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Yes, they grow corn in Canada

I’ve been pretty lucky with exposure to national and international agriculture for a small-town farm kid. When I worked in ag retail, we had the opportunity to go to Hawaii a few times to learn about corn and soybean research and development, and seed production (learned a little about coffee and pineapple production, too). A trip to Mexico offered another eye-opening experience in crop production.

By far the most intense educational trip was our ISU Extension agronomy team’s journey to Brazil in 2005 to learn about soybean rust — just as it looked like that dreaded disease could become a game-changer in the U.S. Exchanging ideas with growers, agronomists and researchers in South America was an incredible opportunity. We got hands-on experience with different pesticide application techniques, large-scale soybean production, and storage and transportation practices.

With most of my teaching and learning experiences with crops having been in warmer climates, I jumped at the chance to head north recently. I was invited to speak at the Manitoba Crops Symposium in Winnipeg. Corn acreage is rising rapidly in regions of Canada, and the Manitoba Corn Growers Association was looking for a resource to present and discuss experiences with corn production, and in-depth information on twin-row corn systems. As always during my opportunities to work with growers and agronomists, I learned more from them than they did from me.

The growers shared their knowledge and some interesting information about their crop production. The most striking thing to me was the ability of the Canadian growers to shift from crop to crop and adapt their management to the variables of their weather and commodity markets.

Canada growing more corn

The Canadians are adept at growing corn, soybeans, canola, pulse crops, sunflowers, flax, wheat and various other small grains. Learning how they managed the agronomy, equipment logistics, pest management, storage, handling and marketing of this diversity of crops was pretty humbling to an Iowa agronomist specializing in corn and soybean management. The Canadian growers I met shared experiences they’ve had raising corn that we are familiar with, but we don’t experience it on quite the same level as they do up north.

For example, with less sunlight and fewer growing degree units due to their latitude, growing 75- to 85-day maturity corn is the norm. With their last average spring frost dates around mid- to late May, and fall frost dates of late August to early September, the growing season is extremely short and risky. They’re used to taking corn out with grain moisture in the upper 20s to low 30s and drying it. They occasionally have had to chop frosted corn and blow it back onto the field due to low heat units and an early frost; they just didn’t have any other options after it froze.

Surprisingly, yields can be impressive for such a short and unpredictable growing season. In 2011, their yield contest winner topped out at 272 bushels per acre, and 25 of the 40 entries were 180 bushels or above. Looking at overall averages for the last 10 years gives some insight into the challenges they face, though. While they pushed close to 120 bushels per acre across Manitoba in many years, they also had average yields of 66, 39 and 1 bushel per acre in three of those seasons. You read that right — a province-wide average of 1 bushel per acre — ouch.

A huge thank you goes to the Manitoba Corn Growers Association for inviting me and to the many Canadian growers who took the time to talk about crop production. The exchange of information and ideas should help both them and us in feeding a growing world population.

McGrath is partnership program manager of ISU’s Corn and Soybean Initiative.

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

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.