Farmers plan

Kane Loukas

Like most other farmers south of the Twin Cities, Dan Ireland, who owns 800 acres in Mankato, Minn., is getting pinched by the depressed demand for his most important crop: corn.
But in at least one respect, Ireland is fortunate.
Unlike many of his neighbors in Mankato and in nearby New Richmond, Minn., Ireland’s crops escaped damage from recent summer storms. Some farms have suffered crop losses of more than 80 percent in some sections of their plots and up to a 20 percent loss farm-wide.
To aid farmers in forecasting how much the storms have reduced their fall harvests, two University agronomists reissued this summer a report they compiled on greensnap, the breakage of corn stalks from high winds. The report, first released in 1995, was reissued to assist farmers with corn problems resulting from this summer’s storms.
Farmers with varying degrees of storm damage are using the report to estimate the corn yield they can expect this fall and, in turn, the income they can expect from its sale.
“For those people where the storms occurred, there is a major, major impact,” said Dale Hicks, one of the agronomists who worked on the study at the University’s Waseca research station.
Greensnap is common when high winds hit corn during its rapid growth stage in early summer, when the stalk is most brittle, Hicks said.
The study by Hicks and Greg Johnson, another University agronomist, instructs farmers with greensnap problems to measure off small plots of land for use as sample areas. They should then inspect each plant in each plot and determine the percentage of broken stalks versus undamaged stalks.
In all, the farmer must account for two variables to evaluate how the yield will turn out: when the breakage took place — before or after the tassel developed — and the location of the break point — above or below the uppermost ear.
The most favorable greensnap scenario is to have a stalk snap above the top ear after the tassel has developed. This way, all the ears are fertilized and none are broken off.
The tricky thing in evaluating the yield, Hicks said, is that a 50 percent or 25 percent greensnap breakage rate doesn’t reduce the yield by exactly that amount.
Accuracy can be further diminished by ferocious storms, like those in late June and mid-July that pummeled crops with 80 to 100 mph winds.
“What was unusual about corn breaking this year was that is was breaking so low,” said Ireland. When looking out at his fields, he said, he saw corn bending so much that the tassels were hitting the ground.
In such cases where areas of corn are entirely destroyed, the Hicks and Johnson study is of little use, said Mark Bernard, a crop consultant working in the New Richmond area. The study, he said, is best applied to moderately damaged crops.
For a farmer, the study helps in planning what kind of yield volume they’re going to have, Bernard said.
With the price of a 56-pound unit, or a bushel, of corn hovering at the dismally low price of about $1.60, accurately forecasting a yield lets farmers plan for how much they’ll need to borrow from banks if they don’t break even for the year.
This year, the fear of ending up with a negative bank balance in the fall is driving hundreds of farmers to functions like Waseca’s Crop and Soil Field Day in June. The annual Field Day and other such meetings serve as forums where farmers can share ideas and peruse the Hicks and Johnson greensnap study and others like it.
“You’ve gotta plan ahead to know how you’re going to pay your bills,” Ireland, a father of seven, said of the greensnap study. “You need to be a businessman to make it anymore out here.”