that resistant or tolerant corn varieties, either to pests or herbicides, have had a huge effect on the success of the crop. “I would suggest that plant breeding is why yields have improved dramatically.”
From a scientific standpoint, Daynard notes there is nothing preventing corn from continuing to improve in yield results or in efficiency of use. Genetic modification is becoming more and more refined and production practices have become, well, a science. But Daynard is concerned the improvements made in the last four decades with the promise of even more will be stalled due to society’s concern about genetic modification.
“The biggest cloud is cultural,” Daynard says. “Society is reacting to technology that has little to do with science, such as the European Union’s aversion for genetically modified crops. I fear we will see more and more push-back, but there is no scientific basis for this concern. This is a perception of a problem that is not there. We can feed the world, but will we be allowed to?”
Daynard says that despite being at the leading edge of corn production in North America, Ontario may also be at the leading edge of a growing anti-farm movement. The neonicotinoid issue could be the beginning of a new world order in terms of what growers will be allowed to produce, and he is concerned the decisions will be made by lobbyists and not scientists.
Nevertheless, Daynard is optimistic about the future of corn production in Ontario and in Canada. “We’ve been growing corn in this area of the country for some 1500 years and I don’t see that changing,” he says. “There’s no other crop that matches it in production of digestible energy on the lowest number of acres and for the lowest cost. Nothing grows carbs as quickly and as efficiently and as cost effectively as corn.”
Improvements in corn have continued unabated over the last few decades and, unless the publicity war is lost, it will likely continue to increase in importance. The early research Daynard worked on has been fine-tuned and corn continues to hold its place at the top of the crop production ladder. It is his fervent hope this will not change and that his views on corn production will still hold true if this conversation is held 40 years from now.