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posted: 7/14/2012 8:00 AM

What the drought has done to corn

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  • Cracked, dry ground is seen where a pond normally stands Wednesday on the property of Ray Mercer in Crossville in southern Illinois. Mercer said he had lived on the property more than 50 years and this was the second time the pond had dried up.

      Cracked, dry ground is seen where a pond normally stands Wednesday on the property of Ray Mercer in Crossville in southern Illinois. Mercer said he had lived on the property more than 50 years and this was the second time the pond had dried up.
    Bloomberg News Service

  • A severely underdeveloped ear of corn hangs on a corn plant damaged by extreme heat in downstate Carmi.

      A severely underdeveloped ear of corn hangs on a corn plant damaged by extreme heat in downstate Carmi.
    Bloomberg News Service

  • An underdeveloped ear of corn lies among corn plants damaged by extreme heat and drought conditions in a field Wednesday in Carmi.

      An underdeveloped ear of corn lies among corn plants damaged by extreme heat and drought conditions in a field Wednesday in Carmi.
    Bloomberg News Service

  • Central Illinois farmer Jimmy Ayers walks through his stunted field of corn Friday in Rochester, southeast of Springfield.

      Central Illinois farmer Jimmy Ayers walks through his stunted field of corn Friday in Rochester, southeast of Springfield.
    Associated Press

  • Rochester, Ill., farmer Jimmy Ayers walks through his stunted field of corn. The crop still had not pollinated as of Friday.

      Rochester, Ill., farmer Jimmy Ayers walks through his stunted field of corn. The crop still had not pollinated as of Friday.
    Associated Press

  • Video: How corn is formed

 
 

The corn crop in northern Illinois is hurting during this drought, the worst seen in the area since 1988. And the heat waves aren't helping.

Robert Flider, the acting director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, wrote to the federal department earlier this week that areas where seed corn is produced are experiencing damage, which could drive the cost of seed up for next year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week named 1,016 counties in 26 states, including Illinois, natural-disaster areas, the agency's biggest such declaration ever.

Things could be worse. Farther south, where it was hotter than here last week, the combination has killed farmers' hopes for a crop; they're cutting down the stalks and baling them as silage for cattle. In the 105 degrees-plus temperatures, the corn refused to form kernels in the short window of time when that is possible.

State Climatologist Jim Angel says it won't be easy for Illinois to snap out of the drought anytime soon.

"You'd need something like 6 inches to turn things around," Angel said. "A rain is just kind of a temporary fix right now. We need several rains in a row, and several good-sized rains, to really turn this around."

Farmers in northern Illinois should still get something; not the record-breaking yields they anticipated this spring, but something.

"For our area here, I don't look for anybody to be chopping down," said Robert Gehrke, who lives just west of Elgin and farms throughout Kane County.

That's due to location, temperature, soil type and improved genetics. Gehrke said much depends on the type of soil and its ability to hold water. He said a friend who farms on sandier soil is losing corn, but on black soil "it's amazing how it is still going."

Gehrke said he has seen up to six types of soil in a 20-acre field. And even if the soil were uniform throughout the field, some patches might do better than others based on topography, such as if they are in a swale.

Lack of water and hot weather stress corn plants. Leaves roll up in midday in a move called "pineappling," as the plant tries to conserve moisture by reducing its exposure to the sun. Stalks might also be stunted.

Corn self-pollinates. It has male and female parts. Normally, the tassels (the male part) and the ears (the female) form nearly simultaneously. The tassels release pollen, which falls on to the silks of the ears. The pollen travels down the silks to the eggs which, if fertilized, become kernels.

A stressed corn plant, concentrating on just surviving and not on reproduction, may just make tassels, like what's happened in some southern Illinois fields.

Last week's 100-degree temperatures were hard on pollen, Gehrke said, in that it dried out quickly. A factor in farmers' favor is the modified genetics of seed corn. Plants 20 years ago wouldn't have made it this long, Gehrke said.

Varieties farmed a decade ago averaged 129 bushels per acre. The USDA predicted 166 bushels per acre this spring. It recently revised that to 146.

The USDA still thinks the U.S. will have its third-largest corn harvest ever.

Jeff Schussler, a senior research manager for DuPont Pioneer seed company, said the company's studies show corn hybrids today can produce 50 percent more bushels of corn per inch of water than those of 50 years ago. Working with genes that affect root and leaf development and plant reproduction, scientists also have created much more stable corn plants that can withstand a wider variety of climate conditions, he said.

"All these hybrids that have been produced in the last few years are built for drought tolerance, so we have a little more hope that they will be able to withstand some of this heat, more so than they would have say 10 years ago," said Garry Niemeyer, who grows corn and soybeans in Auburn, near Springfield. The hybrids have a larger root mass, which allows them to reach deeper for water and hold more in reserve.

No variety exists that can produce significant yields without rain for six weeks and sustained temperatures above 100 degrees, said Tony Vyn, an agronomy professor at Purdue University.

"You get to the point where the water shortage is so severe that technology is not going to guarantee yield, even when you might have that expectation," he said. "My experience thus far is that drought-tolerant hybrids are no silver bullet."

Gehrke doesn't irrigate his cornfields; this area usually doesn't need it, he said.

Gehrke said Thursday he hadn't examined his fields recently because he's been busy with other matters. He also doesn't see much point, as his investment is already in (seed, fertilizer.)

"Can't do anything about it anyway," he said. "It's not like we are not going to combine."

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.

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