Corn approaches one million acres on Prairies

Cool weather resulted in disappointing yields for producers this year, but they don’t appear to be giving up on the crop

SASKATOON — Monsanto made a bold announcement about corn in June 2013, promising to invest $100 million in breeding programs to develop corn hybrids suitable for Western Canada.

The company’s ambition was massive as it set a goal of eight to 10 million acres of corn on the Prairies by 2025.

That’s not going to happen, but Monsanto executives were right about one thing.

Corn is moving west, and there could soon be a million acres on the Prairies.

This year, prairie farmers seeded 928,000 acres of corn, including silage, grazing and grain corn. That’s up 54 percent from 2015, when there were 600,000 acres.

With more hybrids on the market, more farmers believe corn is a realistic option, even in areas hundreds of kilometres from Manitoba’s Red River Valley, which is Western Canada’s traditional corn-growing region.

“There’s a lot of hype; the most hype we’ve had in the area for corn was (this) year,” said Matt Gosling, an agronomist and founder of Premium Ag, a consulting service in Strathmore, Alta.

Farmers around Strathmore are interested in corn for silage or grazing because summertime temperatures have been getting warmer. However, last summer was too cool for corn. Growers who tried it around Strathmore were disappointed with the yields.

“Our corn heat units didn’t accumulate, and the end of the year we were 250 to 300 corn heat units behind,” Gosling said.

There were also problems in Manitoba. A frost hit southwestern Manitoba in September, stalling crop development and grain fill. Some producers have recorded test weights of 40 pounds per bushel, much lower than the normal 56 lb. per bu.

That’s making it difficult, if not impossible, for producers to sell the crop because buyers won’t accept test weights that are well below 56.

Such failures with novel crops usually discourage farmers from trying it again, at least for a few years.

However, it seems that growers in western Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta now have more faith in corn.

“I don’t think (acres) are going back down. We have a little scare. We deal with it,” said Morgan Cott, a field agronomist with the Manitoba Corn Growers Association who spoke at the Farm Forum Event, held December 3-5 in Saskatoon.

There is evidence to back that up. Average grain corn yields in Manitoba dropped from 140 bushels per acre in 2015 and 2016 to 120 in 2018.

Grain corn acres increased in 2019, despite the yield setback.

Cott began working at the MCGA in 2012. In recent years she’s noticed a change, with more phone calls from growers in Saskatchewan.

“(Grain) corn acres are growing. They have their pockets in Saskatchewan. Outlook is one.… There were a couple of colonies in the Moosomin area that were growing (corn).”

Silage and grazing corn are also gaining traction in Saskatchewan.

The province had 105,000 acres of silage corn in 2019, tripling the 35,000 from 2015.

Cott’s Saskatoon presentation focused on the agronomic basics of growing corn — selecting the right hybrid, fertilizer, pests and disease.

One critical piece for new growers is choosing more than one hybrid.

Cott said they should select one that is safe to grow, based on the heat units in their region, and maybe another hybrid that needs more heat units to see if it is suited to their region.

“Definitely (growers) should have more than one on their farm.”

Producers should also consider a split application of nitrogen. The total nitrogen requirement for corn is about one lb. per bu. of desired yield, but the crop needs most of its nitrogen four to six weeks after emergence.

Consequently, many Manitoba corn growers are applying 50 to 60 percent of their nitrogen requirements in-crop.

Cott said she is grateful that Monsanto’s prediction was wrong. The crop is expanding at a steady rate across Western Canada with most new growers experimenting with 100 to 200 acres rather than 1,000 acres.

“It’s (better) when people just get their feet wet.”

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