Growing Corn and Corn Silage on a Budget

Penn State

This article, “Growing Corn and Corn Silage on a Budget” is this week’s Agronomy Highlight.

The Agronomy Highlight discussion is an opportunity to ask the author questions about the highlighted article, get updates from Penn State Extension Agronomy Educators around the commonwealth, share observations from your part of the state, and request content for the next issue of Field Crop News.

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Milk price has a significant impact on Agriculture in Pennsylvania and across the United States. Current low prices and future prices has dairy farmers asking, “What inputs can I cut back on to reduce my cost of production and not greatly reduce my yield?”

This is a difficult question to address broadly, but I will try and highlight some keys points. First, I strongly suggest you look at an Enterprise Budget for corn and determine your costs. There are a number of excellent corn enterprise budgets out there on the web, search your favorite state’s Extension site for one. The Penn State Agronomy Guide has budgets for corn silage , corn after corn and corn after soybeans .

Top cost for corn for grain include land rent, fertilizer, seed, machinery depreciation and pesticides. Obviously lowering land rent would be nice but if not possible, savings will likely come from machinery depreciation, fertilizer, fuel/drying costs and pesticides.

Be careful cutting seed costs
Hybrid selection is the single biggest factor you can control. It can have a yield swing of 70 bushel per acre or 12,000 pounds of milk per acre (silage). Farmers need to determine if yields can be maintained while lowering seed costs. Potential avenues for lowering seed costs include lowering seeding rates, switching genetics and opting for fewer traits. We often don’t have insect pressures that requires control of all the above ground pests (black cutworm, corn earworm, European corn borer, fall armyworm, stalk borer and western bean cutworm). Corn rootworms are more of a concern for corn on corn acres that don’t get rotated with another crop like soybeans or alfalfa. Herbicide tolerance is an individual decision but if you spend the money for herbicide tolerance you better plan on using that herbicide in your herbicide program. A $325 bag of seed compared to a $200 bag of seed corn with a 32,000 seed drop = $80/acre for the $200 bag and $128 for the $325 bag. That’s a saving of $48/acre; it will take about 14 bushels at $3.50/bu to offset that cost or over an additional ton of corn silage per acre. Depending on what plant population you have been planting you may be able to lower your seed drop by a couple thousand seeds per acre and save a few bucks.

Soil Test
Use a current soil test to determine your fertilizer needs. You can’t manage every field the same, they will likely have different manure histories and yield potential. Typically, a soil test is valid for three years if the recommendations are followed and records are kept. If results of the test indicate Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) values are in the optimum range, it is likely that adding additional P and K fertilizer will not increase yields this year. Calculate N-P-K contributions from manure applications. Don’t forget about Nitrogen credits from previous year’s manure applications. Rather than applying all your nitrogen at planting, why not wait until the corn is about knee high (V6) and test with a Pre-sidedress Soil Nitrate Test for corn to determine if additional nitrogen is needed.

Keeping the soil pH in the optimum range is important. Corn can tolerate a pH as low as 6.0, but alfalfa fields should not be lower than 6.5. If you need to decide whether to buy fertilizer or to buy lime for a field that needs lime, apply at least some of the lime that is the recommended first.

Starter fertilizer is another input that often does not payback, especially on a dairy farm with high P levels and when planting into soils that are warm. Corn will often have a visual response to starter but when it comes down to yield that offsets the cost, it is often unfounded.

Spray your own Crops
If you already own a sprayer and can get it done timely, you can save money by spraying yourself. There is a key “if” in that previous sentence. Just like nearly every other operation on the farm, spraying needs to be done timely, but it often occurs during the busiest time of the year. It is important to have someone trained to apply pesticides and to have a resource for them to ask questions if they are uncertain of something. Doing your own spraying allows you to shop around for pesticides and UAN, if you use that as a nitrogen source.

Weeds can have the biggest impact on yield, followed by insects and lastly diseases. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the best way to determine if a pesticide application is necessary and economical. In this case there might be value in hiring a crop consultant to scout for you in order to prevent unnecessary pesticide applications.

Crop Insurance
Don’t eliminate crop insurance, consider the options. Talk with your agent to get a program that fits your operation.

Impact of corn management decisions on yield

  • Weather – the biggest factor but you can’t change it (70+ bushel variation).
  • Hybrid selection – can have a yield swing of 70 bu or 12,000 pounds of milk per acre (silage). This is the largest variable you have control over.
  • Soil Fertility – N deficiency can decrease yield by 20-50%.
  • Crop rotation – yield increase of 10-19% (corn after corn will have a yield drag).
  • Seed Treatment – decreases death loss to 5-10%.
  • Plant population – 0-22%, 24,000 would be the lower threshold.
  • Pest control – timeliness is everything, 1st weeds, 2nd insects, 3rd diseases
  • Harvest – 0-20% loss potential due to late harvest.

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