How Feasible is Organic Corn?

Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

How Feasible is Organic Corn?

Published Aug 14  



Organic corn is both economically viable and technically feasible. Even though organic corn yield is 32% lesser, the prices are double that of conventional corn, guaranteeing attractive returns on investment (ROI) to growers. Moreover, there is growing technical information available to advise organic corn production. 


Growing Demand for Organic Corn

The demand for organic corn is expected to grow globally at a CAGR of 1.9% and amount to 1170 million USD by 2026.


In the USA, from 2015-2016, organic farming grew by 11-15% to reach 213,934 acres in 37 states. However, since then, organic corn cultivation has stagnated and the country is importing organic grains, to feed the rapidly expanding organic animal husbandry industry according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA).


About 90% of organic corn in the USA is slated for domestic consumption and is mostly used as animal feed and the rest as food.


There are several challenges in the production of corn that need to be fixed, and as Laura Batcha, the CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association noted, “For organic to keep advancing, everyone in the organic supply chain has to collaborate.”

How Feasible is Organic Corn?

Figure 1: “Rolling, planting, and injecting manure fertilizer in one tractor pass.”(Image credit: Rodale Institute)


Tackling Technical Problems

For decades there was little interest in solving the technical problems faced by organic corn growers. This trend is now changing, and institutions and research programs around the globe are focusing on organic corn production. Hence, there is no dearth of research-based recommendations to supplement traditional knowledge. Some of the most important recommendations are discussed below.

Crop Rotations

Crop rotations are one of the main principles of organic farming to maintain farm diversity and to prevent pest and disease build-up and the depletion of soil fertility.

Rodale Institute experts recommend including cover crops in the rotation to add nitrogen, recycle nutrients, improve soil structure, suppress weeds, maintain soil temperature, and retain soil moisture.

Tillage

How Feasible is Organic Corn?How Feasible is Organic Corn?  

Figure 2: A no-tiller planter fitted with residue slicers and Yetter residue managers, and a field planted with the Yetter engaged. (Image credit: Rodale Institute)


Deep or frequent tilling of soil reduces its fertility by damaging its structure and by increasing weed growth. So, no-tillage and reduced tillage are recommended in combination with cover crops in organic farms to maintain soil health and prevent weeds.


The resulting challenges in sowing and applying starter fertilizers can be overcome by a combination of heavy-residue slicers and Yetter residue manager, as shown in Figure 2.

Delayed Planting

Gregory Roth, former Professor of Agronomy, Pennsylvania State University, recommends delayed planting of corn for the USA, for several reasons:

  • As the cover crops have a longer period to accumulate nitrogen, the soil fertility is higher, so little or no starter fertilizers are needed
  • The corn emerges faster and can compete better with weeds
  • It is possible to delay silking and avoid contamination of cross-pollination from GMO crops

Seeds for Organic Farming

Corn varieties for organic farms were lacking for a very long time, forcing growers to use conventional cultivars. Organic farmers got less yield as these cultivars were suitable for the high irrigation-fertilizer-pesticide-herbicide regime of conventional farms.


However, this situation is luckily changing and there are a few varieties, which have been produced specifically for organic cultivation methods. These are not just heirloom and traditionally bred seeds, but hybrids with guaranteed germination rates. Several of these hybrids are created to be resistant to specific diseases which are a problem in corn. These include

  • Common rust
  • Northern corn leaf blight
  • Southern corn leaf blight
  • Stewart’s wilt


There are several suppliers now on the market offering certified organic corn seeds. Their seeds can be ordered online through company websites or even Amazon. Regional or national websites offer varieties suitable for a particular region, like the IndiaMART

Soil Fertility

How Feasible is Organic Corn?

Table 1: Nitrogen (in pounds) added by varying biomass of cover crops (pounds/acre). (Image credit: Rodale Institute)


Providing adequate nutrients to crops is one of the most challenging parts of organic farming. Instead of manufactured fertilizers, farmers can use cover crops, animal manures, and organic fertilizers to build their soil.

  • Cover Crop: A cover crop mixture of cereals and legumes can provide 85 to 173 pounds of nitrogen per acre, see Table 1. The cover crops are usually terminated anytime between three weeks before sowing to post-sowing of corn. After rolling, legume decomposes faster, losing 50% of their dry matter in three weeks, while cereals need nine weeks. So, nutrients are provided for a longer time when a combination of legumes and cereals cover crops are used.
  • Animal manure: The most common sources of animal manure are the dairy, beef, pig, and poultry to supply, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, see Table 2. Feather meal can also be used. These can be used for top-dressing, with cover crops providing starter fertilization. In these cases, farmers must consider the danger of leaching excessive P.
  • Organic Fertilizers: Though more expensive, organic fertilizers, can be used judiciously as starters to improve soil fertility and yield. A single application of organic fertilizer before sowing in an experiment in Africa improved corn yields progressive from 27% in the first year to 105% in the fourth year. Some farms could also benefit from an additional top dressing of mineral nitrogen.

