Corn’s popularity is still growing as a Southern cash crop that has farmers beaming at high prices that place it up there with soybeans as leaders in revenue production.

Cotton is still a staple for many, but growers like Ricky Belk are putting many more acres into corn to get the best use of their water and soil.

Belk, who farms at Glendora, Miss., north of Greenwood, has seen his farm’s production go from mainly cotton to mostly corn and soybeans the past few years. His 7,500 acres of production includes more than 150 fields. But he doesn’t mind the miles traveled or hours spent to produce a crop that annually yields close to 175 bushels per acre.

“Corn and beans make more sense to me,” Belk says. “We have about 850,000 bushels of on-farm storage space for grain. We have about a 50-50 corn and bean rotation. We plant corn hybrids that are all Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield, and some are stacked with Btgenes. Most of our corn is irrigated, but we have some areas with dryland production.”

He plants in 30-inch rows and normally begins planting in mid- to late-March, with plant populations that range from 28,000 to 38,000 per acre. Newer corn hybrids often perform better with higher plant populations, he says. “But if we’re in areas where we have a few dryland acres, the lighter populations work best.”

With high costs for fertilizer and other inputs, Belk uses soil testing and some leaf tissue sampling to determine his nitrogen needs and other nutrient requirements. “We depend on soil tests for virtually every field periodically to determine the fertilizer needs,” he says.

“For corn, we usually apply between 1.2 pounds and 1.4 pounds of nitrogen per bushel of potential yield. We use variable-rate application for a lot of it, using a 4940 John Deere.” He often applies a dry fertilizer coated with a material to provide slow release.

Whether it’s for seed or fertilizer, he always looks for an opportunity to lock in inputs early if it’s a good deal.

For insect control, he depends on the Bt-stacked corn in many acres and makes sure to follow USDA refuge requirements. “We just didn’t have any insect problems in 2012,” he says. “Some of that may have been due to drier conditions after heavy spring rains that pushed our corn two to three weeks ahead of schedule for the year.”

While some argue that growers shouldn’t apply fungicides unless there is a disease problem, Belk uses them routinely in his corn program. “I apply fungicide to every acre,” he says. “It’s like insurance — some years we probably don’t need it, but in the years we do, it pays for a couple of the years we didn’t. Fungicides really guard against disease.”

Resistant weeds haven’t invaded his fields, but he knows the problem can easily occur. That’s why he uses different herbicide modes of action to complement his glyphosate system. “We also make sure to rotate corn acres with beans when possible,” he says. “That benefits both crops.”

Corn production continues to escalate in the South. Drought hurt some production in 2012. Still, southern states were projected to harvest about 6.4 million acres of corn in 2012, higher than the 5.8 million in 2011.

Agricultural universities and commercial seed companies annually conduct corn hybrid and variety production tests, which provide information growers can use in determining which seed has shown good production characteristics for their region.

Mississippi State University Extension corn specialists remind growers that environmental variability in a given year, or location, may substantially affect hybrid performance.

“In other words, hybrids which have performed well for many years and at various locations should be more likely to perform well in the future,” MSU guidance says. “Thus, growers would be advised to plant the majority of their acreage to hybrids with established track records, such as the ‘standard’ hybrids, and test ‘new’ hybrids on a limited acreage.

“Producers should also evaluate maturity and stalk strength before selecting a hybrid. Further, several hybrids with complementary characteristics should be selected in order to spread risk and minimize loss due to an unpredictable problem which one hybrid may be susceptible.”

Belk says that with his number of acres and fields, he wants to spread harvest a bit more, and that means harvesting at a higher moisture count.

“We definitely need to be cutting corn at higher moisture and drying it down in our bins,” he says. “We have to increase our drying capacity in order to cut at 25 percent moisture. So we hope to double our drying capacity.”

His son, Adron, also farms nearby. “He rented some acres on his own,” Belk says. “We help each other when a situation arises. But it’s good for him to learn how to handle little problems on his own. And we’re both still learning the best ways to make a good corn crop in our area.”

Growers are urged to contact their area Extension corn specialist to learn which hybrids have proven vigor and yield for their farms, as well as to get  tips on weed, disease and insect control. Seed companies and independent crop consultants also have expertise to help farmers excel in corn production.