Despite one of most unusual and challenging growing seasons in most people’s memories, some Crawford County farmers are reporting good harvests.
Most farmers are thankful for any harvest following how things looked at the height of the drought in late July and early August.
While yields are down for most crops, prices are definitely up for the commodity crops and even the milk price has increased. Things aren’t perfect, but they turned out a lot better than was feared.
Crawford County Ag Agent Vance Haugen was definitely upbeat about how the harvest has turned out.
“It’s great,” Haugen said of the harvest. “It’s phenomenal, compared to what we thought it might be. The rains happened at the right time, even if they were not always the right amount. We were just lucky.”
For his part, Mt. Zion dairy farmer Jody Riley couldn’t agree with the timely rain assessment more.
“We did really great in this little area around Mt. Zion,” Riley said “We got rain when we needed it.”
Farmers in southern Grant County and Lafayette County were not as lucky. Haugen reported that insurance adjusters were “zeroing out” crops in those areas-not adjusting or reducing the yields, but calling them a complete loss.
Haugen also pointed out that excellent weather during the harvest means work is far ahead of where it would normally be at this point. He believes only 15 to 20 percent of the crops in the county remain unharvested and that’s 50 to 60 percent ahead of schedule.
The county ag agent acknowledged that there was definitely a reduced yield this year. While the county’s average corn yield has been about 158 bushels to the acre recently, this year the ag agent seems to be hearing a lot of yields more in the 125-bushel-per-acre range.
While Riley reported some yields of as high as 180 bushels per acre, he also had yields of 125 to 130 bushels per acre in other places.
Mt. Sterling farmer Daryl Aspenson had a slightly better corn yield at 149 bushels per acre, but that was definitely off the 180-bushel yield he has gotten in the previous two years.
Like other growers, Aspenson saw different yields in the many different fields he owns and rents. He did harvest 190 bushels per acre in some spots and of course less in some others. Aspenson was very happy with results of a drought-resistant genetically engineered hybrid corn. Although he was quick to note the price per 50-pound bag of $200 to $300 added to the cost of planting. A bag plants a little more than two acres.
Ferryville’s Swede Knutson, another large row crop farmer, had a good harvest despite some serious doubts in late July and early August, when he said some of the heat-stressed corn “looked more like pineapple plants.” When it was over, his corn crop yielded about 20 bushels less per acre and the soybean crop was about the same as the year before.
Knutson who farms on a large scattered area of rented acres said the yields were better the further north they were. He had about 500 or 600 acres in Vernon County, which worked out well. He also had good luck in the bottomlands that often are too wet to grow good crops
“They say a wet year will starve you to death and a dry year will scare you to death,” Knutson said repeating an old saying that probably applied to this summer. Despite his mid-summer doubts, things worked out.
Then, there were the prices. Corn is currently selling for more than $7 per bushel and soybeans are around $15 per bushel. That’s very high. However, with the largest corn crop planted in the U.S. since WWII and the largest corn crop ever planted worldwide, things looked a little different last spring. That was before one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s struck the United States. Back then, farmers were wondering if a large harvest would drive down the corn price and many locked in prices of $4.50 to $5.50 per bushel.
So, farmers with those contracts can’t take full advantage of the current $7 per bushel market price.
Aspenson was among those who chose to lock in a corn price at $5.40 per bushel back then. He noted that the 2012 corn crop looked like it could become a bin buster. Despite missing the high market price that resulted from the drought-induced lack of supply, Aspenson is satisfied with the decision he made and thinks he’d probably make much the same decision in a similar situation.
For those with uncontracted corn to sell, the $7 per bushel price can make up for a lot of lost yield. In fact, selling 125 bushels per acre at $7 would make an acre worth $875, while selling 200 bushels per acre at $4.50 per bushel would make an acre worth $900.
And the price run-up wasn’t just in corn, soybeans are currently selling at $15 per bushel and local growers said the soybean crop was at least average or above in yield.
Knutson explained that soybeans do better in dry weather than corn and can get by with six inches less rain during a growing season. Wauzeka row crop farmer, Travis Lomas was also very impressed with the soybean harvest. Riley got 43 bushels per acre on his land near Mt. Zion.
Dairy farmer Tom Kearns who farms in the Seneca area, saw that same variability in corn yield in his plantings this year. He believes soil fertility played a bigger role in getting a good crop this year than most.
Kearns said hay fields coming out of rotation into corn did not do well. He noted than nine out of ten times that’s the best corn on the farm, but not this year. Similarly, corn planted on ground that had been chisel plowed and worked up started out good, but then “ran out of gas.”
Kearns best yields came on fields where no-till corn was planted into cover crops.
Dairy farmer Ed Doskocil, who farms south of Gays Mills, also struggled with weather this summer. His corn crop was definitely reduced compared to the year before. Doskocil said it took 17 acres of corn to make enough silage to fill a 200-foot bag this year, when normally 10 acres can fill it.
The local dairy farmer counts himself as lucky to live next to a grain grower from whom he purchased additional feed for his dairy cattle. Doskocil milks 200 cows.
Kearns was also grateful for the way things worked out. He pointed out that harvest was a lot worse in counties not too far away.
The dairy farmer was also relatively happy with the hay crop this year. Despite an odd start with a warm March and then a cold April, the first crop of alfalfa was tremendous in quantity and quality, according to Kearns. He acknowledged the second and third crops were a bit short on quantity due to the lack of rain. Then, the fourth crop came in really good.
Then, something that had never happened for the Kearns’ operation before occurred, when they harvested a fifth cutting of hay. They baled that crop and Kearns called it “a great thing.”
Kearns said there was a point where the fifth crop looked like it might be the best crop of the season, but a dry September had an impact. Nevertheless, he called the fifth cutting decent.
Kearns usually goes into the fall with a silo filled with haylage and silage, but this year it’s only three-quarters. There is some baled hay as well. However, with 140 milk cows and 140 young stock, the experienced dairy producer said it’s going to be tight.
The cattle already had to be fed hay in the summer, because the pasture was too dry to produce anything for them.
Hay prices like the commodity prices are also up this year with good quality dairy hay at $300 per ton. Even the poor quality CRP grass hay has been getting $80 a bale or $150 to $170 per ton. Hay prices are about doubled from the average. Organic dairy-quality hay has gone as high as $450 per ton.
Haugen, the ag agent, believes with reduced hay acreage and the depleted supply some farmers might be wise to add hay to their rotation.
Kearns and others have supplemented their lack of feed with other crops. He planted forage oats in August and harvested them recently. He has planted winter rye and triticale (a cross of wheat and rye) as cover crops to be harvested next summer.
Despite some carryover from last year, Kearns still sees the feed situation remaining tight. That means cows that are not profitable need to be culled from the herd.
With the milk price up at around $22 per hundred weight it will definitely help, according to Kearns. However, it’s still not the high end that will cover all the costs and let the Kearns family “farm the way we’d like to farm.”
The situation seems similar for Doskocil, who is milking 200 cows. While the higher milk price is helping, it will have to continue and go higher to allow the operation to catch up on bills and do the necessary maintenance to their machinery and buildings.
Riley, who also sells crops in addition to using them in his dairy operation, has held onto 2,000 extra bushels of corn and some additional hay because he remains “really worried about next year.”
Yes, things could be better for Crawford County farmers, but they could have been a lot worse. That’s why so many are thankful for this harvest.