Corn farmers hoping for good rain as crops reach critical stage

Corn farmers hoping for good rain as crops reach critical stage

URBANA — In a growing season that's desperately short on rain, some farmers are thankful for a shower of small favors.

In East Central Illinois, a good rainfall is needed soon to salvage a corn crop that's already seen its yield projections cut.

But other factors this year have been a saving grace, making the crop more durable than it otherwise would be.

Most corn was planted early this year. During the formative weeks, it enjoyed plenty of sunshine. It didn't have standing water or drowned-out spots. Consequently, most plants had a good root system.

"Except for water, the crop's in great shape," said Emerson Nafziger, a University of Illinois professor of crop sciences. "Almost everything else has been positive — no disease, no nitrogen loss, the root systems are good."

That's not to minimize the severity of the drought.

Statewide, probably two-thirds of the corn crop is under severe stress, with the southern third of Illinois in the worst shape — "almost to the point of not coming back," Nafziger said.

In East Central Illinois, the crop is "moderately stressed to severely stressed," with areas to the north generally better off than those to the south, he added.

Lin Warfel, president of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, said there's great variance in crop conditions in this region.

"It's really spotty in Champaign County. One field has gotten rain, and the next one not," he said.

Some of the county's worst-looking fields are in the Mahomet area, where sandy soils don't hold moisture, he said.

Warfel, who farms in the Tolono area, said he's gotten sobering reports from farmers in a swath extending from Farmer City to Hume.

"Some fields are seriously damaged. Some seed fields are now being considered for being mowed off," he said.

But like Nafziger, Warfel sees reasons to be thankful.

"The way the really sparse rains have come has been helpful," he said.

A recent shower that yielded 0.2 inch came at night, giving the water a chance to sink in, he said. It was cloudy the next morning, slowing evaporation rates.

Hopes for a truly beneficial rain this weekend were dashed when only isolated showers popped up in places around East Central Illinois. The southern part of the state got more substantial rains Sunday.

Nafziger said farmers with better soils can appreciate the land's ability to retain moisture. Some soils can hold almost half-a-season's worth of water for a crop, he said.

The corn crop generally requires 8 inches of water during June, and area fields certainly didn't get that much precipitation.

"Six or seven (inches of water) had to come from the soil," he said.

But farmers can't continue to rely on soil moisture to save their crops.

"Soil water is certainly depleted," Nafziger said. "We can't expect to have another month like last month and still expect this crop to still be making do by the end of the month."

"The earlier it rains, the better," he added. "We're losing some yield every day."

Much of the corn in this area has reached the pollination stage, a time when having adequate moisture is critical.

"The pollination process is sensitive to water shortage," Nafziger said. "By itself, temperature is not really a killer on corn. If there's enough soil water, 100 degrees is not a big problem for the corn crop."

Pollination powers the process by which kernels get their start, and if water isn't available at that point, "you can't make yield, no matter how good conditions are later on," he said.

In southern Illinois, "we know some fields are not going to produce any yield," Nafziger said. "It's not to that point for most fields in East Central Illinois."

The most comparable growing season to this one, Nafziger said, was 1988, "which all of us remember as the worst year ever."

But the corn that year was in "not nearly as good a shape" as this year's corn, he said.

"Our planting was early this year, so the crop got off to a good start," he said. The 1988 crop was planted later and wasn't as resilient at this point of the season.

"It wasn't as far along. It was easier for the dry weather to do it in," Nafziger said.

Warfel said he's watching for "a nice dark cloud," but is careful about how he prays.

"We don't want 40 days and 40 nights" of precipitation, he said. But an inch, an inch-and-a-half or even 2 inches would be welcome.

Hardier soybeans not yet as critical as corn crops

URBANA — Immediate rain isn't as critical for area soybean crops as it is for corn, a University of Illinois Extension agronomist said.

"Most of the (soybean) crop at least is staying alive. Some planted early are growing a bit better than might have been expected," Emerson Nafziger said.

Corn in this area has reached — or will soon reach — the pollination stage, while soybeans are starting to flower, he said.

"The big difference is, corn makes or breaks its fortunes in a week or so, and soybeans have about three weeks," Nafziger said.

Any rain in the next three weeks will be helpful for soybeans, he said.

Lin Warfel, president of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, agreed: "Soybeans are chugging right along."

"They're much more designed for hot, dry weather," he said, contrasting them with corn. "Soybeans can compensate for (water) shortfalls and still yield quite well."

Faring relatively well during the dry weather was the state's wheat crop, most of which had been harvested as of last week.

Nafziger said the wheat crop was "generally good, with quality outstanding ... and yields higher than people expected. We feel pretty good about the wheat crop."

For some farmers, particularly in southwestern Illinois, "wheat might be their highest-yielding crop this year," he said.

A dry spring season is usually good for wheat, Nafziger said. But wheat pulls a lot of moisture from the ground.

That's an unfortunate circumstance for farmers who were planning to plant soybeans in fields where they harvested wheat.

Typically, an early wheat harvest, like the one this year, would be good for farmers hoping to double-crop with soybeans.

But extreme dryness means newly planted soybeans would have little soil moisture available to them, Nafziger said.

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