Farmers in Alberta are planting more and more corn. From 5,000 acres in 1990 the area under cultivation has expanded to over 40,000 in 2014. Alberta agriculture professionals expect this trend to continue, driven by increased demand from domestic livestock producers. Though corn requires high inputs, it can produce very high per acre yields, and new varieties requiring fewer corn heat units (CHUs) per season are making it possible to grow corn in regions of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan where it was previously not viable.
A high-yielding crop with an increasing local demand, plus a relatively steady market price with large upside potential, certainly sounds attractive. Should you be thinking about corn as your new crop this year? While yields can be very high and corn often fetches a good price, corn also requires extensive preparation and acquisition of new equipment for farms that have not grown it before, all of which increase startup costs.
The Alberta Ministry of Agri-culture and Rural Development’s has released a new report: “The Potential for Grain Corn in Alberta.” The report includes the following points for your to ponder while you’re making your decision.
- Location: The first question you have to answer is whether you’re in the right area for corn growing. Corn requires a lot of summer heat to mature. This has traditionally precluded it from being cultivated extensively across Alberta. In recent years, however, improvements in seed genetics have resulted in varieties that require fewer corn heat units (CHUs) per season.Where previous varieties required 2400 CHUs (available only around Medicine Hat) newer hybrid varieties reach full maturity with as few as 2050 CHUs, extending the potential area for corn growing up to near Edmonton. Most of the southeast portion of Alberta receives sufficient CHUs to grow the new varieties successfully.
- Water: Corn requires around 500 mm of water per growing season, which can be hard to get in areas of the province suited for corn growing — rainfall in the southeast averages between 200 to 300 mm per season.To grow corn you’re going to need access to reliable irrigation to make up the difference. Fortunately the areas now suitable for corn growing are also extensively irrigated as part of Alberta’s Irrigation Districts program, which means you’ll have ready access to reliable, low-cost water.If you have not used irrigation previously you will need to invest in spraying equipment for your land. The Ministry recommends using spray irrigation rather than field flooding; though more costly in initial setup they reduce soil salinization and use water more efficiently.
- Weeds and pests: Because it is fast growing corn is highly vulnerable to weed competition; common invasive plants can produce large losses in yields if left unchecked. Thankfully most of the weeds that affect corn crops are vulnerable to glyphosate and most varieties of corn incorporate some glyphosate resistant technology. You’ll want to plan an extensive pre-seeding field treatment to make sure you suppress all plants that could compete with your corn for nutrients.Corn shares a number of diseases with grasses like barley, rye and wheat, but does not share any with broadleaf crops like canola, soybeans, or sunflowers. Because of this, you’ll want to plan your crop rotations carefully — planting corn after broadleaf crops but not after grasses, and not following corn with grasses. This is especially important to avoid problems with Fusarium graminearum, which is readily hosted on corn and remains persistent on residual stalks roots. While fusarium affects corn, it affects short grain crops much more, and you’ll want to make sure you have it under control before rotating crops. One season without corn or broadleaf crops is usually sufficient to suppress it in a field.
- Machinery: To grow corn you’ll need to invest in new machinery. In addition to the irrigation equipment mentioned above you’ll also have to purchase a special corn header attachment for your combine, and may need to purchase a special corn dryer to remove enough moisture from the corn to store it without spoilage.The advent of newer varieties of corn requiring less CHUs has increased the attractiveness of corn for Alberta grain farmers, but you should be wary of high setup costs and the possibility of opening your farm up to new diseases and pests. Check out the Ministry’s report for more information to help you decide whether corn is right for you. Find it online quickly by searching for “Alberta agriculture grain corn potential.”