Late rains unable to save corn crop

Weather: Maryland farmers assess the damage from a summer that began with a drought and ended with a hurricane.

October 15, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The drought of 1999 is officially over, but the damage continues for Maryland farmers in the middle of harvesting a meager field corn crop for which the rains of August and September came too late.

In some cases, the rain has brought more headaches, such as flattened crops and fields too wet to withstand heavy harvesting equipment.

"In plain words, it's a real mess," said Joe Mullhausen, a northern Harford County farmer near Whiteford.

Mullhausen found parts of his cornfields flattened by Hurricane Floyd. The stalks were compromised by the driest summer in 70 years and less able to withstand wind, he said.

In Maryland, farmers plant more field corn than any other crop -- 470,000 acres this year, according to the Maryland Agricultural Statistics, a recording arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A good deal is sold as feed for chickens, Maryland's largest agricultural industry.

Across the state, the average yield at the halfway point in the corn harvest is 85 bushels an acre, compared to a more typical 109 bushels last year, said deputy state statistician David Knopf.

The average is likely to go way down once Central Maryland farmers' harvest figures are factored in because the drought hit them worse,said Lawrence Meeks, a grain farmer in northern Carroll County and state director of the National Corn Growers Association.

At 85 bushels an acre, it would be the worst yield since the dry year of 1993, when Maryland farmers harvested 78 bushels per acre according to USDA statistics.

The difference between 109 bushels an acre and 85 bushels can mean the difference between a loss and a small profit. With corn selling for $2.30 a bushel, 85 bushels would fetch $195.50. It costs a farmer from $175 to $200 to plant and harvest that acre of corn, Meeks said.

"We're going to be hurting," he said.

Drought affects corn plants in a number of ways. The critical period for rain is before August, when the plants are developing and being pollinated, said Robert Kratochvil, who heads the Central and Western Maryland Research and Education Centers for the University of Maryland.

Without moisture, corn silk isn't sticky enough to catch the pollen that falls off the tassel on top of the plant, Kratochvil said. Sometimes, drought causes the pollen to form and fall off before the silk appears. In those cases, the stalks don't form ears. .

Pollination is essential for a corn plant to develop kernels. A grain of pollen has to attach to a strand of silk. A tube grows through the middle of the silk, leading to the ovary on the ear. Each ovary that is pollinated forms a single kernel.

Pollination happens within a week to 10 days. Rain after that critical period has little effect, Kratochvil said.

For grain farmers such as Meeks, crop conditions varied, depending on when a field was planted. The fields Meeks planted early in the season did best; those planted later had ears with as little as 25 percent of the kernels forming.

Mullhausen's yield is a little worse than the state average. He estimates he is getting 22 to 75 bushels an acre. He hasn't calculated an average yet.

"I'm concentrating on getting the darn stuff [harvested]," he said.

Nelson Barnes, a descendant of one of the first families to farm Carroll County, got a yield monitor as a Christmas present from his wife last year. It lets him see exactly how much he is harvesting.

The small metal-framed computer sits in the top right corner of the cab of his combine. Its sensors give him a continuous read, or average, calculated with the touch of a few buttons.

The readout has been mostly bad news, but not as bad as Barnes had feared. He was braced for the worst, he said.

"It's better than I expected," he said, as he drove through one of his better fields in Smallwood, just south of Westminster. Still, the ears are smaller than they should be, he said.

His yield monitor fluctuated from an occasional 149 bushels an acre to a little as 10 bushels an acre in a weed-choked portion of the field. He said he thinks the 149 figure is artificially high, probably from miscalibration.

His average, according to the machine, is 65.7 bushels an acre. But Barnes said he expects the average to dip when he harvests fields farther south along Route 97 and Route 32. In Carroll, rain was so localized that farms in Hampstead, Manchester and New Windsor got more than the southern half of the county.

Knopf said that kind of spotty rainfall was typical throughout the state. The worst areas have been the northern counties and the southern Eastern Shore.

"I sat at my house and watched it rain east of me, across Broad Creek, but not on my place," Mullhausen said. "It's so funny. That's what puzzles us a lot."

And when the rain and wind came, it was too late to help corn plants develop properly. Most farmers' crops, Barnes said, had already entered the dry-down stage. That's when plants stop absorbing moisture from the soil and begin to dry to the optimum point for harvest.

For Mullhausen, the hurricane just made a bad situation worse. With the stalks on the ground, it is difficult for his combine to pick the ears.

"It's a rather trying experience out there," said Mullhausen, who has been in his combine from sunrise to sundown this week.

As rain continues this fall, it complicates the corn harvest and the planting of small grains such as barley and wheat, which are planted in the fall and grow to maturity by June and July.

Melvin Baile Jr. got more rain on his New Windsor farm than most in Carroll, but he said the wet soil now presents a danger: Heavy equipment for harvesting or planting can compact the soil so that whatever is planted there has trouble shooting down roots.

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