Poly pockets for corn

E: The biodegradable film protects the crop and gives it the added heat units and growing degree days it needs to improve performance for the farm.  The corn thrives under the plastic early in the season, creating a greenhouse that encourages early season growth.  |  Mary MacArthur photo

CAMROSE, Alta. — The old adage that corn should be waist high by the fourth of July may be reality in the United States Midwest, but in central Alberta it’s just a saying.

Except at Vermeer’s Dairy in Camrose where much of the 600 acres of corn seeded under a biodegradable film is growing quickly despite the cool, wet weather.

“My corn this morning was almost waist high,” said Jake Vermeer on June 22.

The need for high-quality forage for the 600 dairy cows pushed the family to import a Samco six-row corn seeder from Ireland. The specially designed seeder places the seed in the ground, adds fertilizer, sprays herbicide under the plastic and between the rows and covers it with a thin film designed to act like a mini greenhouse.

“It gives us an immediate advantage with heat units,” he said.

“It’s like a greenhouse. It’s 10 degrees warmer. The soil temperature increases in a third of the time.”

Soil readings taken at seeding showed temperatures of about 2 C to 3 C, which increased to 9 C or 10 C by the third or fourth day of seeding, he said.

Vermeer said they started searching for some way to increase forage quality for their dairy herd and he saw a post about the seeder on social media tool Twitter.

Three years ago, the family imported the seeder from Ireland and has been making adjustments for western Canadian conditions.

Ideally, the seedbed should be well worked to prevent old stubble from damaging the film.

“You need really good stubble management,” said Vermeer, who said they use a high speed disc set four or five inches deep on the fields before seeding.

In Europe, wet winters allow the corn stubble to rot in the fields over winter. A tough corn stalk in the fall is still a tough corn stalk in the spring in Alberta fields because of the frozen conditions.

Recently, they bought a corn flail mower from Manitoba and hope to use that in the spring to beat the corn stubble before using a disc.

“We really need black soil.”

They are also trying to figure out the best way to deal with weeds. Now, they are using the common corn herbicides, atrazine and Heat, to limited success. Vermeer believes the greenhouse effect of the film may break down the herbicide quicker and offer less weed control.

“We think the herbicide is breaking down because of the humidity. You stick your hand in there and it’s clammy.”

At this time of year when the corn is high and growing well, Vermeer loves the seeder. But during seeding the 60-pound roll of film needs to be replaced every three and a half acres and changing film and refilling fertilizer and herbicide often is difficult.

“It’s tedious. We always complain about it during seeding.”

Vermeer said a few years ago, it became clear their dairy herd needed enhanced forage quality to boost milk yields on the farm. The seeder has helped.

Using the seeder allowed the farm to seed corn in mid- to late -April while there is still danger of frost. Normally, corn isn’t seeded in the area until just before the Victoria Day long weekend to ensure frost dangers are past.

“Last year it paid back easy.,” said Vermeer.

As a rule, corn grows at 8 C, or higher and temperatures under the plastic are normally higher than that.

In Western Canada, temperatures often drop below 8 C at night. The plastic film allows for a longer growing period.

Two years ago, the corn under film was ahead of the traditionally seeded corn crops until smoke from forest fires and dry weather halted growth on all crops and the corn that was started under film lost its edge.

Last year Vermeer estimated the corn under film produced 10 to 15 percent more energy than the traditionally grown corn.

“We didn’t see much difference in cost of production, but we did get higher yields.”

Since importing the seeder, Vermeer said there are now a handful of the seeders in Western Canada, including a grower near Lethbridge who hopes to get a two-week jump on the sweet corn market by growing sweet corn under the film.

“It’s a very niche market.”

The family has also seeded some sweet corn under plastic as a trial for a possible U-pick corn operation.

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