Available dry fertilizer hoppers can be used to add granulated dry organic fertilizers or animal manure but are less useful for wet forms of animal manure.


Animal Type

Dairy

Beef

Poultry

Swine

Nitrogen (lb/ton)

10

14

25

10

Nitrogen (lb/1000 gal)

28

39

69

55

Phosphate (P2O5) (lb/ton)

5

9

25

6

Phosphate (P2O5) (lb/1000 gal)

14

25

69

27

Potash (K2O) (lb/ton)

10

11

12

9

Potash (K2O) (lb/1000 gal)

28

31

33

34

Table 2. Nutrient Content in Dry and Liquid Manure. (Credits: Madison, F., Kelling, K., Massie, L., & Good, L.W. Guidelines for applying Maure to Cropland and Pasture in Wisconsin)

Weeding

Prevention is one of the most effective means of weed management. As in any other organic farm, this can be achieved by tillage, sowing time, cover crops, mechanical cultivation, and crop rotations.

  • Tillage: Reduced or no-tillage is best for preventing weeds, as tillage can bring up buried weeds seeds and create ideal conditions for their emergence.
  • Cover crops: Less tillage combined with cover crops are the best method of achieving weed control. The cover crop can be cut with a roller-crimper, to create a 10 cm thick bed of mulch.  Rachet Atwell and her associates from the Rodale Institute notes, “A cover crop can suppress weeds by reducing light availability to weeds and by releasing allelochemicals (which inhibit the growth of other plants) during cover crop residue decomposition.”
  • Mechanical cultivation: The usual practice on organic farms so far has been to use rotary hoes, row cultivators, or harrows to control weeds. Another method is manual weeding in small farms.

Disease Control

Organic corn could be at risk when they follow rye, due to large residue buildups. A few practices can minimize diseases infestations and they are:

  • Seed choice: Use disease-resistant seeds.
  • Cover crop termination: All cover crops, especially rye should be terminated at least 10 days before sowing to decrease the carryover of pathogens.
  • Planting time: Environment plays a significant role in the development of the diseases even in heavy residue fields. So planting on warm and dry days, will encourage faster growth and prevent conditions conducive for seedling diseases.
  • Scout regularly: Scout farms regularly to spot disease infestations.
  • Use chitosan oligosaccharides: Applied as a soil treatment, seed-pretreatment, and foliar spray, chitosan oligosaccharides can “induce broad-spectrum resistance, enhance the plant’s own defence ability, and inhibit the growth of a variety of plant pathogenic microorganisms,” says Darren Chan. It is effective against harmful fungi and bacteria but encourages the growth of beneficial soil microflora.

Irrigation, Harvest and Storing

Aspects of organic cultivation not very different from conventional practices are harvesting, storage, and irrigation.

  • Irrigation: The irrigation methods are similar to any conventional farms. Using precision and smart farming techniques can cut water input and costs here as well.
  • Harvest: Conventional farms’ harvest methods and machines are applicable here. If combines from conventional farms are used on organic farms, they should be first thoroughly cleaned to prevent contamination.
  • Storage: Organic produce should also be stored separately from conventional corn if grown on the same farm. Sharath Chandran’s tips can be followed to prevent and treat storage problems, except for using fumigants and pesticides, which are not allowed in organic cultivation.

ROI can be High

In comparison to conventional corn, organic corn requires more manure and labor costs and the use of machinery. However, this is offset by lower investments in herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers.


Budgets and returns for corn/soybean/wheat crop rotations for conventional and organic farms were monitored for ten years by a team of scientists from Purdue University. They found that the costs of cultivation were only slightly higher in organic corn compared to conventional farms. But the organic corn prices were more than double of conventional corn during 2014-2018.


Ultimately farmers obtained 79% more profits from the organic rotations than conventional rotations, see Table 3. It is worth noting here that the cost of production for organic soybeans and wheat is 30-40% more than conventional crops. So, the profit margins from corn alone are higher than 79%.


How Feasible is Organic Corn?

Table 3. “Average net returns per acre for conventional and organic crop rotations,” Langemeier, M., and X. Fang. (Credit:Comparison of Conventional and Organic Crop Rotations)


Fixing the Economic Challenges

The OTA along with its industry partners has identified three main areas where farmers need help economically and have suggested some solutions. These are:

  1. Mandatory transition period pains can be softened by forward contracts, giving farmers the confidence to commit more acres to organic cultivation. During the three years of transition, farmers can grow hay and small grains crops while the farm is being managed using organic production methods.
  2. Markets for lower-value cover crops needed to build soil fertility and suppress weeds must be developed.
  3. Provide a strong network which also includes trained crop consultants for organic farmers to get the required extension and technical support, to match resources enjoyed by conventional farmers. The network that AgFuse is building can be useful in this respect.

Corn and Farm Sizes

Organic corn can be grown on small farms or in combination with other crops in large farms. This increase in farm biodiversity can help in distributing risk, and also maintain ROI. 


Corn Organic Row Crops

Advertisement