By Dave Nanda, agronomic crops consultant and Director of Genetics and Technology at Seed Consultants, Inc.
There are very few things in life that are free. Sunlight is one of those free things, but only a very small percentage of the solar energy is captured by the plants. Most of it is either wasted on the ground or is reflected back. So what can we do to make a more efficient use of this free energy? These days we hear a lot about reducing the use of fossil fuels and producing more clean energy by solar panels or wind machines. However, I don’t know of a better system than the corn plant for capturing sunlight efficiently, and simultaneously, it reduces carbon dioxide and gives us oxygen so we can breathe and makes food and feed. The only crop plant more efficient than corn in making more calories per unit area is sugarcane, which can be grown only in subtropical and tropical parts of the world. Corn, though, can be grown from Manitoba to Florida and Texas. Besides, corn produces protein, oil and starch, not just carbohydrates like sugarcane. Corn can be planted in most tropical as well as temperate climates. The corn plant originated in Mexico and is the staple food for most Central Americans. It is revered and worshiped in Mexico because of its nutritional value and its ability to produce well in most environments.
We can design the corn plant to trap more sunlight. Corn breeders have been working on that for many years and have developed hybrids with upright leaves, which can capture more sunlight and also allow the lower leaves to receive a greater amount of light. These hybrids may also be planted at higher populations.
Forty years ago, farmers used to plant 16,000 to 18,000 seeds per acre in 36- to 40-inch rows. The present day hybrids have better stalk and root strength and can be crowded in narrower rows. Farmers are planting at 30,000 to 40,000 seeds per acre in 30-, 20-, 15-inch and even twin rows. About 10 years ago I predicted that some day we will be planting corn in 10 inch rows at 60,000 to 70,000 seeds per acre in equidistant spacing and harvest 400 to 500 bushels per acre. That day does not seem too distant anymore. Yes, we will have to design different type of corn plant and different machines for planting and harvest. It is all an attempt to use greater amount of sunlight than is being currently used to produce more grain per acre.
The easiest and least expensive way to make greater use of the free energy without buying new machinery and with the corn hybrids already available is by planting early. It is an established fact that in most situations, early planting produces higher yields. However, the reason for higher yields is not explained. It has to do with the sunlight. The longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere is June 21. During the two-month period, from May 21 to July 20, we get more sunshine than any other duration of this length in the year. We will capture the greatest amount of sunlight if we could plant early enough to have a full canopy by May 21. Forget about “Corn should be knee high by the Fourth of July.” I think it should be tasseling by the fourth of July. Bruce Zomermaands and his Dad near Sioux Center, Iowa (almost near the Iowa-Minnesota border) start planting corn around April 15 or earlier if weather permits. They plant a total of about 1,000 acres of corn and beans and consistently get the highest yields in the area. They also raise about 7,000 hogs every year.
Our studies over the years have shown that early planting generally produces shorter plants with less root and stalk lodging, and better quality grain that is drier at harvest. So, not only you are trapping more energy from the sun, you are saving energy after harvest by reducing drying costs. We all know that farming is a gamble, but you will have higher yields by planting too early than too late in nine times out of 10, and with odds like that you could make a lot of money, even in Vegas.
For more, contact Nanda at: Nanda@seedconsultants.com or call him at 317-910-9876.