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Widening the corn belt

Rows of almost-ready-to-harvest corn sway in the breeze north of Dickinson in 2010. This year, corn is expected to grow in popularity with southwest North Dakota producers.

The Corn Belt has loosened a notch over years to make room for North Dakota. But it will be an uphill battle for the state to become the next King of Corn.

"Corn has been grown in western North Dakota for decades, though until recently, it was grown primarily as a silage crop, not for grain," said Patrick Carr, a research professor with the Dickinson Research Extension Center. "With improvements in corn genetics and production methods, along with market demand considerations and other factors, corn acreage has increased in the state generally and also in the west, particularly when grown for grain. Changing weather patterns have improved the success rate of corn production in North Dakota."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Prospective Plantings Report released March 28, North Dakota is expected to plant 4.1 million acres of corn this year.

In North Dakota, there were 2.2 million acres of corn planted in 2011 and 3.6 million acres the following year.

"Corn has become more popular as growers have moved away from the traditional wheat-fallow system to more intense and diverse rotations and looked for warm-season grass crops to fill a particular rotational need," Carr said.

The success of corn in North Dakota has made it a popular rotational crop, said Roger Ashley, Dickinson Research Extension Center agronomist.

"Producers have found corn to be an excellent fit in the rotation following wheat, barley, pea and other crops," he said. "However, we don't like to see wheat or barley grown after corn because of the increased risk of fusarium head blight in wheat and barley. We can get away with following wheat or barley after corn in some years, but when weather conditions are right for the infection and spread of this disease at flowering and early grain fill of wheat or barley, the disease can cause significant damage."

According to the USDA, last year in southwest North Dakota, Hettinger County planted the region's highest number of corn acres -- 29,200 acres.

Hettinger County extension agent Duaine Marxen expects the county to have another good crop this year. He said the county's corn yields were, on average, between 70 to 100 bushels per acre in 2012.

"That and a good price made for a nice profit," he said. "Hopefully, with adequate moisture that can happen again."

While the state's corn acres are on the rise, the report indicates North Dakota acreage is still dwarfed by Iowa -- the nation's leading corn producer.

Iowa planted 14.1 million acres of corn in 2011 and 14.2 million acres in 2012, which is the same amount anticipated for 2013 by reports from farmers, according to the USDA.

Nationwide, the USDA reports that growers intend to plant 97.3 million acres of corn for all purposes this year, which is up from 97.2 million acres last year and 6 percent higher than in 2011.

If the estimate is correct, it would be the highest amount of corn acres planted in the U.S. since an estimated 102 million acres were planted in 1936, according to the USDA.

Any boost in North Dakota's corn production isn't likely to help the state surpass Iowa because North Dakota still lacks consistent rainfall, said Dale Enerson, a cooperatives specialist at the North Dakota Farmers Union in Jamestown.

Marxen agreed, saying the issue with corn production in southwest North Dakota is seasonal moisture totals and the length of the growing season, along with enough growing degree days to make a crop.

"Advances in corn genetics have led to the advent of shorter season and more drought-tolerant hybrids that help alleviate the issues of the past," Marxen said. "But at this point in time, there is no possibility that North Dakota will surpass Iowa in production. Corn is a warm-season grass and the growing season in Iowa is much longer with more predictable moisture and that is the case for the entire state. Those conditions, along with the advancement in crop genetics, will have Iowa always in the lead."

But don't count North Dakota agriculture out yet.

"I think we have a much bigger list of possible profitable crops in North Dakota -- like wheat, barley, sunflowers, canola, flax, alfalfa and field peas -- for growers to choose from," Enerson said. "Also, there is some concern that weeds and some insects are becoming resistant to herbicides and insecticides bred into genetically modified crops, like corn, so the more varieties of crops grown in rotation in North Dakota will delay resistance concerns."