Thursday, July 28, 2011

Many parts of Ohio are dry and the corn crop is showing it. You can tell corn is experiencing moisture stress when its leaves are rolled up.

"Leaf rolling is indeed a response of the corn plant to insufficient plant moisture," said Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension corn specialist. "As plant moisture content declines, the corn plant often protects itself from excessive plant moisture loss by rolling its leaves. The rolled leaf offers less exposed surface area, so moisture loss is reduced. The act of leaf rolling is a sort of defensive posture by the corn plant."

The drier and more stressed the corn is, the earlier in the day it rolls up. And, going into the heat wave of late July, some farmers could watch their corn rolling over breakfast due to extended dry conditions following one of the wettest spring planting seasons in history.

“The corn is rolled tight. It looks like the leaves are reaching up and praying for rain,” said Roger Zeedyk, who farms in Defiance County in northwest Ohio. “Things were really moving along for a while, but now the corn is starting to slip.”

Zeedyk got most of his corn crop planted from June 2 to June 8, which is around a month later than normal, following the wet spring. The excess ample moisture in the ground got the corn crop off to fast start, but the late calendar date increased the need for ideal temperatures and steady moisture through the remainder of the growing season. Unfortunately, though farmers have put forth their best efforts, the weather has not been very cooperative.

Once the corn was in the ground on Zeedyk’s farm, it got three-tenths of an inch of rain on June 10 and another three tenths on June 16. By July 19, the corn had only gotten an additional four-tenths of an inch of rain. The clay ground was cracked and the leaves on the corn were curled tight going into the week in late July when blistering heat baked the dry corn that was well behind in terms of development. The heat increased evaporation of moisture and added to the stress on the crop.

“That last four tenths we got really perked things up for a few days, but we’ve got to be losing some yield now,” he said.

Despite the challenges, the June planted corn was still green and uniform in height, but even the healthiest corn on the farm was clearly stressed based on the tightly rolled leaves for much of the day on July 19. And Zeedyk is not alone. Mary farmers in the state, and the country, got a late start and now have crops suffering from severe moisture and heat stress as the corn crop approaches pollination, the most crucial time for determining the eventual yields of the crop.

“The pollination period, the flowering stage in corn, is the most critical period in the development of a corn plant from the standpoint of grain yield determination,” said Peter Thomison, Ohio State University Extension corn specialist. “Stress conditions such as drought have the greatest impact on yield potential during the reproductive stage.”

This stage is preceded by the emergence of the tassels at the top of the corn plants that will shed the pollen required to fill out the ear of corn. With the corn in tassel in many fields around Ohio and the U.S., the crop is beginning to pollinate, which requires moisture to be successful.

According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, the area being impacted by this dry weather is expanding. Parts of eastern Iowa, northern parts of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and a large part of Pennsylvania are now considered "abnormally dry," which is a precursor to a full-blown drought. Rainfall totals have been well less than 50% of normal in many areas of the U.S., including parts of Ohio.

So, as hot dry conditions continue in many parts of Ohio, you may start to see more corn leaves rolling up. And, with a tight global supply and increasing demand for corn and other crops, it would be in the best interests of all of us to say a prayer for rain as well, because too much corn is on a roll, and that is not a good thing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I am guessing that it is quite a sight for anyone driving by to see me with a camera, my two children fidgeting around in front of me and my wife making funny faces at them behind me in an attempt to get them to smile at the edge of a rural wheat field. But, it seems to be an annual tradition now for the Reese family.

My wife loves the look of mature wheat and generally wants to get photos of our children in the aesthetically pleasing amber waves of grain. So, a couple of weeks ago, just before harvest, my family was perched next to a country road at the fringe of my uncle’s wheat field in northwest Ohio. Though my 22-month-old-son was less than cooperative in the wheat field photo shoot, my daughter did very well and I got some pretty nice pictures.

Along with serving as a great background for photos, soft red winter wheat is a valuable crop in Ohio, a state known for the production of high quality wheat for flour. Wheat also provides valuable cover for the fields in the winter months after being planted in the fall and the stalks of the plants provide straw for livestock bedding and other uses. And, including wheat in a crop rotation with corn and soybeans can boost yields, reduce disease and insect problems and provide a late-summer window for field work after harvest. In addition, many farmers can plant a soybean crop immediately following the late June harvest of wheat, particularly in southern Ohio.

While wheat does have many benefits, farmers are currently facing some of the unfortunate challenges associated with the crop. As always, Ohio’s wheat crop was a harbinger of spring as it greened up in great shape, but the soggy weather in April and May took its toll.

“I love raising wheat, but it is exposed to the weather for eight months and there is a lot of potential for it to be a flop,” said Dan Wagner, who farms in Hardin and Hancock Counties. “Wheat looked great coming into May, but then we started seeing the tile lines and I knew it was too wet. The water killed it in the low areas and in other places there was a head, but there was nothing in it.”

Along with reducing yields, the wet conditions also favored the development of fungal diseases (including head scab) that reduced the quality in some fields, though not as much as was initially expected by some. Last year there was quite a bit of poor quality wheat in Ohio and there were serious concerns about quality going into harvest this year.

“A lot of guys were very pessimistic this year looking out in the fields afraid that they were not going to have the yield or the quality they were hoping for. It seems like a lot of the quality we’re getting in is considerably better than last year,” said Jeff Reese, grain originator for Blanchard Valley Farmers Cooperative. “We don’t see nearly the shrunken kernels we had last year or the head scab. With head scab, last year we saw 5, 6 or 7 % damage and this year it seems to be less than 2% or 3%.”

Statewide, early surveys were showing that wheat quality was better than last year as well. Ohio State Extension specialist and plant pathologist Pierce Paul estimated average scab incidence was anywhere from 8% to 10% across the state, with less affected fields as low as 1% of heads impacted, and more severe cases ranging as high as 45 of 100 heads showing symptoms of scab. He said it is difficult to generalize for the state as a whole due to the wide range from least to most affected.

"The rains created moist, humid conditions," Paul said. "Any time we have moist, humid conditions, we'll have diseases."

Unfortunately, the lackluster 2011 wheat crop is only among the first economic losses resulting from the unbelievably wet spring we had this year. In general, yields and quality were down, but the wheat crop, while not great, was by no means a disaster either. For my purposes, in fact, it was picture perfect.