Knee-high by the Fourth of July: Can corn producers recover from these dry conditions?

KELOLAND.com Original

ELK POINT, S.D. (KELO)– Conditions across the state are definitely not ideal for growing corn.

Robert Walsh, a corn producer in Elk Point, said during an ideal year in their region, 26 inches of rain for a year is average. And the weather they would like to see for growing corn is sunny and 86 degrees, with some humidity. Corn is most efficient at producing photosynthesis and utilizing sunlight at that temperature, when it has sufficient moisture.

When it is hotter than 86 degrees, everything starts to slow down because the corn plant tries to conserve water and when it does that the factory starts to slow down or shut down, Walsh said.

Although Elk Point may not be experiencing the harshest effects of the drought, growing conditions still are not ideal for producing corn.

Walsh said they experienced some decent rains in the month of March, but since then they haven’t had any rains over six-tenths and most of those rainfalls have been a quarter to four-tenths of an inch range.

“So we are significantly behind normal, probably five to six inches behind normal as of right now,” he said. “And we came into January dry also.”

Normally, in the springtime, Walsh said they have significant subsoil reserved so that even if there is a dry spell, they have significant amounts of extra moisture for the roots and plants. But, because it is so dry already, there is no subsoil.

“So every single rain even is absolutely critical to keep us going,” he said.

This past week, with the high temperatures and low humidity, they started to see the signs of stress on the corn plants, Walsh said. The leaves are starting to roll up, trying to protect moisture, which is referred to as onioning or pineappling. This stress is very abnormal for this early in the season.

“If we could catch some rain real soon, we could be okay, but yield penalties have already been hit on the corn, especially through the dry land corn,” Walsh said.

If it does rain within the next seven days, Walsh expects his corn to be probably yield around 150 bushels per acre. If there is no rain within the next two weeks, he expects it to be lower than 100 bushels per acre.

Last year, he said his dry land corn produced around 250 bushels per acre, averaging 220-250 bushels per acre.

Even if they were to get more rain, the corn is passed the point of reaching max yield on the dry land corn, Walsh said. But, they could still see a very good corn crop if they got rain now.

But, its not just a two inch rain now that it needed, its a two inch rain next week, and then the rain continuing.

“Since we have no subsoil moisture, we have to have timely rains throughout the entire summer for the next three months, we absolutely have to have timely rains,” he said.

He is also starting to see cracks within his soil. This one foot crack was found outside of the cornfield, but if conditions continue as they are, Walsh said he will start to see cracks like this in the fields as well.

Irrigation is playing a critical role in producing corn this year. He said it has been “an incredible blessing.”

The amount of irrigation taking place in his area is unheard of this early in the season, Walsh said.

“As farmers, we rely on Mother Nature to give us the heat and the moisture that we need, and sometimes it doesn’t give us what we want, so if we are fortunate enough to have an aquifer underneath of us, we can pump water and save that crop and give it the moisture that it needs to grow and prosper,” Walsh said.

All of Walsh’s pivots have applied about two and a half inches of “rain” so far this year and he will start another irrigation pass within the next 48 hours. Normally, at this time of year, he would have applied zero water to the field.

He is already seeing differences between the dry land and irrigated corn. The sandy ground corners are already burning up quite profusely and the clay soils are starting to crack opened and is starting to drought stress.

Irrigation is never as good as rain is, Walsh said. But underneath the irrigation circles, you can provide the water that is necessary, but it comes at a cost because it is not free to irrigate. Every irrigated field still have six acres per corner that are not irrigated.

The high of Walsh’s corn is only slightly below normal.

“‘Knee-high by the Fourth of July’ is a pretty old term for our area,” Walsh said. “But ordinarily in this area of southeast South Dakota, we are tasseling in that first to second week of July. So, in two weeks or so we should be able to start seeing our first tassels, but we are a little bit behind normal so I don’t think that is probably going to happen.”

But, heat might force the corn along and you might be able to see tassels in different areas, Walsh said.

The soil is getting contracted, very dry and very hard, he said. Another problem that has arisen because of the dry winter and dry last year, is carry over issues from herbicides that were applied to corn fields last year, which are now hurting the soybean fields this year and vice versa.

“Those herbicides require microbes to break them down in the soil, which is called their half-life of the chemical and without moisture, those microbes actually can’t work to metabolize those chemistries,” Walsh said.

Weed control this year has been interesting, he said, because it has been so dry a lot of the pre-plant herbicides didn’t work very well because they need moisture to activate. But, in addition to that, the dry weather has also not allowed a lot of weeds to germinate so they haven’t seen a tremendous amount of weed pressure.

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