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Western Corn Belt rides to the rescue

Halfway through the corn growing season it looked like the western Corn Belt would be riding to the rescue, for the traditional corn growing states where excessive spring moisture, delayed planting, and cool temperatures combined to reduce yield expectations for those states.

In contrast, the western Corn Belt has enjoyed exceptional growing conditions. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) August 12 report forecasted higher yields than last year for the central Great Plains and western Corn Belt, thanks to mild temperatures and adequate soil moisture.

The rescue will not be as dramatic as first thought, but the western Corn Belt will still make a substantial contribution to what could be the second largest corn yield on record. Based on August 1 conditions, NASS projected the national average corn yield to be 159.5 bushels per acre, up 5.6 bushels from 2007.

Kansas and Nebraska in particular are having stellar corn seasons. Kansas is projected to harvest 514.8 million bushels of corn, just short of the record set in 2007, and Nebraska is projected to bring in 1.52 billion bushels of corn, breaking last year's record of 1.47 billion bushels.

"When we as the corn growers organization look at the corn states, we look at the three "I" states: Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana; two "M" states: Michigan and Missouri; along with Ohio and Wisconsin at the traditional Corn Belt," said Max Starbuck, director of the Production and Stewards Action Team for the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).

Western Corn Belt

North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas, and Colorado make up the western Corn Belt. In that group, Nebraska is one of the top four corn producing states in the nation.

"Nebraska has made quite a bit of headway in the last few years, as far as yields and number of acres," Starbuck said.

In fact, the entire western Corn Belt is making strides in terms of acres of corn and yield per acre when it comes to corn production. This is a plus for the entire corn industry as they continue to spar with groups in the food versus fuel debate.

"As you look back at history in the last few years, their yields have increased and their production has been a definite boost," Starbuck said.

Food vs. Fuel

Steve Ebke, a Nebraska corn farmer and vice chairman of the NCGA Production and Stewardship Action Team, thinks the industry has provided enough information to put the food versus fuel debate to bed a long time ago. Ebke said that if this crop does meet expectations and carry-over is increased, then that should be enough to negate the food versus fuel debate to the point that it is never brought up again.

The economics of corn production in recent years and improvement in plant genetics have contributed to increased corn production in the western Corn Belt.

The western Corn Belt can produce bumper corn crops when conditions are just right, like this year, but producing good crops on a consistent basis is the key. Water is the main limiting factor for corn production in the western Corn Belt.

Water resources

Colorado is on the fringe of the western Corn Belt but Mark Sponsler, CEO of Colorado Corn, is very optimistic about the future of corn production in his state and the western Corn Belt. Sponsler said for Colorado there is no reason not to think there would be significant increases in productive ability on a per acre basis, with one stipulation.

"That is to the degree that we are able to keep water resources available for agriculture," Sponsler said. "There are a lot of people in the hunt for water resources, both in-state and out-of-state."

"If we continue to see water rights change hands and change use, then we will need technological advances just to hold our own and to continue producing roughly the same levels of feed, food, fiber, and fuel," Sponsler said. "The rate to which we lose the productive ability compared to the rate that we increase our genetic material requires a crystal ball that I don't have."

That is why so many producers in the western Corn Belt are anxiously awaiting the commercialization of new drought-tolerant corn varieties. Max Starbuck said these varieties will benefit all corn growing states, but it will definitely be very beneficial in the fringe areas.

Looking ahead to the introduction of these varieties, Steve Ebke said Nebraska producers look at two issues. The first is for dry land product, and anything that could stabilize yields is great. The second issue is how these new varieties will fit into the irrigation scenario.

"Does this mean we will have to change the whole dynamic of how we look at irrigation and rethink all the ways we schedule irrigation now?" Ebke said. "Will this mean we will be able to limit water use even more?"

Ebke said there has been a lot of research done on how we irrigate corn. Does a producer have to keep a full soil profile all through the season or is there a period when he can stress the corn plant, like with soybeans? Researchers have discovered that early soybean vegetation does not really enhance yield; so, once the plant reaches the reproductive stage, growers really need to push the water to it.

"There has been some work, like that done with corn, and it looks like we can stress corn and wait for an optimum time, if you have limited water," Ebke said. "We are anxious to see how those drought genes fit into that situation."

"Everyone anticipates that this will expand the Corn Belt," Ebke said. "Not only enhance places that are producing right now but expand corn to areas where we thought we would never see it on a consistent basis. Farming practices have changed, but I am sure these new varieties will expand the fringes of the Corn Belt."

The Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) agreed with that assessment in their corn production outlook statement. FAPRI expects corn plantings to continue to rise to 90.4 million acres by 2014. Most of those added acres would come at the expense of cotton, grain sorghum and wheat acres.

Barring an early frost, the traditional Corn Belt states are posed to make a substantial rebound from the delayed spring planting this year. However, standing in the wings ready to take up the slack is the western Corn Belt.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at richhpj@aol.com.

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