Preventing northern exposure

THE BENEFITS OF GROWING CORN UNDER PLASTIC

there are always risks in trying new systems, but sometimes the potential gains outweigh those risks. That was the case for a pair of farm brothers that decided to venture out and try something new – the Samco System.

Established in Ireland in 1997, Samco was started by Samuel Shine. Shine is both the inventor and the patent holder of the Samco 3-in-1 machine, a machine that helps farmers grow quality corn silage in less favourable climates. Here’s how it works:

The 3-in-1 machine sows corn seed, sprays a pre-emergence herbicide and then lays a thin layer of degradable plastic over the soil. The purpose of the plastic is to increase the surrounding air and soil temperature, and to protect the plant from late frosts and unfavourable weather in early spring. In fact, the system captures an additional 300 heat units (approximately) making it possible to grow quality, high-yielding corn in areas that don’t normally see corn at all.

The Samco system was just what dairy farmers Lee and Kim Laframboise of
R & D Farms and Eric and Alex Rivard from Ferme Rivadale in Earlton, Ontario needed to boost production and lower costs. Where they’re located in northern Ontario, spring comes late and frost comes early, creating a short growing season for quality corn. Although they had tried to grow corn in the past, results weren’t good. In 2011, for example, an early frost led to less digestible corn, and therefore, lower milk production. Without their own corn, they had to rely on southern Ontario farmers and the whims of the market.

PHOTO: CORN PLANTED UNDER PLASTIC IN EARLY SPRING

Last year, it was decided that the four brothers would split the cost on a custom-made, six-row planter from Samco. The machine itself cost them nearly $60,000, and the plastic costs about $150 per acre, but they say it’s worth every penny.

“If I had to buy another 400 tonnes of grain corn at the price that it currently is, it would almost kill us,” says Lee Laframboise. “But having grown my own crop, sure it costs $152 extra per acre, but I also had a good quality grain corn and I’m not going to be dependent on the market.”

During the process, many lessons were learned. For the system to really work, for instance, the soil has to be well prepared to a minimum of three inches, and there can’t be any ridges. “That was pretty much key,” says Laframboise. “I realized that certain plastics deteriorate faster. It seems that we have a higher UV than Ireland. I found that the Samco grey plastic did better for us, but in Ireland the green plastic does better for them. It degrades faster, but in this area we needed it to stick around a little bit longer.”

While he had thought that high seeding rates would have a negative impact on starch content, it didn’t. “I thought maybe starch-wise I’d get more on the 36,000 [seeds per acre], but the 40,000 seeds per acre proved to produce good yields and high starch levels. It came back at 1.85 MEl of energy, and for us that’s usually unheard of.”

The rewards didn’t end there. On average, the corn that was grown under plastic pollinated some 10 days earlier than the surrounding, conventionally grown corn. In places where the plastic had ripped up due to high winds, Laframboise and his brother could make interesting comparisons.

“You could see at least a 16-inch to two-foot difference in the height of the corn,” says Laframboise. “And at harvest, whatever was under the plastic and where the plastic had ripped off, you could see that those cobs that were under plastic were well advanced.”

For Laframboise, the system just makes good financial sense. “Especially here, up north,” he says. “To feed our dairy cattle, for me, it’s a no-brainer. I’m definitely going to be doing it again. I’ve never seen yields of corn like this, and this was a drought year.” Laframboise made corn cob meal with his entire crop, but his neighbours, who also planted under plastic, combined their field and reported a yield of 178 bushels per acre – last year they didn’t even grow corn.

“Our goal is always to try to be more self-sufficient,” says Laframboise. “We were buying all of our grain corn from southern Ontario, or we’d buy local, if it made it. Corn up here – if it makes it, you’re happy. You might get a good crop out of it once every few years.”

“Now I’m pretty confident that I can grow corn year after year and have a good crop if we get moisture. I’m not worried about it making it or not,” he adds.

Certified Crop Advisor Terry Phillips finds merit in the system as well. They had a local crop tour on July 19 where they got to compare two crops planted virtually at the same time – one under plastic, one not – and were surprised by the results.

“The stuff under plastic, it was fully pollinated,” says Phillips. “And the conventional corn hadn’t even started pollinating. A lot of guys were seeing close to two weeks variation or advantage to the plastic.”

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Daniel Tasse looked into heat units for the region. “According to the farm zone/Earlton website we would have 2225 CHU from May first to September 16th,” he says. “I was expecting more since we had such a great growing season up here for corn and beans.” At 2225 CHU, some corn is just barely making full season. Some didn’t make it at all.

“We had our first frost about September 19th and that was huge,” says Phillips. “The stuff under plastic was at black layer.” But that isn’t the case for conventional corn in the region.

“They were just about there when they froze,” he says. “I haven’t seen any corn yet that made black layer under conventional.”

“If you’re growing a 2150 HU corn, that would be full season,” says Phillips. “If you’re growing a 2300, you’re short some heat units for full season. Most of them were growing 2150 HU, but nobody was planting on May first. Most of them were planting on the seventh to 10th of May.”

The Samco system has been so successful for the Laframboise and Rivard brothers that Phillips is considering joining them next year. “Yes, you’re going to spend close to $500 an acre with everything in, including plastic, but I can still net, theoretically, $500-$700 an acre. I can’t gross that on canola.”

The real kicker, says Phillips, is that guys are growing corn on $50 an acre land, whereas, in the southern parts of Ontario they’re paying as much as $350 an acre. “I think the highest rents up here – premium – are maybe $100. It’s still relatively cheap compared to the south.” •