“Ask a Farmer” is a monthly column from a Minnesota corn farmer that answers basic questions about farming for the non-farming public.
Written by Lori Feltis
If you know a farmer, you probably know that we like to talk about the weather. No news is typically good news when it comes to farming and the weather. Silence means Mother Nature is cooperating.
Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of weather news this year. I figured it would be a wild ride when we started planting corn on April 27, only to see 14 inches of snow come down a few days later.
Snow falling on a newly planted field isn’t ideal, but it’s not necessarily a crop-killer, either. As long as the ground doesn’t freeze, the seeds can survive. Thankfully, soil temperatures stayed above freezing in our fields.
The real problems came when it kept raining even after the snow melted. April 27 was already a late planting date for us — we’re usually in the fields between April 15-21.
The cold and wet spring turned some of our fields into mush, making it impossible to plant corn in time for it to mature. Where we live in Stewartville, Minn., it takes about 120 days for a corn crop to mature before frost. If we wanted to have any type of crop, it needed to be planted by June 1. On some of our fields, that was impossible.
On fields where we were unable to plant corn, we eventually planted a cover crop of wheat. Leaving a field unplanted can result in soil erosion and less-than-ideal planting conditions for the following spring. Even though it won’t be nearly as profitable as a corn crop would have been, we planted wheat to keep the soil strong and ready for next spring.
Once it finally stopped raining, the corn acres that we did plant had to deal with an unseasonably cool summer. Corn needs heat to develop, and it wasn’t very warm in June through mid-August.
The moisture also disappeared. By planting in such wet conditions, our corn didn’t have to put down long roots into the soil to find moisture. The roots stayed shallow because they didn’t have to go far to find the moisture and nutrients needed.
When the ground dried up and a late August heat wave moved in, the plants couldn’t grow roots fast enough and didn’t have a strong root base established to help hold the plants over. When corn plants are stressed like this, the kernels on the cob are very light. It also takes more kernels to make a bushel, which cuts into yields at harvest time.
We expect our yields to be down significantly this year.
Whew. That’s a lot to digest. I hope I don’t sound like I’m complaining. Farming comes with a lot of risk, and our family accepts and deals with those risks.
I wanted to share some of this information because we get a lot of questions about crop conditions and decision-making from our non-farming friends and neighbors. I assume a lot of consumers have similar questions.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Thanks to advancements in biotechnology, today’s crops are better able to withstand extreme weather conditions. Farmers are also using less land and fewer pesticides while meeting increased demand for food, fiber and fuel.
Mother Nature has been unkind this growing season, but farmers will persevere. We will be out in the field shortly to harvest what’s there from this year’s crop. A late frost would be great, but we’ll see what kind of mood Mother Nature is in over these next couple of weeks.
Lori Feltis grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa and raises beef cows with her husband and three children on their farm in Stewartville, Minn. Lori is also the secretary of the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.