By Larry W. Dallas
Harvest is progressing rapidly in Douglas County. Little to no rain has allowed us to be in the field nearly every day. The warm weather ripened replant beans we didn’t expect to cut until much later. Earlier it was common to see where farmers had patched through a field to leave green beans or wet corn. We are going through those places now. Our second replant corn is still wet and likely to stay that way this late in the year.
The corn has dried better than I ever expected. With the slow cold start to the growing season, we had planned on picking a lot of wet corn. Instead, the corn we picked this week has been close to the 15 percent moisture needed for safe storage. That means less money is spent on drying. The quality should be better as well when a farmer just cools the corn instead of heating it to drive the extra moisture out.
I have talked to farmers in Northern Illinois that envy us our dry corn. They seldom get to pick 15 percent corn and usually have dryer setups to handle the wet corn. We will be able to fill the bins we have left and run air to cool the grain. There are some years that we deal with wet corn here and it is no fun. Waiting on a layer of wet corn to dry in a bin or searching in one field after another for a dry variety is time-consuming. Propane and electricity for the dryer are expensive.
The dry and windy weather has left us very susceptible to field fires and there have been some bad ones in the area. The trash swirling around a hot combine engine can ignite or hot metal from a failing bearing that can drop into the crop debris and start a fire. Thirty mile an hour wind gusts can turn that fire into a blowtorch. Many years ago, I was among a dozen guys trying to put out a fire in a wheat field. Even with a fire truck spraying water, we could not get the fire stopped until a local neighbor got hooked onto a disk to work in front of the burning wheat. We could get it tamped down when the wind eased up but was driven back as the wind flared up.
Along with harvest, tillage to prepare for next year is starting. There is an incredible array of fall tillage tools designed to make the plant residue manageable. Some barely leave a trace on top of the ground while working deeply. Others bury the bulk of the crop residue and leave a surface almost ready to plant. Sixty years ago, it was common to bury all the corn residue with a moldboard plow. The secondary tillage implements and planters of the day could not handle the amount of trash a corn crop left. That was probably from a corn yield of 120 bushels. We hope for yields twice that today and the residue are double too.
We are planting a cover crop into 160 acres of our corn stalks. Instead of bare dirt, we will have growing plants assuming it rains enough to germinate it. Cover crops are touted to improve soil tilth or workability and to hold nutrients that might otherwise be lost, either into groundwater or off the soil surface. In this climate, it is a problem getting a good cover established. By the time the corn comes off, it is late in the season. Getting something to germinate and make some useful growth is not easy. There is a great deal of research being done to determine what might work best and what benefits to hope for.
We have planted some sort of cover crop for about five years now. Some years we have had very good success. Illinois Farm Bureau used a picture of one of our fields in their publications for quite a while. A late fall gave us good growth in the oats we used at that time. Two years ago, frost killed the oats we used that year in early October. Last year we flew winter wheat into standing corn, but it was too dry for it to germinate and have a decent stand. This year we are going to put wheat on with dry fertilizer and work it in lightly. It is a work in progress for us.
Some areas have been using cover crops longer and more extensively than we do in Central Illinois. Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are required to have something growing in their fields at all times. Some farmers are planting mixes of several species. We are just scratching the surface with our one species attempt but it is what we feel comfortable with.
We are also involved in a pilot program to try to measure the carbon that our farming practices sequester. A baseline will be established this fall and measurements taken as we move on with the crop year. We believe our farming practices are sustainable and take any opportunity to show that. For several years there has been talk of compensating farmers for sequestering carbon but it has never turned into more than talk. We would hope that companies wanting to tout their environmental awareness will work with farmers and not against modern agriculture.
Douglas County agriculture lost a good friend late in September. Larry Coombes of Villa Grove had been involved in the retail fertilizer and herbicide business in this area for all his adult life. Many farmers had worked with him, some worked for him and many considered him an integral part of their business. He had retired and moved to the Rockford area to be near family but he still called farmers in the area regularly to catch up on what was going on.
We are still going to be out finishing harvest and preparing for next year for several weeks. On top of that, the time changes and it will be dark sooner in the day. Please watch out for farm machinery and trucks for a little longer. Thank you for reading about agriculture again this month.