Hot, dry summer takes toll on crops

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July 23, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Herb Wilson grimaced Friday when he peeled back the husk on an ear of corn. It was a fraction the size it should have been.
“I hate to look anymore,” Wilson said. “It makes me sick.”
Corn and soybeans in area fields are suffering from lack of rain and day-after-day of blazing sunshine that has pushed temperatures to triple digits.
“A lot of the corn is done,” said Wilson, a full-time farmer since 1974 who went to a 50-50 operation with son Doug last year. “We probably planted a little too early and over-fertilized for what rain we ended up getting.”
Sparse moisture prompts generous amounts of fertilizer to have an adverse effect.
“See that?,” as he peels back another ear. “The end of the ear didn’t fill because of hot winds in June, and early July didn’t let the corn pollinate right,” Wilson observed.
The corn plants are firing, Wilson said, burning from the ground up and dying. When that happens, the ears droop from the stalks with the husks remaining tightly sealed, preventing the kernels and cob to dry.
“See how rubbery the cob is,” Wilson noted, with an ear he had husked. “When that goes through the combine they’re going to tear up and you’re going to have a lot of cob in the bin with the corn,” with docked payments for what little is harvested.
He demonstrated: An ear of corn from last year snapped in two, but with one of this year’s ear, Wilson, a man with strong, burly hands from years of manual work, had difficulty breaking it, and when it did snap, it didn’t come apart cleanly.
On the average for his and son Doug’s upland corn, 30 bushels an acre will be a blessing, Wilson predicted. It’s insured, but payments mainly allow farmers to recoup only production costs.
A shame, for farmers and the area economy.
Corn Friday was fetching $6.99 a bushel at Piqua Farmers Co-op. When corn was planted three months ago rain then put it to growing well and gave promise for a bumper crop, much like last year’s.
On a brief tour of the Wilson farm, he pointed to a field of beans, accentuated by scraggly volunteer corn stalks. “We had corn here last year. It made 140 bushels.”
Do the math.
While upland corn is nearing the end of its productive life, that planted on deep soil of river bottom land still has a chance to do relatively well.
“If we get a rain the next week or so — there’s a chance Sunday and Monday — corn in the bottom could do pretty good,” Wilson said.
Bottom ground soil is deep enough that root systems develop better, which permits plants to withstand drought and sweltering temperatures longer than that on upland.

WILSON thinks some of their soybeans have a chance to produce reasonably good yields, although lack of rain and heat have hurt.
So have grasshoppers.
“The grasshoppers are bad this year,” probably because of the same weather conditions that have been the bane of crops. “Wet weather’s hard on ’em,” he said.
Beans in one field, planted on what Wilson said had the poorest soil of the 486 acres he owns, are near to succumbing. Their color isn’t the lush green found in other fields.
“They’re about done,” he said. “Some of the other beans will be OK if we get a rain before long. They won’t make what they might have, but they will make something.”
“Something” this year won’t be too bad: soybeans were bringing $13.65 a bushel Friday.
He thinks beans planted after wheat has been harvested may be the best.
“They’re hanging on pretty well and have the advantage of the wheat stubble, which acts as mulch,” he said. “If we get even a half inch of rain, it’ll mean more on the wheat ground because of the straw.”
 Wilson is thankful livestock isn’t a part of their operation.
“I have a pretty good pond that’s nearly dry; we don’t have cattle but I’m worried about the fish,” he said. “It’s easy to see the water dropping each day.”

HEAT, IN record or near-record levels, is a part of Wilson’s life.
He was born July 23, 1936 — 75 years ago today — when the high reached 109 degrees and was one of 51 days that year when the temperature reached or exceeded 100.
“Mom told me she would wet blankets and go to the (root) cellar to keep cool before I was born,” 
Wilson said.
In 1954, just out of high school, Wilson left home for the first time for a job. That year highs of 100 or more were recorded 54 times, and the all-time high of 117 occurred on July 17.
“Dad (Nate Wilson) sponsored me to go to western Kansas to work on a harvest crew, but when I got there the crew had moved on north,” he said.
Hot, dry conditions had made the wheat harvest short in Kansas.
He worked with his father on the family farm northeast of Piqua as a teenager and after missing out on the harvest worked several jobs, including being an Iola police officer, before settling into oil production and full-time farming after his father’s death in 1973.
He’s seen many bad years, including heat in 1980 that burned corn similarly to this year, but, he noted, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

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