stan smith

Stanley Smith

LEWISTON, Minn. — With the sky-high price of seed corn, southeastern Minnesota organic dairy farmer Stanley Smith figured somebody had to do something.

“I never thought I would be paying $200 for a bag of seed corn; but yes, last year ordering my seed, the cost for 80,000 seeds, or about 42 pounds, was $235,” he said. 

So, Smith decided to be the “somebody” who should do something.

Although open-pollinated seed corn sells for around $75 per 50-pound bag, getting a less expensive bag of corn wasn’t uppermost in Smith’s when he applied for a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The grant was part of USDA’s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program for farmers and ranchers. The amount of the grant he received was $6,008. 

Smith, who farms 205 acres near Lewiston, Minn., suspected today’s expensive modern hybrid seed corn might not be such a good deal compared to the open pollinated corn varieties. He figured that much hybrid breeding had focused on yield at the expense of nutritional value.

“I had always heard that open pollinated corn varieties are more nutritious than hybrids,” he said, “but usually that claim is not backed up with data.”

Smith’s SARE project, which he titled, “Does Open Pollinated Corn Have a Place on Today’s Organic Farm?”, set out to see if the open pollinated vs. hybrid claims had any substance. What he discovered, with his on-farm research project, is that they do. And that’s good news for organic farmers looking to grow less expensive, but more nutritious corn.

To obtain his data, Smith planted six varieties of open pollinated corn at a rate of 32,000 seeds per acre alongside one 90-day organic hybrid variety.

Following germination, early plant populations ranged from 22,000 to 29,500 plants per acre with the hybrid coming in at 25,500 plants per acre. Both the open pollinated varieties and the hybrid variety were planted on two treatments: land which had been in sod; and land which had been planted in soy beans. One of the open pollinated varieties only had 88 percent germination on its bag label.

In addition to sending post-harvest samples of each variety to Dairyland Laboratories to have the protein measured, Smith compared yield, moisture at harvest, and the percentage of the plants which lodged following an August wind blast. 

Finding six varieties of open pollinated seed corn with a 95-day maturity was more difficult than Smith expected. Conventional hybrids are easy to find locally. Organic hybrids are available regionally. But Smith had to scour the entire northern part of the United States to locate agronomic-sized lots of open pollinated seed corn. He found two varieties locally. Then he went national on the internet.

“I did meet my goal of six open pollinated varieties by expanding the maturity window,” he said. “This made comparing yields of little value as later corn should yield higher and did in my plot.”

Smith says the internet is a blessing and a curse when it comes to seed corn shopping.

“I do most of my business local and in person, but that’s not possible when ordering on the web,” he said. “Two orders never arrived — even though the checks were cashed and follow up e-mails went unanswered. I did buy seed from Albert Lea Seed House, Green Haven Seed, and a couple of farms.”

Albert Lea Seed House is located in Minnesota and Green Haven Seed is in New York. Shipping was a major expense for some varieties. 

Among the varieties Smith grew that are available from a number of sources were 89-day Wapsie Valley; 87-day Minnesota 13; and 86-day Dublin. The other varieties were E-95 from Albert Lea Seed; Abbe Hill, a 100 to 103-day variety from Abbe Hills Farm near Mount Vernon Iowa; and a variety called Hill Farm.

“As an organic farmer, I strive for sustainable production,” Smith said. “This means I need a corn variety that does well with no additional inputs. The land used for this project has had no off-farm products added since 2000 — except inoculants for seed treatment. Cattle manure is used when available. The half of the plot that was in soybeans the prior year received manure, but the sod plot didn’t. To avoid GMO drift from neighboring fields, I generally delay planting 10 days to two weeks after they plant. Because of rain delays this year, planting was pushed to May 31.”

To prepare the soil, Smith chisel plowed, disced, and then dragged the two fields. The former sod field got two chisel plowings. Then he planted. Some of the seed germinated quickly and some waited for a wet spell three weeks after planting. Stan says the two germination periods demonstrate the importance of proper seed placement and closure pressure over the furrow.

“The weather after planting turned hot and dry for three weeks and germination suffered,” he said. “That resulted in two germination spurts with some plants coming up late after a light shower. Better down pressure may have helped as an after observation. On my older planter, this is done with springs on the closing wheels or by going deeper with seed placement. On new planters it can be done on the go.”

Final germination numbers gave Smith lower plant populations than he had hoped for and the late germinating corn was more prone to lodging.

“At cultivation, a big surprise surfaced,” he said. “The open pollinated varieties were six to eight inches taller than the check variety. Maybe it was just that check variety or maybe not! Anyway, the taller corn at first cultivation is a big plus because it leads to earlier canopy which helps control weeds and conserve moisture.”

As a result, he only had to cultivate once.

Hybrid variety breeding did pay off when August’s winds blasted through the fields. The hybrid test variety didn’t lodge. Most of the open pollinated varieties did.

Lodged corn will reach for the sun and straighten up. But it develops a goose neck stalk.

“That means the ear is displaced about six inches to one side,” Smith said.

Although Smith’s harvest went well, open pollinated corn has issues with ear placement even when it hasn’t been lodged. 

“If you check a hybrid plot, all the ears will usually be at the same height and very uniform,” he said. “OP tends to be high and low all within the same variety. High ear placement puts more stress on the stalk in high wind while a low ear can be lost if caught in a snow storm or with lodging.”

Even if the open pollinated varieties struggled with lodging and ear placement, Smith was delighted with their showing when it came to protein.

“All but one of the open pollinated corns in my plot had protein levels over 10 percent,” he said. “The check tested at 8.41 percent protein.”

Smith figures that the roughly two percent difference in protein could create a savings when mixing a ration to feed livestock or poultry. 

“Calculating a couple feed rations using organic soybean meal at $850 per ton and organic corn at $9 per bushel, you can save from 80 cents to $1.16 per 100 pounds of feed — depending on the percent protein needed in the ration,” he wrote in his report to SARE.

Since there is not a market for high protein corn, the savings could only be realized if you grind your own feed, Smith says. However, he believes a market could be developed.

“No special market exists for high protein corn today, but I believe if a better OP variety was developed and there was a feed trial to back up its merits, a market to backyard poultry growers could be developed,” he said.

“If the corn market stays in this low profit, high input mode, something has to change,” he said. “A better OP will be needed to convince any large volume grower to grow it. Like the organic movement, it will take a lot of time.”