Forecasts for corn crop looking bleak, but it could be worse

Forecasts for corn crop looking bleak, but it could be worse

Forecasts for the 2011 corn harvest in East Central Illinois are coming in — and they are underwhelming.

But at least the numbers are not as dismal as they were in 1988, farmers pointed out.

A hot and dry July, when many plants were undergoing the critical pollination stage, stressed the corn throughout much of the middle part of Illinois. As a result, yields are expected to be lower than in recent years.

"Our crops look very stressed," said Monticello-area farmer Jim Reed, who is also president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. "A lot of ears aborted kernels on the ends of the cobs. ... The number of kernels was not very good," he said.

He predicted a 20 percent to 25 percent decrease in yields from the five-year yield average. Yields may be down, but Reed pointed out the five-year trend line has been moving up since the 1980s. So although a 150- or 160-bushel per-acre average may seem low compared with recent years, it's still quite a bit higher than 10 or 20 years ago.

Champaign-based Premier Cooperative's crop tour last week estimated corn yields ranging from 29 bushels per acre in a field near Elliot to 241 bushels per acre near Rising, with the average from 20 different sites coming in at 165 bushels per acre. In 2010, the crop tour average was 185 bushels per acre.

"This year yields are highly variable," said Steve Ayers, University of Illinois Extension educator who also farms near Bement in Piatt County.

Monticello-based Topflight Grain Cooperative's crop tour from earlier this month came up with an average of 148 bushels per acre, down from 173 in 2010. Their inspections of soybean fields came in at 38 pods per plant, down from 44 pods per plant in 2010.

Yields were lower in all the reporting areas, said Derrick Bruhn, merchandising manager with Topflight, which has elevators in Atwood, Seymour, Milmine and other areas in central and East Central Illinois.

The 148 bushels "was similar to what we expected. ... There's a lot of variation throughout the fields as far as the low-lying areas where ponding occurred in the spring (due to too much water) and at the top of the hills (which had less soil moisture throughout the hot summer)," he said.

Farmers are seeing "probably one of the largest degrees of variability in a long time," Reed said. "As the storms split apart, one field would get an inch (of rain) out of it, but a mile down the road, a field would not get any (rain)."

For example, on Tuesday his fields received about a half-inch of rain. He spoke to farmers closer to Champaign who received 1.5 inches.

Last week's rain was too late to make a difference for the corn, but it'll help the bean crop.

Elevators like Topflight expect to be able to handle the incoming grain this year and Bruhn said he does not anticipate dealing with any emergency storage situations in which surplus corn is piled outside the bins.

Due to early maturation occurring in some corn, harvest has already started in some areas. Last week Topflight took in its first load of corn at its Emery elevator north of Forsyth.

As for Topflight's bean estimates, "the pod counts are lower than last year, but there is still some potential out there with beans," Bruhn said.

That means more rain would be much welcomed.

Until Tuesday, when his fields received about 1.5 inches of rain, farmer Paul Compton of Homer said he was "real worried" about the soybean crop and the beans remaining too small.

"We need rain to plump up the beans," Ayers said. "If there's not enough rain (and moisture in the pods) then you have a lightweight, misshapen bean that can just blow right out of the combine," he said.

"They say the corn crop is made in July and the beans are made in August," Ayers said.

Not much corn was made in July.

Corn "has really has deteriorated a lot since June," Compton said.

"We had a rough start — a little late with the planting — but I was really optimistic in June. But since then we just had too many days of heat," and dry weather, Compton said.

He's hoping to see corn yields in the 140 to 160 range.

The Champaign County average in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was 169 bushels per acre; in 2009 it was 190.

Corn yields may be down compared with recent years, but "the drought of '88 was worse," Compton said.

In the more than 20 years since that hot, dry summer, hybrids have been engineered to handle pests like rootworm beetles, which Reed said would have caused extra havoc by damaging the silks on the ears of corn during pollination. Plus, since the '80s, more farmers have adopted management practices such as not tilling the field after harvesting, helping preserve moisture in the soil, he said.

This year some Illinois farmers have reported seeing the fungus grey leaf spot in their corn but no significant outbreaks have been reported, Compton said. He sprayed his fields with fungicide and has not seen any issues.

Elevator staff did encounter some diplodia ear rot in corn last year, but so far they have not heard or seen any problems, said Roger Miller with Premier.

A coming challenge for farmers will be figuring out the right time to harvest the corn. Because the weather was so variable from one field to another, it will be tough to determine when to harvest because some sections will have corn with a high moisture content and others that are more dry, Reed said. If the corn has too much moisture when taken to the elevator farmers must pay elevators to dry their corn.

"There are some dry pockets in fields and other ares where the corn is maturing normally. It's a challenge to store corn where part of the load is dry and part is wet," Reed said.

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