Tested by adversity
If Job of Old Testament fame lived in 2011, chances are he might be a southeastern North Dakota corn farmer.
In the Bible, Job was a righteous man who lost his possessions, family, and health. Through it all, though, Job remained faithful and eventually had nearly everything restored to him.
In southeastern North Dakota this year, nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong for corn farmers.
“It was a frustrating spring,” says Wallie Hardie, who farms with his son, Josh, near Fairmount in southeastern North Dakota. “During a two-week period in May, we were only able to get in the field one and one-half days. The biggest problem was trying to get the corn plant out of the ground under cold and wet conditions.”
Unlike other areas, though, the rains kept coming in July. “It kept raining 2 inches or so every four or five days,” says Josh.
This continued the wet pattern the Hardies' area has endured since 1991. In some of the region's counties, as much rainfall occurs in a month as it used to in a year. Prolific precipitation drawbacks range from delayed or prevented planting to nitrogen losses.
Compounding rain damage was a July 10 windstorm that caused several corn fields to greensnap.
“The storm was just massive,” says Josh. “It was a perfect storm as far as greensnap was concerned. After a cool June, it started to warm up in July and the corn was growing fast. That's when it's most vulnerable to snap off. We had up to 75% greensnap losses in some fields. There was a huge difference in hybrids. There are certain greensnapped hybrids we won't plant anymore after this year.”
Had enough? Not quite. A mid-September frost struck, taking the top of what yield remained. Frost can strike this early, but typically it hits later in September.
“For those of us in the frozen tundra, it takes some doing to grow corn,” says Wallie.
When weather cooperates, though, North Dakota can be a great place to grow high-yielding corn. That's one reason the Hardies plan to boost their corn acres next year.
“We don't get many 90° days in the summer,” says Wallie. That's a plus, because corn has optimum photosynthetic capacity at 87°F. Temperatures above this level do not boost photosynthesis and can hinder it at higher levels.
Low evening temperatures also can help North Dakota corn. High nighttime temperatures boost plant respiration rates, which slice the amount of sugar produced by photosynthesis during the day, notes Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist. While corn in warmer climates can bake at night, lower temperatures give corn plants a break in North Dakota.
The Hardies have leveraged this by planting corn in 22-inch rows. The resulting equidistant spacing helps harvest more light, which spurs photosynthesis, says Wallie.
Baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
Observation is part of the Hardies' three-pronged strategy that also includes preparation and execution. “That includes getting out and crawling on our hands and knees and feeling the soil,” says Wallie.