Farming isn’t rocket science. Ron Heiniger always heard that growing up on a crop and dairy farm in Powhattan, Kan. He heard it when he worked on the farm with his father. He heard it from his neighbors when he managed the farm prior to going to graduate school and then pursuing a career in ag research and education in North Carolina. And he continues to hear it to this day.
To that point, Heiniger is quick to agree: Farming is a lot harder than rocket science. “I’d rather build a rocket to the moon than try to figure out what the right amount of fertilizer is for this corn crop each season,” he says.
Heiniger has been in North Carolina since 1994 when he became an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, working out of the Vernon James Research and Extension Center in Plymouth. Since 2000, he has been a full professor and the Extension corn specialist and cropping systems specialist. Heiniger earned his bachelors degree in agriculture and his masters and Ph. D. degrees in crop ecology from Kansas State University.
Heiniger is well known for his commitment to research and for his thought- provoking presentations delivered at production meetings and crop field days across the state. Heiniger has often been called a “rock star” because his Extension talks are always enlightening and entertaining and provide information that farmers can use on their farms.
Indeed, Heiniger emphasizes that farming isn’t rocket science. It is harder and more challenging, even more so in North Carolina where farmers have to deal with hurricanes, storms, humidity, pests, and other issues that farmers in the Midwest never have to worry about.
Always managing insects, diseases
“When I grew up in Kansas, all you really worried about was planting on time and getting enough nitrogen on the crop. You didn’t think about insects and diseases. Here in North Carolina, you’re managing those all of the time,” Heiniger said in an interview with Southeast Farm Press at his office at the Vernon James Center.
In fact, Heiniger considers North Carolina corn farmers to be among the best in the world because they produce high-yielding, high-quality crops despite the multitude of challenges they face every day.
“Farmers in North Carolina have to manage many factors to be successful, and the fact they do this year in and year out, with the tremendous risks they take, is a testament to their brilliance, their fortitude, and their persistence,” Heiniger said.
Heiniger encouraged farmers to be students of the crop.
“You’re learning all the time about what this crop is showing you. How does it respond to this heat or how does it respond to having flooded feet or how does it respond to lower nitrogen rates or fungicides? You need to study that plant and see how it responds.,” Heiniger said. “I often think of farmers as doctors. Your patient is the plant and what you’re trying to do is keep that patient healthy and productive throughout its life cycle. It’s very challenging. This patient can’t talk to you. You have to be able to read the signs, so to speak.”
Heiniger said it does his heart good because most corn farmers in North Carolina are indeed good students of the crop. He says they are progressive and innovative.
“North Carolina farmers adopt techniques very quickly compared to their counterparts in the Midwest. North Carolina farmers were the first to adopt corn fungicides throughout the season,” he points out.
“I have been blessed to work with these guys because my expertise fits really well with what they are interested in achieving. My expertise is to find a way to practically apply the sound basic science of the agronomics of plants to the farmer’s field,” he explained.
“It’s not always that easy. What happens in a greenhouse doesn’t always fit what’s in a farmer’s field. What’s easy to contain and control in controlled studies in a lab doesn’t work well in an open system like a field with water running down into the soil and into the drainage ditches. I try to apply science in the field,” he said.
For the past five years, excessive water has been the main problem facing North Carolina corn farmers, from the mountains to the coast. “This is more detrimental than a drier pattern because our soils get saturated quickly. It’s like being in a drought when you get saturated soils and those roots are saturated and can’t’ take up water and nutrients,” Heiniger said. “The old adage still applies — dry weather will hurt you, wet weather will kill you.”
Heiniger pointed out that 2021 is a La Niña weather year which should mean for more timely rainfall events, just enough and not too much to be good for corn. In addition, La Niña years tend to be a bit cooler in the summer, which is also good for corn development. So Heiniger is hopeful corn farmers will make good yields this year.
In fact, if the weather cooperates Heiniger said 2021 could very well be “the year of the corn” that North Carolina farmers have always hoped for, with a statewide average yield of 150 bushels and some farmers making 400 bushels per acre. If not “the year of the corn,” Heiniger is optimistic it will come close. It all depends on cooperative weather.
Heiniger said improving the efficiency of using water resources is major research goal in North Carolina. He believes this will come through better managing the biological communities of soil or better understanding what is below the ground rather than what is above the ground.
Better utilize nutrients
“We have good nutrient holding capacity in some of these soils. We have nutrients available to this crop, we just have to be able to utilize them. It’s hard to get those nutrients from that soil into that plant. That plant soil interface really becomes the bottleneck for us,” he said. “Biological communities help us improve that interface. They really contribute to our success by reducing fertilizer needs and improving both water and nutrient uptake in these crops.”
Heiniger said improving the interface between the roots of the plant and the soil is key for better utilizing fertilizer and thereby increasing yields.
To be a good student of the crop, a famer needs to understand when the yield components are made which boils down to timeliness. To maximize yields, Heiniger said it is critical to understand the periods when the number of kernels on the cob are developed.
“You need to maximize the health of that plant so it’s putting on those extra cells, so you get these nice, long ears. With corn, probably more than many crops, you’re going to have to fertilize all those flowers. All those kernels are individual flowers. Every individual flower has to have pollen, so you have to fertilize that, and there is a seven to 10-day window where you have to do that. If you miss that window, you’re going to have fewer kernels than you would like even though you have a nice big cob,” he says.
Meanwhile, Heiniger believes the long-term future for corn in North Carolina is bright. He believes acreage will continue to increase to supply grain for the state’s pork and poultry sectors.
“North Carolina is the bread basket of the East Coast. Demand from poultry and pork will continue to pull grains from North Carolina in order to meet the market demand for meat. North Carolina farmers will continue to provide that support. We’re not going to supply all the corn. We need to supply roughly a third to a half of it in any given year,” he said.