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Is Corn Production The Sleeping Giant In Alberta?

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Corn is one of those crops that has somewhat befuddled agriculture in this province for many years. It always seems to be just on the threshold of breaking out of its minor crop status to something more mainstream in crop production. It would seem that we have some ideal conditions for major grain-corn production, particularly in southern Alberta. We have the most sophisticated and technologically advanced irrigation infrastructure in the world, with room to expand; we have growers with vast experience in successfully growing a variety of sometimes difficult crops; we have a livestock market that would happily buy all the corn that could be grown; and we have seed genetics companies that are trying their damnedest to create varieties that will do well in this area. So why isn t corn covering southern Alberta?

It s not for want of trying. Corn production has been going on in Alberta since it was hybridized back in the 1920s. There has been some success; sweet corn for human consumption is a regular crop with the famous Taber Corn reaching legendary gourmet status. But the real action is in commercial corn for grain and silage, with the giant livestock feeding industry in this province being a natural fit. Feedlot operators in this province would probably prefer to feed corn to cattle. It seems that whenever barley prices are anywhere near imported corn prices, trainloads of grain corn suddenly appear in Lethbridge. It s not just price that matters either, operators tell me they like the consistency and quality of corn, its ability to be easily and nicely processed, and they feel cattle just grow better on corn. They also like the easy logistics and endless supply, and the competitive pricing and hedging that grain corn offers.

Alas, although most conditions seem favourable for more corn production, the province is plagued with a condition that is hard to resolve, except perhaps hoping for more global warming (there is a positive side to that issue). As most growers know corn is a warm-weather crop that just doesn t like the cold. It needs fairly warm soil to germinate and a long growing season with lots of heat units to achieve its maximum potential. Cereal crops have corn beat on those agronomic realities.

But seed genetics companies are steadily chipping away at the cold-weather phobia of the corn plant. For instance there was a time that corn grown for grain needed 3,000 heat units to mature. According to Bruce MacKinnon, an agronomist with Monsanto in Lethbridge, varieties have now been developed that need only 2,125 heat units. That makes grain corn production feasibly in most years in southern Alberta. He advises that more improvement is on the horizon. GM traits are being developed that will make corn more cold tolerant. Its a few years away though, he notes traits for drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency have a higher priority in GM variety development. I would suggest that because seed genetics companies have the opportunity to use genetic engineering to constantly improve corn, that both wheat and barley production improvements will continue to stagnate as long as they continue to use traditional breeding methods.

Indeed if it were not for a perhaps overzealous bureaucratic regulatory regime, new and highly efficient GM traits would be available a lot sooner for corn, soybeans and canola. It now takes up to 10 years to see new GM traits in varieties approved. However, the regulatory process seems too entrenched to see it changed any time soon.

Silage potential

The one more immediate hope has been in growing corn for silage. Anyone travelling the central and even northern parts of the province over the past few years will have noticed the advance of production into what seems like frontier areas for corn. That advance is instigated by the seemingly unlimited yield potential of corn versus cereal silage. There is nothing like a yield of 18 plus tons to the acre to catch a livestock producer s attention. It s caught dairy producers attention as that is where most corn silage production expansion has occurred. Perhaps that s because they are the only producers that can afford to grow corn for silage. Besides climate, economics is the other hurdle holding back corn production. Its a costly crop to grow with a significant weather risk. That makes growing cereal silage a lot safer for most producers.

But MacKinnon says production is getting better every year. More producers are gaining confidence and experience in the agronomic skills needed to grow the crop and varieties are constantly being improved to reduce the weather risk. Will we ever see 200-bushel per acre grain corn crops and silage yields of up to 30 tons per acre in Alberta? It wasn t too many years ago that corn yields were half those figures in the heart of the U.S. Corn Belt, and southern Ontario was considered the frontier of corn production in Canada. We now see silage corn growing in the Peace River area. I guess its just a matter of time and maybe more global warming, at least in Alberta.

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