Organic corn: It can compete
It takes a lot of work, and it’s not easy
AMES — Darren Fehr announced Jan. 28 that organic corn yields can compete with conventional practices — and he has the numbers to back up the claim.
But in the same breath, he indicates that it is not easy, that it requires a lot work — and he has the numbers of trips across the field to prove that, too.
Speaking to roomful of Practical Farmers of Iowa members at the Scheman Building in Ames, “We’re still learning as we go. We’re still learning to compete yield-wise, although we know it competes income-wise.”
Darren and Nora Fehr operate ScatterSeed Farm, near Mallard, with 1,000 certified organic acres in a corn, small grins and edible beans rotation with cover crops.
In 2015 and 2016, Fehr showed yield data recording whole field yields well over 200 bushels per acre. He requested specific numbers be withheld, but the numbers were for a 120-acre field in 2015 and a 74-acre field in 2016. These fields had spots that yielded in the mid-200 bpa.“I believe that 250 (bpa) is possible,” Fehr said.
But reaching what he has to this point has not been a simple process.
Most of the yield success, he said, begins with work well before planting.
It includes drainage; split applications of fertilizer in the fall, at spring planting and mid-season; extensive weed control until crops reach canopy; timely planting, not too early or too late.
But above all is healthy soil.
Feeding the soil
“I often say, ‘healthy soils equal healthy plants,'” Fehr said.
His soil sampling is showing the numbers of eco-friendly bacteria are growing in his fields, but he’s also working on solving a shortage of boron and magnesium.
As a micronutrient boron is:
• Essential for maintaining a balance between sugar and starch and helps in the translocation of sugar and carbohydrates.
• Important in pollination and seed production.
• Necessary for normal cell division, nitrogen metabolism and protein formation.
• In larger quantities it can be used as an herbicide and algaecide.
Without magnesium there would be no photosynthesis and plants couldn’t produce food. It is the most essential of the 17 nutrients needed for plant growth.
It’s a vital team player working with other nutrients and is essential for top-profit crop production.
Fehr said that although certain nutrients get a lot of attention, all 17 are needed for a great crop.
Next is drainage, he said, which is important for getting oxygen into the soil.
“You have to move the water off,” Fehr said. The soils in Palo Alto County are heavy and dark and the fields are flat and square, so water doesn’t move away quickly.
With all row-cropping, timely planting is essential to win the early battle with root development, especially for organic growers, he said.
This makes tilling that much more essential for maximizing yields.
“You have to start with the foundation to get (corn) yields to the 240s and higher,” he said.
Fehr applies chicken litter to fertilize his fields. He split applies with 80 percent of his nitrogen needs spread in the fall and a top-dressing of 20 percent at second cultivation.
“We are trying to feed a healthy soil,” he said, “and to keep it going.”
Before he started a regular mid-season application, Fehr said, “we found that after getting a great start, the crop ‘ran out of gas’ before it reached maturity.
In short, he said, “if we (organic growers) don’t control drainage and fertilization, we can’t compete.”
Fehr said he employs all the available technology possible at planting and still retains his organic certification. That includes hydraulic downforce of seeds, hybrid selection, using liquid starters, disease and insect recognition and mitigation.
Timing is critical, and is not solely dependent on the calendar.
“You have to consider the weather you have and the forecast,” he said.
Planting in fair weather in mid-April may subject emerging plants to a cold snap that could last several days and require replanting.
“I will sacrifice a little yield to gain early emergence and vigor,” he said. “I have never replanted and regretted it. But I have not replanted and regretted it.
“And you need to space the fields out. If they are all planted on the same day, they’ll all have to be hoed the same day.”
Few aspects of growing crops are more time consuming for organic growers than weed control.
“But my motto is ‘No weed left behind,'” Fehr said.
He recommends running a soil finisher ahead of the planter and keeping sweeps clean and properly spaced on 9-inch centers, “to get a 1 1/2-inch overlap to keep weeds from escaping.”
Fehr runs a rotary hoe twice after planting. Once the corn reaches V2 stage and beans get two to three trifoliate leaves, he switches to a cultivator and runs that three times over the field until the plants are too tall.
Of course, both implements catch weeds between the rows. But for his most common weed — cockleburs — that grow between plants, it takes a human walking the rows and get those out.
“Don’t let the weeds get ahead of you,” he said.
Rotations are a challenge and part of weed control, he said.
Corn, beans and small grains is not the best rotation for weed control in his organic operation. Rather, one thinks corn, small grain and beans, with cover crops, help him win the weed battle more often.
“Learning what nature is trying to tell you is part of the fun,” he said.
Having said that, he added, “I don’t think organic will ever be weed-free. Nature wants to keep itself covered.”
Finally. “Use good harvesting equipment,” Fehr said. “The crop is too valuable to leave bushels in the field.”
Fehr said he does fall tillage — in-line deep ripping.
Although some criticize him for destroying the soil structure with tillage, he thinks that with the heavy, dark soil in Palo Alto County, and frequent trips over the ground for hoeing and cultivation, tillage mitigates the risk of soil compaction and will provide a channel for rain to get deep into the soil profile.