Pray for rain. If you're a southern farmer without irrigation, or in some cases with, that's about the best advice Jean and Jeff Davis can give those who've foregone cotton in favor of the higher profit potential yielder — corn.

Potential is the key word, as drought, flooding, weeds, bugs, aflatoxin and other diseases pose major obstacles to producing even an average yield of 100 bu. in dryland areas. But with corn pushing $3.50-4/bu., and possibly higher, cotton acres were down more than 28% for 2007 as growers crossed over to corn. Higher corn acres may also be seen in 2008 as the biofuels boom continues.

The Davises farm outside Waco, TX, rotating corn with wheat and cotton in most years. Even with 15 years of corn, they're still learning the juggling act to make it work.

“We normally pray for rain,” says Jean, like in 2005 when dry weather produced a crop that barely made 50 bu./acre. “We were also a little dry in '06. That's when our cotton performed best because it can withstand drier weather longer. Cotton is more forgiving than corn.

“But the '07 crop was faced with too much rain, which was quite unusual. We were slow in getting into the fields for harvest,” she adds.

Over 34 in. of rain between March 1 and late June will do that, especially in an area that often struggles for rainfall in the heart of the growing season. Conditions were opposite in parts of the Southeast, where Georgia growers had to abandon 30-40% of their corn due to extreme drought, says Dewey Lee, University of Georgia agronomist. “The drought was very severe,” he says.

Planting in the Deep South is often two months earlier than in northern Iowa or Nebraska. That's when soil temperatures surpass about 55°.

“Plant as soon as temperature and moisture become favorable for seed germination and seedling growth,” says Lee. “Corn seed will sprout slowly at 55°, while germination is prompt at 60°.” If a cold front is forecast, he says growers might delay planting until a warming trend resumes.

The Davises plant 110-117-day hybrids, usually in late February or early March if possible, in hopes of getting their crop out by late July. That compares to April plantings in the totally irrigated Texas Panhandle corn, about 450 milesnorthwest of Waco.

Earlier corn helps in the Davis' rootworm management on varieties that don't contain the rootworm resistance Bt gene. “We have both Southern and Mexican rootworm, and by planting early, the crop is far enough along to withstand damage from rootworm hatches,” says Jeff, noting that for weed resistance he plants Roundup Ready hybrids on virtually every acre.

Georgia's Lee reminds growers to select hybrids and varieties displaying the best characteristics for their area. “Seed companies identify proprietary hybrids that are genetically similar but differ in one or more traits (Bt, Roundup resistance, Liberty Link, etc.), which they distinguish from the conventional parent line,” he says.

“Care should be taken when examining hybrids for the possibility that equally important characteristics have not been altered, such as disease resistance, root strength, etc.,” he adds.

He warns growers to beware of aflatoxin and harvest as early as possible to help prevent spore development. “This can help reduce possible contamination and maintain a higher quality product,” he says. “Growers should have on-farm storage or an elevator that can dry the corn once it is harvested.”

The Davises say a good soil profile is critical for corn. “If you don't have good sub moisture, be careful about going to corn,” says Jeff. “But if you have good soil moisture and a few rains, you can still make a fair crop.”

Other things to watch for if corn hasn't been in your rotation for a while is the combine header setting, which will be different from rice or other common southern crops. A guide to corn planting in Georgia, which may also apply to other southern areas, is available at http://commodities.caes.uga.edu/fieldcrops/Grain/cornpage.htm. Other state Extension agronomy sites also feature corn-production guidelines.