The demand for corn continues to increase. We have seen corn yields increase steadily over the past decades thanks to new technologies that include plant genetics, precision farming, irrigation, tillage, and nutrient management. Corn yield potential is always a topic of discussion. Average yields continue to increase. You often hear 300-bushel corn is not far down the road. Some wonder if it is even possible to produce 300 bushels of corn per acre. Well, the answer is yes. Many farmers are producing over 300 bushels per acre every year in yield contest fields. Seed companies are consistently growing 300-plus yields inside the greenhouse and in test plots, so genetics is not the limiting factor. In order for average corn yields to continue to increase, farmers need to consider ways to reduce yield-limiting factors in their production systems.
To have a chance at 300-bushel corn, soils must provide a stress-free environment for plant growth. This means no compaction, no weed or insect pressure, nutrient availability, and water. The health of your soil will greatly influence its productivity. What is soil health? Soil health is the capacity of the soil to function. Those functions include water infiltration and nutrient cycling to support plant growth.
There are six specific components that are biologically-based and can enhance your soils health and productivity. Different soil types respond differently to specific practices, so farmers must select best practices within each component.
Enhance organic matter
Adding new organic matter each year could be the most important way to improve soil quality. Practices that increase organic matter would include leaving crop residue, crop rotations that include high residue crops, growing cover crops, optimal nutrient and water management, applying manure or compost, and using low or no-till systems.
Avoid excessive tillage
Tillage can break down soil structure, speed decomposition and organic matter loss, cause compaction, and increase erosion. Reducing tillage protects the soil surface with plant residues.
Manage pests and nutrients efficiently
Test soil, practice integrated pest management, monitor soil and plant pests, apply only necessary chemicals in the right place at the right time. Use non-chemical approaches to pest management as much as possible.
Prevent soil compaction
Compaction reduces the amount of air, water, and pore space available for roots and soil organisms. High yielding corn roots need room to grow. Prevention of soil compaction is essential.
Keep the ground covered
Uncovered soil is subject to wind and water erosion, drying and crusting. Ground can be covered by leaving crop residue on the surface and planting cover crops. Ground covers must be managed to prevent problems in the spring with delayed soil warming and slow drying.
Diversify cropping systems
Increasing plant diversity is beneficial. Different plants each contribute unique attributes to the system. Diverse soil organisms can help control pest populations. Diverse cultural practices can reduce weed and disease pressures. Crop rotations, along with cover crops, help more species of soil organisms thrive. That will improve soil quality.
Growing 300-bushel corn will require a higher degree of management. By focusing on management systems that improve soil quality, you will be preparing your soils for higher yields and higher profits without adding acres.