Alberta corn now stretches from Taber to the Peace

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Alberta’s corn crop has been spreading out of its traditional pocket in the south, but recently it’s taken a big leap all the the way up to the Peace. Recently the Peace Country Beef & Forage Association (PCBFA) hosted a field day at the farm of Lawrence and Lori Andruchiw near Spirit River to hear about their experience with corn growing.

The Andruchiws wanted to extend the grazing season for their cattle and cut down on the yardage costs associated with using farm machinery. They planted 27 acres of grazing corn using two Pioneer hybrids on three plots as part of a PCBFA trial project this year. Andruchiw, a PCBFA director, said one plot utilized only fertilizer, the second manure and the third a combination of both.

This is the second time he’s tried corn. A 2010 planting didn’t fare so well due to drought. Precipitation had been scarce this year too; an inch of rain on Aug. 14 was the first of any volume since June 6 and provided a boost to still-immature stalks.

The plan is to turn their 77 cows into the cornfield for grazing in late fall. “Typically if you were to grow oats or peas for swath grazing in late fall or winter, conditions have to be just right because once you cut it you can’t have too much rain on it or it will rot and the snow can’t be too deep or the cows don’t like to graze, but with corn it is standing and the cows just graze it,” said Andruchiw.

Corn is expensive to seed, said Andruchiw, estimating it at about $100/acre including fertilizer. On average, corn has the highest input costs of all late-fall or winter grazing crops like oats or millet but the tonnage yield per acre is so much higher, he said.

“And by turning the cows into the corn in acreage allotments you receive an even greater benefit.”

As part of the field day, Richard Lussier of Pioneer Hi-Bred showed off Pioneer’s corn seeder, which is available on loan to producers. Corn is a big seed, so a corn-specific seeder helps a lot, said Lussier. “A good used one can be had for under $5,000,” he said.

“Some feedlots in southern Alberta are paying $250 an acre to rent irrigated land to grow corn, and they’re getting 25 tonnes per acre,” Lussier said.

Corn is simple to grow, and can be seeded early but weed control is key, Lussier said. “Selecting the right hybrid with the right weed control is critical,” he said. Fertilizer requirements are similar to canola, but once grazed for a couple of years, not as much is required as the cattle manure will boost nitrogen levels.

“Turn the cows loose, an acre at a time, and it can take four to five days to eat it down,” Lussier said. They’ll start with the cob, or what he called the “candy bar inside the wrapper.”

“One ear per stalk is ideal because half of the yield will come from the cob where there’s lots of fibre and good energy,” he said. Because most of the benefits are in the cob, height of the stalk isn’t that important.

In late fall, stalks can be left standing as the Andruchiws will do, or swathed for forage or made into silage. Next year, Andruchiw plans to do a pre-emergence burn-off spray and seed about a week earlier. Corn can be swathed and then grazed but since the Andruchiws are trying to cut down on machinery costs, they’ll leave theirs standing.

Research continues

Peace Country Beef & Forage Association (PCBFA) program co-ordinator Akim Omokanye says grazing/silage corn varieties are being monitored for forage yield and quality on 340 acres seeded this year by producers in parts of the Peace. Grazing corn fields vary from 20 to 90 acres per collaborating producer.

Over a seven-year period (to 2011), a producer in Manning has recorded dry matter yield of up to 14,032 lbs./acre per year, said Omokanye.

“In a good year with good management practices, a forage yield of 18 tons per acre (30 per cent dry matter) could be obtained in northern Alberta for silage,” he said.

In 2011, PCBFA recorded between 12.2 and 17.9t/acre forage yield at 30 per cent dry matter on a 30-acre corn grazing trial with Odell and Lylian Raymond near Peace River. The corn field was grazed for 72 days with 108 cows last winter.

Certainly, more producers are gaining confidence and experience in the agronomic skills needed to grow corn for grazing in parts of the Peace, said Omokanye. “Newer corn hybrids with lower corn heat units are constantly being developed by various seed companies to reduce the weather risk.”

Results of the corn forage trial will be ready by mid-November.

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