Corn 101: What do first-time growers need to know?

Thinking of planting corn for the first time this year?

By John Dietz

It’s spring. The crows are back, searching for feed. Last year’s corn stubble will be high on their lists of fields to visit. We had about 387,000 acres of corn in 2017 in Manitoba. We expect more fields in new places this year.

We are seeing a slow expansion of corn acres in Manitoba, mostly to the north and west, according to Morgan Cott, field agronomist for the Manitoba Corn Growers Association, Carman.

Most corn growers grew up with corn on their farm or at the neighbours, but new growers are trickling into the ranks.

“Corn is proving itself more and more in the province,” Cott says. “With new hybrids, we’re getting better at growing it successfully,” she says.

Manitoba is a short-season growing region compared to the Dakotas. For more than fifty years, plant breeders have steadily improved the ability of corn to mature in shorter growing seasons.

“Our earliest hybrids now need around 2000 heat units. They’re behind the push into shorter-season areas like Neepawa, Rapid City and Virden,” she says. “A lot of our new acres are in the west. They’re finding success in southwestern Manitoba, to the U.S. border, definitely north as far as Neepawa and west to the Saskatchewan border.”

Anyone thinking of trying corn for the first time, Cott suggests, will be wise to have the first field custom planted and custom harvested. For any hope of success at a commercial level, a good row crop planter must be used, and at harvest, the combine needs a row crop header.

Most farms will already have a high clearance sprayer that deals with in-season fertility, weeds, pests, and disease.

A drying system and proper storage also need to be considered.

In short, going into corn for the first time has a big up-front cost for the system tools that support the crop – equipment, drying and storage.

“Some guys don’t want to jump into that. A lot have started growing corn with the help of someone in the area who does custom work. He’ll custom plant, harvest and dry it. That’s a good way to start if you’re not sure it’s going to work on your land or in your area, without making a major purchase. If you first hire a customer operator, you can learn if it’s worth it.”

Now that the crows are back, time is short for the key commitments and decisions, she adds.

“You should have your seed spoken for by the first week of April. Ask your dealer what hybrids are best for the area and try two or three, rather than going corner to corner with just one,” she says.

If you need custom planting, she says, definitely try to get a commitment that your field can be fit into the schedule for planting before May 20, at best.

“Look at the pricing and get a contract commitment to planting before May 20,” Cott says.

After the ‘who’s planting when’ issue is answered, there will be more to settle and more to learn.

Cott suggests, “Go to our website for backup support and information. We have a 92-page booklet available, “Corn Production in Manitoba,” plus a newsletter, summer events, research, and on-farm trials across the province.”

Next year, your first corn stubble might even be able to host some of those returning crows!