Market factors have been pulling agriculture toward increased corn production, Roozeboom explained. If nothing else, corn remains the primary base for U.S. ethanol manufacturing. World consumption of animal protein has been on the rise, too, increasing demand for feedgrains.

The agronomist said that so far, the best ways to address those market forces are to:

  • Get more acres into corn production, including land that has been considered marginal, due to limited precipitation.
  • Reduce the risk of corn crop losses while also increasing average yields in water-limited production areas, such as central and western Kansas.

“Untimely, rains or dry conditions can have a big impact in our state—sometimes causing substantial yield reductions or complete crop failures,” Roozeboom said. “Corn is more sensitive to the timing of rainfall than Kansas’ other major row crops.”

Annual rainfall in the state ranges from more than 40 inches in the southeast to an average 16 inches on the western border, he said.

Without timely rains, however, even southeast Kansas can experience moisture problems because during mid-summer the shallow topsoils there can dry out in two weeks. The area has a dense clay subsoil that limits corn roots to a narrow band of topsoil. Other subsoils may have moisture, but crop roots can’t effectively reach them.

In contrast, much of western Kansas has deep silt loam soils with high water-holding capacity. So, despite the area’s sparse rainfall, growing dryland corn successfully is possible, so long as enough stored soil moisture is available to complement limited rainfall during the growing season.

Roozeboom said that as global temperatures continue to rise, on-going improvements in cropping systems may also be necessary to maintain and expand corn acreage and production. High residue, no-till production systems have already been essential for the success of dryland corn in more arid environments. Cropping systems that conserve both water and soil will become ever more important for sustaining long-term production.

“Of course, moisture problems aren’t as big a worry for irrigated farms,” Roozeboom said. “However, irrigated farms with limited well capacity could also reduce risks if the new-generation hybrids perform as advertised.  Water is a scarce resource that is getting scarcer.”