When it comes to dryland corn production, Dave Collins likes to think small.
He's been running tests for five years to see if dwarf corn is a profitable crop alternative in arid parts of the Corn Belt. "We're in an area where most farmers use a three-year rotation of wheat-corn- summer fallow," says Collins, a Gothenburg, NE, crop consultant. "We were looking for a way to rotate back to wheat and continuous-crop our dryland acres. We needed a crop that didn't produce a lot of residue and could be harvested by Sept. 15 so we could no-till drill wheat by Oct. 1."
Dwarf corn seemed to fit that bill. The 70-day corn can be planted early, only grows 4 1/2' tall and showed good yield potential where it was grown in Montana and the Dakotas.
The first few years of Collins' tests showed that the corn could yield within 15-20 bu of dryland conventional corn in a three-year rotation. Furthermore, wheat following the dwarf corn matched yields of wheat following summer fallow.
"We knew we were in the ball game," says Collins.
The dwarf corn was not without its problems, however. When the short-statured crop was planted in 30" rows, it didn't shade out weeds like a conventional crop does.
"We're limited in what herbicides we can use, because we want to go right back to wheat," he says. "It gets tricky."
Collins and Callaway, NE, farmer Gary Ross solved a number of management issues when they decided to drill the corn in 1997.
They used a standard drill equipped with a coulter caddy and planted the dwarf corn in 7.5" rows at 50,000 plants/acre.
"We wanted to use a system that didn't require a farmer to add equipment or tie up his machinery during the normal heavy-use periods," Collins reports.
"The dwarf corn was developed in Canada, so it can take cold, wet soil conditions. That allows us to drill it seven to 10 days before corn planting begins," he explains. "We used a flex head to harvest it, starting in the middle of September, before the normal corn harvest begins."
"I really think it's going to take over," says Ross. "The dwarf corn makes its ears so early, it leaves plenty of moisture for a wheat crop. And, there seems to be a beneficial effect of planting wheat into corn stubble."
There's a marketing advantage to the short-season corn as well, he adds.
In most years, Ross gets at least 25 cents/bu more for local cash sales with old-crop prices during September, compared to new- crop prices a month later when he starts to harvest his full-season corn. The best he ever did with dwarf corn was in 1995, when he harvested 100 bu/acre and hauled it to a local feedlot for more than $4/bu.
"The biggest challenge with the dwarf corn is to make absolutely sure you control weeds; otherwise you've got a mess," says Collins. "And, you need to make sure you get good seed-to-soil contact so you get the stand you need to shade out weeds."