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Taking the corn plunge in the West — gradually

Experienced farmers on the Prairies say to start by planning how you’ll dry your trial corn crop. Then, everything else will fall in place

Access to new shorter-season genetics means many Prairie farmers would like to give corn a try, but they’re put off by the considerable upfront costs for equipment such as planters, combine headers, grain dryers and additional storage.

For those who want to start with a trial run, however, there are options such as sharing equipment with neighbours and hiring custom operators to seed and harvest, so they don’t have to make any major investments until they are certain corn will work for their operation.

With acreage on the rise across the Prairies, it’s much more likely than it was 10 years ago that someone in the neighbourhood will be growing corn and be willing to help out by lending equipment or doing a little custom work.

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Work backwards

Jonothan Hodson suggests starting from the end and working backwards.

“Generally speaking, you’re going to have to dry the corn in November and if you have got tough corn, you have got a problem if you can’t get it dried right away,” says Hodson, who has been growing grain corn on his mixed farm near Lenore, Man., for the past five years. “If you can handle the end of it then everything else is doable.”

Hodson had been growing silage corn for his cattle for many years, and initially a neighbour who owns a feedlot had helped him get into it, helping plant and chop it for the first couple of years, until they decided to invest in a planter together.

The sharing continued, Hodson says.

“We invested in a combine header when we began growing grain corn and when the neighbour got into grain, we helped him out for a year or two with combining until he decided to invest in a header for his machine as well.”

This past spring, Hodson bought his own planter and a new header because he has gone to 30-inch rows.

Drying cost is another consideration for some growers, depending on where they live. Hodson has no natural gas on his farm, so he has to dry with propane, and says he would grow more corn — he currently seeds around 250 acres — if he had a less expensive option to dry. “It does hold us back a bit back from growing more corn because the drying cost for propane is higher than what natural gas would be,” he says.

Corn is a high-volume crop, so having enough storage to handle it is crucial. For some growers that means buying or renting extra bins. For Hodson it just meant some additional planning.

“We were able to manage with what we had because it’s an extended season for corn, and we are able to move some other grains in the fall before the corn comes off to create some bin space,” he says. “Part of our thinking in growing corn was that we could maximize our combine use because the corn season is late… every other crop is done already, so the combine is free when you do the corn. It has extended our harvest window.”

As more producers grow corn there is a lot more used equipment. “There is seed equipment available if you want to take the time to look around,” says Hodson. “At the start we bought 20-year-old stuff and then as you get comfortable, you might invest in a little more up-to-date equipment.”

Growers won’t generally have to invest in special spraying equipment, says Morgan Cott, field agronomist with the Manitoba Corn Growers Association. “Generally growers are spraying corn pretty early. Once it’s knee-high they probably aren’t going to be spraying, so they don’t need something that is high clearance, they can use their regular sprayer,” she says.

The custom-planting option

Richard Dureault grows about 700 acres of corn annually on his farm near Fannystelle, Man. He says that when he started with 200 acres in 2012, which he had custom-seeded and combined, it was about the best year anyone could get into grain corn. “We lucked out. The corn came off at the end of September, so we didn’t have to worry about drying it and the corn price was $7 a bushel,” he says.

But he wasn’t going to fly quite so much by the seat of his pants the following year when he bought a dryer. “We thought the dryer was more important,” he explains. “With the cost of machinery, when you are only doing a few acres, custom planting is best because they typically have good machines. We didn’t worry about planting because there were quite a few planters around the area and I think there is starting to be a lot more around the province now too.”

More used corn equipment is available these days, especially if you search in the U.S.
photo: DevidDO/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Dureault didn’t need to worry about more storage right away because he got into corn partly to find a replacement for oats in his rotation, which freed up some storage, although as corn acres have increased, he has since purchased an additional bin.

By 2015, Dureault had decided that corn would be a permanent part of the rotation and so he invested in a split-row planter so that he has options of 15-inch or 30-inch rows, a bonus because he also grows soybeans. He is also now doing some custom work for others, which helps to spread the machinery cost.

“There’s a lot of options for cheaper planters just for corn, but we were seeing more guys just getting into beans and corn, and there was increasing demand for custom guys who can do both, so that’s why we went that route,” says Dureault. “It allows us to do a bit of custom work and do multiple crops ourselves too.”

Residue management was more of an issue than expected, especially because the farm has heavy soils. He still uses a regular double disc for working the residue in and admits it isn’t the best option. “There are definitely better options out there, but that’s expensive to get in to, so we use what we have right now.” Says Dureault, “It works but you have to do a few passes. Residue management is definitely something to consider in corn.”

Dureault also sees more options these days to find used equipment.

“When we were looking, our planter came out of Saskatchewan, and there wasn’t a whole pile in circulation, but now more guys are getting into it and there’s a lot of older, second-hand machines about. And if guys aren’t scared to buy States-side either, the options there are endless. A few neighbours have bought from the States the last couple of years so there are a lot of options.

“Just look at your operation as a whole and see if you can make work some of the stuff you have already on the farm without having to go out and blow the budget on everything,” says Dureault. “The custom option is a good one just for experimenting and it gives you a year or two to try and get a feel for it, an idea of what you’re getting into and what your residue management is going to be like, what your drying capacity is and then go from there.”

This article was originally published in the Sept. 2018 issue of the Corn Guide.

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