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Harvest season approaching
Times photos: Anthony Wahl Tom McGuire drives his John Deere forage harvester while cutting silage next to the family dairy farm south of Monroe Tuesday evening. With the continuing drought, Green County is expected to average 100 bushels of corn per acre, down from a 5-year average yield of 160-165 bushels per acre.
MONROE - Prepare for fall. The drought hasn't ended, but cool nights are signaling the start of the harvest season.

Farmers have already started cutting poor stands of corn for silage. Unfortunately, about 11 percent of the corn tested last week has dangerously high levels of nitrates in it, according to Mark Mayer, Green County extension agent, who saw about 40 samples.

Spotty thunderstorm rains across Green County this past month "helped, but not a lot," Mayer said.

"We have not had drought-buster precipitation," he said.

August rains helped soybeans survive more drought devastation and saved the alfalfa fields for a fourth and fifth cutting.

"But it's too late for a majority of the corn crop," Mayer said. Corn that benefited from August rains were pollinating in mid- to late-July, he added.

August is typically the second largest precipitation month of the year, Mayer noted. But nothing Green County has seen yet is going to recharge the soil moisture, he added.

"We need several all-day rains, eight to ten inches to recoup what we've lost," Mayer said. "There's little to no soil moisture three to four feet down, except in the top soil."

One-fourth of the Green County corn crop is rated as poor, producing 30 bushels per acre or less, and some is going into silage now. But the timing may be a bit too soon; the corn is wetter than it looks. Moisture, mostly in the stalks, is still high, even though the leaves look dry.

In the samples tested last week, the average moisture content ranged from 63 to 80 percent, with the average at 72.3 percent. Ideally, silage for bagging should come in around 65-70 percent, and for upright silos, at 60-65 percent.

The nitrate content in the samples averaged about 647 parts per million (ppm); anything under 1,000 ppm is safe to feed, said Mayer. But at least four samples tested over 1,000 ppm, and the highest was 6,811 ppm. Fermenting the silage for about a month can bring down those numbers by 30-50 percent, he added.

Mayer is cautioning farmers to have their silage nitrate content tested, and then put it up to ferment and don't feed it green without testing. Too much nitrate in feed can kill a cow not accustomed to high levels.

The top one-quarter of the corn in Green County could make about 140 bu/A (bushels per acre), Mayer said. The 5-year average yield has been 160-165 bu/A. On low-lying ground where the corn could send its roots deeper, yields of 140-160 bu/A could be possible.

Mayer predicts that half the corn will produce between 40-80 bu/A. Overall the county will average about 100 bu/A.

That yield is much better than the yield in 1988, when the last great drought in recent memory occurred. Mayer's records show Green County corn made about 56 bu/A that year. Corn yielded an average of 165 bu/A in 2011.

But the difference is not that 1988 had a worse drought, Mayer said.

"We can be thankful for research and genetics," he said. "I'm amazed the corn looks so good (this year) despite the drought."

Early planted soybeans are turning to yellow now and, although pods are set, the rains will help to fill out the pod beans.

The rain is also helping the alfalfa regrowth for a fourth and fifth cutting of hay. The quality of the alfalfa will be better than average, but the tonnage will be lower.

Mayer will be watching prices at B&M Auctions' hay auction this Friday in the Monticello. Two weeks ago prices were down about $20 a ton from a month ago, he noted, with alfalfa going for $260 a ton and poorer quality grasses at $130 a ton.

The cooler, damp night weather has brought some hidden advantages; soybean spider mites, which like hot temperatures, have slowed down, thanks also the benign fungus growth that kills them.

One more detail farmers are watching is if the corn stalks didn't send down their anchor roots very well this year, which means they have a great tendency to fall over. Farmers are now hoping they stand long enough to combine. One big, wind-driven storm could do them in.