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Corn, corn, and more corn

There’s a lot of it, but there’s also a plan behind Nebraska crop rotations

If you drive through Nebraska in the summer, expect to see a lot of corn. It towers on both sides of grid roads and secondary highways, hiding deer just as well as forests do in northern Canada. Sometimes drought-tolerant crops such as sorghum fill corners and line borders, as a pollination buffer for seed corn. Arrive at the right time in July and you’ll see busloads of work crews pulling stray tassels from the female plants in seed fields, to ensure those corn plants don’t pollinate themselves.

Last year Nebraska farmers harvested 9.3 million acres of corn and over 5.6 acres of soybean, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This year, Nebraska farmers are expected to harvest 9.35 million acres of corn, and 5.45 acres of soybean.

Corn’s dominance on the Nebraska landscape is not new, and it’s not a trend likely to end soon, either.

What’s driving cropping decisions on Nebraska farms, and what challenges do those farmers face? Grainews traveled to the Grand Island, Nebraska, area to find out.

Water drives production decisions

Brandon Hunnicutt farms with his dad and brother near Giltner, Nebraska, which is southeast of Grand Island. Their main crops are field corn, popcorn and soybeans. The Hunnicutt family also grows seed corn for Syngenta. Several big seed companies have plants in the area, says Hunnicutt, and there are several seed corn growers in the area.

Access to water for irrigation is part of what drives seed corn in the area, says Deb Gangwish. Gangwish and her husband, Paul, grow crops and background cattle in central and northern Nebraska. The Gangwish family lives near Shelton, southwest of Grand Island, and in that area they focus on field corn and soybeans. They also grow and seed corn for Monsanto (which has been acquired by Bayer).

The Gangwishes farm about 12,000 acres, and almost all of that land is irrigated. Irrigation provides a “guarantee for the seed company that that seed corn’s going to get what it needs,” says Gangwish. “Because the expense is huge.”

Deb Gangwish poses in front of a field of corner near Shelton, Nebraska.
photo: Lisa Guenther

Most farmland in the area is irrigated by aquifers. Nebraska’s aquifers are managed by resource districts. Both Gangwish and Hunnicutt praised their resource districts, which have stayed ahead of over-pumping issues. Gangwish, who is in the Central Platte Resource District, says that although there is a moratorium on new irrigation wells, overall farmers in her district don’t face many limitations. Still, it’s a vital input farmers don’t want to waste.

“It costs us money to pump that water. So we have really tried to drive efficiencies in our water usage so we’re not overwatering,” says Gangwish.

Hunnicutt says they’ve been using soil moisture sensors for about 10 years to help with irrigation timing. The other issue they watch for is nitrates in water. They try to time fertilizer application the best they can. However, 40 or 50 years ago, before farmers had a handle on nitrogen application timing and quantity, some did seep into the groundwater, he says.

Today the Hunnicutts split nitrogen applications. They do some variable rate nitrogen, phosphorus, and lime applications as well, he says, although he’s found that once the fertility is squared away, they don’t have to do as much variable rate. The Hunnicutts are also doing some on-farm fertilizer and plant population studies with different universities.

Gangwish says they have a tight nutrient-management program.They’re always looking for the perfect intersection of what the crop needs and when it needs it. Variable rate fertilization through the pivots is a future possibility, but it’s about $27,000 to outfit a pivot with variable frequency drives.

This year the Gangwishes attached soil sensors to their planters. The sensors reported real-time information such as soil temperature and organic matter. The idea was to use that information to adjust plant populations and fertilization, Gangwish says. But the sensors broke off within the first week of planting.

Other technology has proven more durable. The Gangwish family has a pre-plant track cart, built by a man from Saskatchewan, that has tanks for anhydrous and thiosulfate. The chemicals crystalize in the soil and remain pH neutral, she says. “So you can literally plant just hours behind your anhydrous, your spring fertilization.”

Markets are another major driver of cropping decisions. Hunnicutt says there are enough ethanol plants in the area that it makes sense for farmers to grow corn. The Gangwish family grows a Syngenta variety, Enogen, which has been bred to break down more easily in the ethanol plants. Their soybeans generally go to Hastings, Gangwish says, because of the basis. This year they have a small contract with a feedlot. They also have some corn silage for their own feedlot, but how much of their crop goes into their feedlot depends on what the beef nutritionist says and how much corn they have. Gangwish says other than their seed corn, virtually all their corn goes to ethanol.

It’s not just corn for ethanol. All of the Hunnicutt’s popcorn goes to Preferred Popcorn, a farmer-owned company that sells everything from bulk to microwave to organic popcorn. The company was co-founded by Hunnicutt’s neighbours and his father, Daryl.

Agronomics play into cropping decisions as well. “Seed corn is tricky. We never know what we’re growing. But you just want to give it the best start you can,” says Gangwish.

Because they don’t know what to expect for yield, farmers can over-fertilize seed corn without meaning to, says Hunnicutt. And seed corn and popcorn aren’t big nitrogen users, he adds. “So we’re trying to figure out how we can supplement nitrogen without having to add nitrogen.” A soybean crop the year before will probably cover most of their nitrogen needs, he says.

