Minn. corn harvest dodges worst of droughtby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
RENVILLE COUNTY, Minn. — Minnesota's crop season started and ended in drought this year, but in between things weren't too bad for most farmers.
Even though the drought hurt production, the damage to Minnesota's $7 billion corn crop wasn't as serious as in other areas. With summer now over, Minnesota farmers are expected to harvest the best corn crop of any of the major grain-producing states.
Last April, more than 99 percent of nearly the entire state was either abnormally dry or in drought. Midsummer rain brought relief to about two-thirds of the state, but the drought returned. Now three-quarters of the state is in drought and the rest is abnormally dry.
But some farmers say the late-summer dry spell brought a benefit by allowing them to begin picking crops early.
"The harvest is moving along at a record pace," said Brian Greenslit, a corn and soybean farmer in southern Minnesota.
Greenslit and his neighbor work together on the harvest, sharing equipment and workers. Last week, the crew worked one of the neighbor's soybean fields.
"Here's the trucks lined up," Greenslit said. "These are all waiting to get loaded to go to town."
By this time of year, Greenslit typically hasn't harvested half of his crops. But he may finish the fall harvest in the next week or so.
Overall, Greenslit said, his corn crop is in decent condition considering what his fields went through. Heavy rain in May and June delivered just enough moisture to keep the crop going through the parched late summer.
He expects his corn crop to come in at about 150 bushels an acre — well below average for this part of the state.
But the skies delivered some damage as well.
"Well, that particular field we just went by, it had a real devastating hail storm in June," Greenslit said. "So it only did about 150. You know you had 200-bushel corn out there. And to be bringing 150 back to the farm is a little disappointing."
Greenslit's crop insurance should cover most of the hail damage, and he expects to make a profit this year.
For the second straight year, drought shrank the Minnesota corn harvest. The current federal estimate of 156 bushels an acre would be about 10 percent below normal. Those lost bushels are worth about $900 million.
But state farmers are still doing much better than the rest of the nation. Minnesota's 156 bushels is 27 percent better than the national average. With corn prices high, most state farmers should make a healthy profit. But the drought could still deal out some punishment even though the growing season is over.
"The one that we're particularly concerned about here is a fungus called aspergillus," University of Minnesota plant pathologist Dean Malvick said.
Malvick said aspergillus can produce aflatoxin, a substance potentially fatal to livestock and a possible cause of cancer in humans. When soil moisture is low, the corn plant has a harder time keeping the fungus at bay, he said.
"When it's under stress it's more susceptible to the kind of infection and the type of toxin production that we're talking about," he said.
So far, Malvick hasn't heard of any confirmed aflatoxin cases in state corn fields. But he said concerned farmers should test their grain because it can't be sold if it contains too much aflatoxin.
For most farmers though, the harvest should be a relatively enjoyable time. Despite the ongoing drought, many are seeing better yields than expected.
Today's corn plant withstands dry weather better than past varieties, retired corn seed scientist Forrest Troyer said. Unlike during past droughts, relatively few corn stalks this year failed to develop an ear, he said.
"A small ear yields more than no ear at all," Troyer said. "It was definitely contributing to better yields than they would have gotten otherwise."
During a walk through some drought damaged Illinois corn fields, Troyer noticed that only about 5 percent of the corn stalks he saw were barren. In past droughts as many as 30 percent of the plants failed to produce an ear, he said.
Troyer said new varieties grow better root systems that are able to soak up even minute amounts of soil moisture. The advancement may be valuable again next summer, should the drought extend into a third straight growing season.
- All Things Considered, 10/03/2012, 5:51 p.m.