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Friday, May 6, 2016

Strips in corn fields reflect troubled crop

Friday, August 26, 2011

A cut field of corn near Freistatt showing a strip left standing for insurance assessment. Small strips are all that's left of many corn fields stunted by drought as farmers opted to cut them early for silage. [Times Photo by Jared Lankford]
This has not been a good year for the corn crop.

"There have been a lot of dashed hopes this year," said Tim Schnakenberg, agronomist with the University of Missouri Extension service. "A lot of people became excited about commodity prices being good. They bought lots of fertilizer then had a tough year making corn. The corn acreage has been the highest this year that I've ever seen. A lot of people tried it who have never raised corn before."

The drought devastated the corn crop and has had a hard impact on forage fields. Many farmers have cut their corn fields for silage already, and some are feeding hay to their livestock.

According to Tom Campbell, a crop insurance adjuster, corn fields in southwest Missouri, especially those west of Monett, are some of the hardest hit anywhere in the state. In some cases, even irrigation did not help.

Campbell described fields in Kansas facing 40-mile-per-hour winds and 110 degree temperatures where conditions were so hot, by the time the irrigation pivots returned to the first part of the rotation, the corn had already been scalded.

Schnakenberg said he has heard of some growers getting as much as 25 bushels an acre from their corn. Others got far less. He calculated that farmers who put $300 an acre into their fields in fertilizer would have to get at least 50 bushels an acre to break even.

Some corn fields have been cut and left with a small row of corn still standing in the center. Campbell said these strips serve two purposes. They provide a sampling of the crop for crop insurance assessment. At harvest time, an adjuster will shuck the ears, calculate the weight and factor the moisture in the corn to determine what the yield would have been.

The second test is much more serious. Campbell will send a five-quart ice cream pail of ground up corn plants to a University of Missouri Department of Agriculture lab to be tested for aflatoxin, a fungus. Aflatoxin is an insurable problem that develops in stressed corn.

If aflatoxin is measured in 20 parts per billion or less, the quantity represents no concern. If the count is over 300 parts per billion, Campbell said the concentration is carcinogenic and the entire crop must be destroyed. Insurance companies even have strict guidelines for how to handle the elimination process.

If silage was chopped early enough, like many locally cut three weeks ago, it will have retained enough moisture to avoid serious aflatoxin problems. The concern about silage, Campbell said, is if the concentration of nitrates gets too high. If ears of corn do not develop, the nitrates will stay in the corn stalk. Campbell said he has not heard of any excessively high nitrate levels.

"Most farmers are buying crop insurance," Campbell said. "With the input costs, you can't justify not having it."

Insurance will be paid out through a quality adjustment. Reduced yield and aflatoxin are handled separately. Campbell said he has been very busy since mid-May.

The drought did not impact every crop this year. Schnakenberg said the wheat crop, which is harvested locally in June, was very good. Soybeans, which are harvested later than corn, have a chance to recover as a result of recent rains. Campbell said he is seeing a dramatic difference in soybeans farther north. Plants are blooming again and have stopped aborting the bean pods.

"We've got a chance at a pretty good soybean crop," he said.

Schnakenberg remained concerned for forages, going into the winter. He said a good autumn is needed to bring back the grasses.

As for next year, Campbell said commodity prices will again drive growers into action. Corn carries more risk than soybeans, wheat and sorghum.

"Some people will see $7 [a bushel] corn next spring and go at it," Campbell added.

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