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Will County corn crop all but lost

John Kiefner points out corn cobs thfailed mature due drought farm Manhattan Illinois Wednesday August 8 2012. | Joseph P.

John Kiefner points out the corn cobs that failed to mature due to the drought on a farm in Manhattan, Illinois, Wednesday, August 8, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 13, 2012 6:09AM

The Will County corn crop is kaput.

Cobs are shrunken, kernels are scarce, and yields will be well below average.

“For this time of year, we’re still supposed to be grass green, but it looks likes it’s ready for harvest,” Will County Farm Bureau Manager Mark Schneidwind said. “It’s shot.”

Corn plants in rocky, sandy areas of the county are brown and ailing. Greener stalks growing in rich, low-lying soil are deceiving. The healthier-looking plants feature cobs with only 60 to 300 kernels, far below the normal of 600 to 800 kernels.

Farmer John Kiefner walked into a field near Manhattan last week and discovered green cobs that never matured and never developed golden yellow kernels.

“It surrendered to the heat and drought,” he said. “It is a nubbin. It’s useless.”

He held up another cob with many rows of missing kernels.

“That will barely pay the fuel bill to harvest it,” he said. “(Combines) are designed to harvest big girthy ears. So a lot of these small ones will fall or get shredded and not make it.”

Last year, Will County farmers harvested an average of nearly 175 bushels per acre. This year as the summer turned dry, farmers were hoping for 130 to 140 bushels per acre. Now, the harvest estimate is 60 to 80 bushels, Schneidewind said.

“We were optimistic,” he said. “That’s the thing about farmers. They’re always optimistic to the end. But now we’re starting to see the devastation in the field.”

It will be the worst harvest since the drought of 1988, Schneidewind predicted.

The plants never had a chance after extreme temperatures hit around the Fourth of July, around pollination time, Kiefner said.

The hot weather interfered with the creation of corn silks. Every kernel on a corn cob is attached to a silk and that’s how the pollen migrates to the plant, Kiefner explained. Japanese beetles also ate the silks. No silks, no kernels.

Even recent rains haven’t helped.

“It’s feeding (the plant), it’s not reviving it,” Kiefner said. “It’s prolonging the agony of the crop.”

Will County has not been declared a federal disaster area as have other counties in Illinois, including Grundy and Kankakee, but it probably will be added later this season, Schneidewind said. That would allow farmers to get low-interest loans.

With lower corn crop yields come higher prices. Corn normally sells for $5 to $5.25 a bushel. This year it’s about $8.

Kiefner said he has presold 30,000 bushels of corn at prices ranging from $5.30 to $7.50 a bushel.

“Now I’m fearful I might not even produce 20,000 bushels,” he said, adding that if that happens, he will have to make up the difference.

“But I don’t want anybody crying for me,” he said. “I did buy crop insurance. Thankfully, I bought the 85 percent coverage this year.”

He will start getting reimbursed for losses after his crop drops below 85 percent of his 10-year harvest average.

“It’s kind of like a deductible on a car insurance policy,” he said.

Most farmers in Will County have crop insurance, Schneidewind said, which will help them cope with losses this year and get them through to next year.

“Crop insurance isn’t designed to make money, it’s designed to keep them solvent,” he said.

Many younger farmers have never had to apply for crop insurance, so the farm bureau will have an expert on hand at this year’s Field Day on Aug. 29.

The hot and dry summer also has affected hay yields. Kiefner said a good hay yield is 300 bales per acre. He had hoped for 200 bales per acre but is only getting around 120. Hay prices are rising from a normal of $3 to $5 per bale to $8 to $10 per bale.

Farmers with livestock are selling their herds earlier than normal because there is no pasture grass for the animals to eat and hay is too expensive, Schneidewind said.

Kiefner said low corn yields and rising prices will affect the economy in many ways — food prices will rise, overtime pay at grain elevators will shrink, and farmers will have less money for equipment.

Rain this week could help save the soybean crop, which is “going to be hurting, but we still have hope,” Schneidewind said.

He expects the harvest to start two to three weeks early on Labor Day weekend.

“It will be depressing at harvest time,” Kiefner said. “It’s a lot more fun to have good corn than bad corn.”

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