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Adding pinch of sugar on corn may aid in crop standability

York County farmer Scott Gonnerman tried a sweet experiment on 100 acres of corn in 2011. Gonnerman, who farms southwest of Gresham, applied table sugar to his corn as part of an on-farm research project with University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.

He hoped for and found a slight improvement in stalk quality, although he says it wasn’t statistically significant vs. untreated corn in the plots.

While he didn’t expect a yield boost, he in fact estimated a yield drop in plots — 200 bushels an acre for untreated corn compared to 196 bushels on sugar-treated corn. “I was surprised at the slight loss in yield,” he says.

Gonnerman became intrigued by the idea of sugar on corn during an Extension meeting a year ago after hearing about a similar study done in Clay County on the Dennis and Rod Valentine farm near Fairfield. Jenny Rees, Extension educator in Clay County, says the idea for the study with the Valentines came from experiments that producers in other parts of the Midwest conducted with soybeans to see if sugar increased yields. Rees and the Valentine brothers decided to see what sugar could do for corn in 2010 and 2011.

At a glance

On-farm research projects tests results of sugar application on corn.

Yields didn’t get any sweeter, but stronger stalks were found.

There is little science on sugar use in either corn or beans.

“We didn’t have a hypothesis, we just wanted to see if it made a difference,” Rees says. “There is little scientific research on this practice. We are trying to figure out what happens when sugar is applied.”

Kip Cullers, the much-publicized Missouri farmer who has set world soybean yield records, uses sugar as one of his many crop inputs. That’s sweetened interest in sugar treatments in other states.

So far, the Quad County On-Farm Research Project sugar trials involve only corn.

Better standability

In 2010, according to Dennis Valentine, plots showed a minimal 1.6-bushel-per-acre yield boost from sugar, but a more significant boost in stalk quality. “The stalk strength was the surprising thing to us,” says Dennis. “Treated corn had 3% stalk rot in 2010 vs. 23% to 25% for untreated corn. We had to use the reel on the combine in the untreated corn, but not on the treated corn.”

Last year, the Valentine brothers had similar plot experiments. They also had another 20 acres of sugar-treated corn under one center pivot. “We could eyeball the treated corn and see that it had better standability.”

To Dennis and Rod, the improved standability made for easier harvesting.

Rates and cost

The Valentines applied 3 pounds an acre of sugar for a total cost of $1.91 per acre, plus the cost of the diesel fuel used to apply it. Dennis says they made a special spraying trip for the sugar, applying it in 10 gallons of water at the seven- to eight-leaf stage. “That’s right before the corn starts to canopy, so most of the spray solution gets on the plants.

“We wanted to get as much sugar on as possible,” Dennis says. “I know there are some other guys who apply it with Roundup or something, but if it didn’t mix, we’d have a problem.”

Gonnerman purchased the sugar from a grocery store in York for 55 cents a pound, which at 3 pounds per acre figures out to $1.65 an acre. Then he and his sister, Julie Salsman, who farms for Gonnerman, dissolved the sugar in water and applied it on June 24 with the sprayer.

“It’s very dissolvable,” he explains. “It dissolves better than some chemicals we put it in. And it was very easy to apply. It didn’t plug up the nozzles or anything.”

Gonnerman and Salsman mixed the sugar with Roundup to save on spraying trips, and have not noticed any negative side effects.

“Some chemicals we put on have negative effects on soil health and on good soil microorganisms, but the sugar’s pretty natural,” Gonnerman says.

Gonnerman says the organic nature of the sugar, as well as the economy of it, would make it a useful tool.

“It’s pretty cheap compared to a lot of things we do,” Gonnerman says. “We thought that it would be a pretty good deal if it worked, and if it does nothing, at least we didn’t spend a lot of money to do nothing.”

Dennis Valentine’s response to a question about the cost: “Spending less than $2 an acre [for applying sugar] is less expensive than the $23 to $25 an acre for a fungicide treatment as a stalk improvement practice.”

Kinley, a Kansas State University graduate student, is from Bladen. She interned at Nebraska Farmer last summer.


MORE QUESTIONS TO ANSWER: Scott Gonnerman of Gresham believes application of sugar on corn may have benefits in improved stalk quality.

This article published in the April, 2012 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.