[Updated May 29, 2017] Corn has come a long way in Alberta since Tony Schmidt started growing it in the early 2000s.
“Early on, our corn would barely get a cob on it because it was such long-season corn we were trying to grow here, and now we’ve got it to where we can combine physically matured corn,” said the Wetaskiwin-area farmer.
“I think there’s huge potential for corn in Alberta.”
The Schmidts have been growing corn as silage for their feedlot near Wetaskiwin since 2001, when they were looking for a crop that offered more tonnage than barley silage. They haven’t looked back since.
“There was one year where it yielded the same as barley silage. Otherwise, it’s always yielded significantly better, at about *16 tonnes an acre better,” said Schmidt. “The inputs are probably 1-1/2 times more than barley silage, but you get quite a bit better returns per acre, and the feed value is quite a bit better.”
Growing corn for silage or grazing is a “nice entry point” for producers who aren’t sure how corn will fit in their area, said Nicole Rasmussen, an agronomist with DuPont Pioneer.
“The biggest growth for corn in Alberta is grazing and silage. That’s where we’ve seen a tremendous boom in growth,” said Rasmussen. “Seven years ago when I started with Pioneer, we sold twice as much corn south of the No. 1 Highway as we did north, and now it’s just about on par. And those acres have all come from grazing and silage.”
But grain corn acres are also “creeping upwards,” said Ron Gietz, a business development specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
In 2015, grain corn acreage in Alberta hit roughly 40,000 acres before dipping back down to 25,000 acres in 2016. But this year’s StatsCan seeding intentions report estimates that grain corn acreage will bounce back up to 40,000 acres.
“Grain corn in Alberta still hasn’t made the big acreage breakthroughs, but it’s definitely trending higher,” said Gietz. “It’s just not at the stage yet where it’s a general crop. It’s becoming a fairly common crop on rotation in the irrigated areas, but so far, it’s not as common on the dryland parts of the province.”
Over the last five years, high prices have driven grain corn expansion in the irrigation area.
“Grain corn was around $7 a few years ago, and that brought a lot of people into the market,” said Rasmussen.
“But now corn has stabilized at that $4.75 to $5 range. The guys who were already invested are there, but it’s not bringing a lot of new people into the fold currently.”
Despite that, the growth potential for grain corn is “very significant,” particularly on dryland acres.
“A lot of the thought process is that we need grain corn to be on irrigation,”said Rasmussen. “But right now, we’re trying to educate producers on the opportunities for growing dryland acres as well.
“There’s a large section of Alberta that could currently grow grain corn successfully. The shorter-season hybrids have really opened up a lot of acres.”
As new varieties come online and prices increase, grain corn acres have the potential to grow “significantly” across the province, she said.
But Gietz suspects that growth will likely be “slow and steady.”
“I think there’s still growth potential there, but we have to be realistic about how fast it’s going to be and what parts of the landscape we’re going to see it in,” he said.
“I think you’re going to see pockets around Edmonton and maybe stretching toward Calgary from the south. But it’s certainly not a case where it’s a suitable crop for the entire province.
“There’s nothing wrong with growing it at a more controlled or incremental rate.”
Feeders love corn
Ultimately, though, money is going to drive future growth, Rasmussen added.
“It’s going to depend on the price and the yields that we’re getting with dryland corn moving forward.”
Right now, the slow growth isn’t a result of any market limitation, she said.
“There’s tremendous demand for grain corn in southern Alberta for the feedlot market.”
But because grain corn requires a significant outlay for new equipment — including headers, planters, and grain dryers — grain corn needs to make a decent return quickly, she said.
“Producers are finding that it’s of economic benefit, especially if prices stay above $4.50 a bushel. That seems to be the bottom for pricing,” said Rasmussen.
“When we see prices fall below $4.50 in southern Alberta, even under irrigation, we’ll see corn acres drop off. But if we see pricing get toward $6, that brings a lot more interest. People feel more comfortable making investments in equipment at that price.”
“The market side is not an issue really — the local market is very strong. Cattle, hog, and poultry feeders all would use corn if it were available,” said Gietz, adding the price per tonne for grain corn is typically better than for other feed grains.
“We’re in a lower price period, but if we had another spark in prices again like we did a few years back in the ethanol boom, that would certainly get a lot more attention.
“If there’s money to be made, farmers will adopt the crop.”
But right now, corn is a “bear,” said Burdett-area farmer Jared Wever.
“It’s not really that attractive, but it averages out,” said Wever, whose father started growing corn for silage in the early ’70s.
“We’re selling our corn for quite low right now, but in 2013, we sold for record highs. In 2013, corn was probably our No. 2 crop for net revenue, which is huge.
“Corn isn’t a one-year crop. It’s a five- or a 10-year crop.”
‘Night and day’ yields
But high yields are making corn more attractive to growers over the long term, he said.
“Even over the last 10 years, it’s night and day,” said Wever. “Back in the ’70s, they would have some years with phenomenal yields and others they wouldn’t. Now it’s more consistent, and the yields have grown significantly. That’s only been in the last 10 years because of the technology the breeders are using.”
Wever — who also has a feedlot — gets between 16 to 22 tonnes an acre in silage yield. For dry grain yield, he’s topped out at about 186 bushels an acre, but typically gets between 150 to 160 bushels.
“That’s quite a bit higher than barley, and the yields are always higher when compared with a wheat crop,” he said.
But corn is expensive to grow and it pays for him to have cattle as a “backup plan.”
“We have cows. We can feed it to them if it’s a total wreck. As a cattle producer, it fits,” he said.
Even so, there are plenty of grain corn farmers in southern Alberta who don’t have cattle, added Rasmussen.
“The majority of our grain corn farmers on irrigation in southern Alberta are just grain farmers, and they feel it’s very beneficial to their operations,” she said.
Yields are going to be less on dryland acres, so the ability to graze the corn stover — stalks and leaves — is “a whole other revenue source.”
“I’ve heard farmers put $50 to $100 an acre value on the stover for grazing purposes,” she said. But even for straight grain farmers who are on the fence about corn, Wever’s advice is to “jump in and try it.”
“I’ve never met a person who has set everything up and grown it, and then said they hated it. Corn is fun to grow,” said Wever.
“It seems like everybody is scared to do it until they’ve tried it. And once they do, they never really look back.”
*Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated “60 tonnes an acre better.” We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.