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Harvesting impact  of season’s drought

Nate Follman works combine harvesting field corn Follman Farms Thursday along Route 20 Elgin. 
October 25 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times

Nate Follman works the combine harvesting field corn at Follman Farms Thursday along Route 20 in Elgin. October 25, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Kane County Farm Bureau President Joe White says the financial implications of the drought of 2012 are hitting farmers now, but will hurt anyone who eats meat over the next couple years. For farmers, prices driven up by the drought’s shortages may cancel or at least cushion the effects of the lower yield.

Corn futures prices peaked at about $8 per bushel in mid-summer, when some alarmists were saying 90 percent of the Midwest corn cop could be wiped out. Prices now have slipped back to $7.20 or so per bushel. But a typical farmer now sells 50 to 70 percent of his crop before he even harvests it, White said, so many may already have locked in that $8.

For consumers, the impact also may sting, especially since many other parts of the country were hit harder than the Fox Valley. Humans directly eat small amounts of sweet corn grown locally (much of which is irrigated, by the way). But most of our corn and soybeans become food for milk cows, beef cattle, hogs and chickens. And it is at the meat counter that the consumer ultimately will pay the price for Drought 2012, White says.

If animal-feed prices are high because of this drought, livestock producers can’t make a profit. So they will cut down on their number of animals. That decreases the meat supply until prices rise enough to make it worth the feeders’ while to add more animals again.

“You won’t see as much impact on the price of poultry, because you can raise a chicken to market size in 60 to 90 days,” White said. “But a hog takes 10 months and beef cattle take two years. So you’ll probably see higher beef prices for a couple of years.”

— Dave Gathman

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Updated: December 20, 2012 6:02AM

Bill Wykes likens dealing with this year’s drought to being a Chicago Cubs baseball fan.

“There’s always next year,” he says, invoking the cry of a team that has had a pretty long drought itself. “Yeah, it’s like being a Cub fan. That’s what keeps every year interesting.”

Farmers probably could have used a little less “interesting” this past summer, during one of the worst droughts in recent memory.

But when it got down to it, when harvest time came, they were breathing a sigh of relief. True, they’re not getting the bounty of corn and soybeans they usually can expect. But thanks to the Fox Valley’s good soils and to rains that began in August, farmers got a better harvest than they had expected in mid-summer, when northern Illinois was suffering through week after week with virtually no rain, along with most of the nation’s Bread Basket and Corn Belt.

“Corn was about half the crop,” said Wykes, a long-time Kendall County farmer and chairman of the Illinois Soybean Association. “Soybeans did surprisingly well.”

Al Conro, who farms between Pingree Grove and Hampshire in northern Kane County, recently watched each pass of his combine pump only half as many hard yellow kernels into the hopper behind him.

“It looks like we’ll be getting 100 bushels of corn per acre. We usually average 180 to 190,” he said with resignation.

And asked how the grass was for his 50 cows in their pastures over the summer, he answered, “What pasture?”

“We’re down probably 20 to 25 percent in corn yield, and 10 percent for soybeans,” said Kane County Farm Bureau President Joe White, who farms land near Batavia and Elburn.

“Our yield ranged from zero to 40 to 180 in the same field,” said Bruce Krog, who rents and farms numerous plots in Plato Township.

Dan Reedy, Kendall County Farm Bureau president, reported similar results. He pointed out that depending on where the soil was, farmers got a corn yield as low as 20 bushels an acre, and as high as 115 to 120 bushels an acre, in the same field.

“It’s not as good as what you’d like,” he said. “But it’s better than it could have been.”

Dying in July

Nationwide, the dry spell was the worst since the 1950s. It covered 80 percent of U.S. farmland. Corn production nationwide was expected to drop more than 13 percent compared to last year, and soybean production to fall 8 percent.

And you don’t have to drive very far to find farmers suffering worse than those in Kane County. The corn in some fields along Route 20 near Marengo, in McHenry County northwest of Elgin, was already dying and turning brown in mid-July — two months ahead of time and before any real ears could have formed.

White said that’s because, while the soil in Kane County is mostly dark and thick and holds onto moisture below the surface, the Marengo-area soil is sandy. Water there quickly drains away.

“You get down around Morris and they’re only getting 30 bushels of corn an acre,” White said. He said the last five years on his own land have averaged 185.

On the northern Kane County dairy farm operated by Conro with his father and son, cows usually spend summers grazing on grass and silage (chopped-up green corn plants), supplemented by grain. But this year, Conro said, “they quickly ate what grew in the pastures in the spring, and no more came up. So we had to rely heavily on baled hay and on hay that we cut in May.”

“I heard about a dairy farmer in southern Illinois who had to use all 800 of his corn acres to make silage, and he still had to buy hay from neighbors” to feed his cows, Conro said.

High and dry

Few Kane County farmers irrigate their crops, because that equipment is expensive and is usually not needed, White said. But one exception this year was Dunteman’s Turf Farm near Kaneville.

Dunteman’s main business is growing grass sod, which has to be watered. So the farm has an irrigation system. But the owners rotate the sod with more conventional row crops. So when their corn started drying up, they had equipment in place to spray water on it, and Dunteman’s corn did just fine, White said.

The weather turned agriculture’s conventional wisdom on its head. For example, Krog said he works some low-lying areas on his northern Kane farm that in recent autumns have produced no grain because so much water accumulated there that the plants drowned. But this year those low areas were his top producers. The usually great “high and dry” sections were so dry, the plants there all died.

Similarly, Conro said that “usually the corn you planted earlier has the best yield. But this year the earliest-planted fields were going through pollination when the drought was worst, so it was the corn we didn’t plant until mid- or late May that did best.”

Winter worry

Wykes said most farmers — roughly 80 percent in Illinois — have some kind of crop insurance, at different levels, that helps cover the loss. Wykes himself is in the 20 percent that does not carry insurance.

“That’s just a business decision I’ve made,” he said.

He also pointed out that some were able to compensate the loss of yield with the higher prices corn commanded. It’s good old supply and demand that drove corn at one point from its usual $4.60 to $5 a bushel to as high as $7. Still, some farmers choose to sign contracts with customers before the growing season, likely at the lower price — again, a business decision.

Wykes figured the hardest hit by the drought were cattle or dairy farmers who grow corn for feed, or have to purchase it. They were stuck purchasing feed, when they could, at the higher price.

“There’s no way of laying that off some of that risk,” he said.

The next crop to worry about is winter wheat, which is grown by some farmers in northern Illinois, but not on as big a scale as corn and soybeans. This hearty grain is planted at this time of year, survives the winter as a sprout, then grows to maturity in the spring and early summer.

Farther west, still-thirsty states are concerned about their winter wheat. In South Dakota, only 13 percent of the wheat crop has sprouted. In an average year by this date, 80 percent has sprouted.

But in Kane County, with the rains of the past few weeks, wheat is primed for a good year, said Daniel Follman, who farms along Plank Road west of Elgin.

“I’m pretty surprised that the corn and bean crops ended up as good as they were,” Follman said. “But in this business, Mother Nature can handle you in short order, and you’re always looking at the future.

“That’s why it’s good to see the rain we’ve been getting now. It’s been a good, soaking, garden-hose kind of rain.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better to fill up the tank for next spring.”

The Associated Press
contributed to this story.

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