Both Hunnicutt and Gangwish say there are more dicamba-resistant Xtend soybeans being grown this year. Gangwish estimates about 80 per cent of Nebraska soybeans are Xtend this year, compared to about 40 per cent last year. The need to control herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth is one factor in the increased planting of the dicamba-resistant beans, they say. Hunnicutt says another driver is potential dicamba drift.

Gangwish says there are quite a few coexistence issues in Nebraska, such as cross-pollination or herbicide injury because of different traits. West of her area there’s food-grade corn, as Frito Lay is in that area. Being neighbourly is part of the Gangwish cropping plan, she says. One example of that is letting people know where they’re growing seed corn or Enogen.

Building soil health

The Hunnicutt family started growing rye as a cover crop two years ago. Syngenta encourages growers to sow cover crops on seed acres, Hunnicutt explains. Now the Hunnicutts seed cover crops on everything.

“After seed production we’ll add turnips and radishes,” he says. They also have vetch in some fields. “We’re trying some different things.”

Hunnicutt sees many benefits to cover crops. They loosen up the soil. They can help suppress weeds, which is vital since herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth arrived. “We’ve got to find the right combination of cover crops, pre-emerg and post-emerg to hold that back. It kind of snuck up on us and here we are.”

The Hunnicutts have been transitioning about 10 per cent of their acres into organic production over the last two years. By next year, they’ll be growing their first organic crops. During that transition, Hunnicutt has been looking at the long-term benefits organic growers incur from rotating multiple crops. He’s trying to figure out how to get the same benefits with cover crops. Some of those potential benefits are around soil nutrients. Retaining nitrogen is one. As well, the potassium level in his soil is really high, but it’s not always available. “How can we make it available?”

Hunnicutt is still figuring out which cover crops will work on the farm, trying more cover crop research. Rye performs consistently, but there are other things they want to try, he says. One requirement is that they need to be able to kill off the cover crop, he adds.

And getting a cover crop seeded and growing soon enough is a challenge with all the corn biomass, says Hunnicutt. They purchased a seed drill for the cover crops and for a plant spacing study in soybeans. Not all of this year’s cover crops came up, likely because some of it was planted quite late.

Cover crops are fairly new to Hunnicutt’s area. Still, he thinks they will be more widely adopted in the area within a few years. There are several benefits, and no adverse effects on the main crop, he says.

“We’ll get there around here. It’s just going to take a little bit of time.”

About 18 years ago the Gangwishes tried relay cropping — growing wheat and soybeans on the same field in the same year. They dropped that practice after a few years. “We just couldn’t get the yield that we needed out of the crops,” says Gangwish.

Around the same time, they started planting cover crops on seed corn fields, and they’ve never looked back. Typically their cover crops include rye, radishes and turnips.

Usually they’re done harvesting seed corn by the end of September, which is perfect timing for cover crops. But field corn harvest can go late, making it more difficult to establish a good cover crop stand. They don’t grow seed corn on their land up north, but they are bringing in more cover crops. They’ve seeded cover crops by air, but it didn’t work well, mainly due to residue issues. Gangwish says they might try it again in the future, but they’ve had better results with a no-till air seeder. They also want to try seeding cover crops directly behind the harvester.

Both farmers see a role for livestock on their cropland. Hunnicutt’s rye, turnips and radish cover crops are slated for grazing. Gangwish is bringing in about 1,000 head of cattle from a local beef producer to graze the corn residue on the fields around Grand Island.

Cattle are a key component of their farming system, says Gangwish. “We’ve always had some cattle on our ground, working with the local farmers. But we need to intensify that, with the amount of residue we’re dealing with,” she says. High yields mean lots of residue, and that residue can cause emergence issues, she adds.

The Gangwish family practices no-till. During seeding it’s challenging to get through the residue so there’s good seed-to-soil contact. Along with introducing cattle, Gangwish says one way they’ve dealt with that residue is by refitting a used planter with precision planting components. That equipment has lots of down-force, plus good singulation and seed spacing, she says.

They also have a field trial comparing tillage and no-till on their land near South Dakota. Soil Health Partnership is collaborating with them on the trial, and the study should be peer-reviewable after five years, says Gangwish. This year will be their third harvest in the study. Last year they saw a bit of yield drag with the no-till, she adds.

“I’m anxious to see this year.”

Hunnicutt practices strip tilling. That leaves residue between the rows to suppress weeds, but also gives them an area to seed into that warms up quickly. “It’s worked well,” he says.

Both families have long histories on their land. Some of the Hunnicutt’s land has been in their family for 120 years now. Gangwish says her father-in-law lived through the dustbowl days. “And he talked about the wet rags. Anything they could find, they’d soak it in water and put it on the windowsill.”

Whether it’s cattle on the land or slowly rebuilding topsoil, Gangwish and her husband are farming with the next generation in mind. The goal, she says, is to leave everything better than they found it.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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