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Nature’s fickle 1-2 punch

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Updated: June 9, 2013 6:17AM

PLATO TWP. — Illinois weather is nothing if not fickle. Just ask Kane County’s farmers.

Last summer, their corn and bean crops were shriveled — though not as badly as in some parts of Illinois and the Midwest — by one of the worst spring and summer droughts in history. Now, this spring, their planting has been held up at least two weeks by the fourth-wettest April ever.

Local growers finally got out into the fields to start planting seed corn this week as the 6.9 inches of April showers gave way to May sow-ers, and the mud began to dry up. But with a late start to the planting, this year’s corn crop could be vulnerable to a heat wave during its pollinating phase, which now will be delayed into what is typically a somewhat hotter, drier part of the summer. And chances increase that an early frost could kill the corn plants before they reach complete maturity.

Or not. To know for sure, we would have to find out just what Ma Nature has in store as a follow-up to all this spring rain. And she isn’t telling.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released Tuesday, corn planting is progressing nationwide at the slowest rate in 29 years. As of Sunday night, the USDA estimates, just 7 percent of the expected corn acres had been planted in Illinois. Only 8 percent had been planted in Indiana and Iowa.

Soybeans tend to be planted a bit later, but only a minute 2 percent of those had been planted so far in Illinois.

‘Window closing’

“The situation is not critical yet. The window is still there. But it’s starting to close,” said farmer Dan Follman as he prepared to do his first 2013 planting on Tuesday along Chapman Road near Burlington.

Follman farms property in both Burlington and Plato townships, with 900 acres slotted for corn and 700 for soybeans. He said the Plato fields, along Plank Road, are still too muddy to get into, and the Burlington ones just became accessible this week.

Bob Gehrke, whose extended family farms 1,800 acres along Route 20 between Elgin and Pingree Grove, said he has not yet planted any corn. “We like to be done by May 10. This year we’ll probably be at least 10 days behind,” said the former Kane County Farm Bureau president.

Gehrke blamed the delay on both muddy fields and cool soil temperatures caused by the colder-than-usual spring and late snow melt.

If seed is planted while soil is too cold, it just sits there rather than growing, Gehrke said. “You know the soil is too cold when you look out and don’t see any weeds. When the weeds start germinating, it’s warm enough for corn to germinate.”

Bruce Krog of rural Elgin, who owns or rents 800 acres at various locations in Plato Township, said he is already half done with his planting. “We started on April 29, which was two weeks later than last year. But then last year was early,” Krog said.

Big contrast

Follman said this year’s delay feels especially odd because last spring saw 80-degree weather in March; high-temperature records for some dates being not just broken but shattered by as much as 8 degrees; and relatively little rain. That was followed by the 2012 summer drought that lowered corn and soybean yields in Kane County and did major damage to farms in the Great Plains. The drought wiped out some entire corn crops as nearby as the Belvidere area, where the soil doesn’t hold moisture as well as in Kane County.

“I told my son last year, ‘You’ll never see a spring like that again in your lifetime,’ because I never saw a spring that warm and that early,” Follman recalls. “But we have seen springs like the one we’re having now,” and they haven’t proven to be disastrous.

Krog said the lingering effects of the drought actually may be helping him in one way. Taking advantage of a good off-season price, he laid down pellets of dry potassium and phosphate fertilizer on his fields way back in February. The fertilizer was spread on top of snow, with the expectation that as the snow melted, the fertilizer would slowly dissolve and work down into the soil.

Little did Krog realize that weeks of more snowfall and then inches more rain would fall between then and when this year’s seed finally would get planted. Melting snow and heavy rain could have dissolved the fertilizer and simply washed it away into creeks and ditches. But Krog doesn’t think that has happened — thanks to last year’s drought.

“The water didn’t seem to be running off. It was just puddling and soaking in. And it’s not taking long for the puddles to go away,” Krog said. He said that’s probably because last year’s drought left the soil below the surface so dry that the soil could absorb a lot.

Switching to beans

If planting is delayed too long, one option for farmers is to switch fields from corn to soybeans, since beans don’t need as long of a growing season. “If we get another three weeks of rain, you’ll see a lot of corn switched over to soybeans,” Gehrke predicts.

But that’s not easy to do, Gehrke notes. Not only does seed have to be ordered ahead of time, but weed-killing chemicals laid down for corn, which is genetically bred to tolerate the most powerful weed killers, could kill sprouting bean plants.

Corn and beans also need a different mix of fertilizers, since beans can “fix” their own nitrogen out of the air.

One key weather period for the success of a corn plant is when its tassels pump out pollen, which fertilizes the female part that will grow into an ear of grain. If the planting is delayed too late into spring, that can push pollination from early July into late July or August, when weather typically is hotter, drier and less friendly.

But that is only based on average weather stats. This particular early July could turn out to be hotter and drier than August.

Gehrke and his brother already plan a variety of crops — half corn, about 20 percent hay, a little wheat and the rest soybeans. “Hay has been in very short supply this winter” in northern Illinois because of the drought, Gehrke notes. Horse owners had to switch their horses to hay after the grass in their pastures stopped growing.

Krog said hybrid seed makers also make it easier to beat such odds. He said he buys several different varieties of corn seed ­— some that will mature in 100 days, some in 105 days and some in 110. If a particularly bad few days of summer weather hit one variety, the other two may be spared its full impact.

“After last year, we’ll take all the rain we can get,” Krog said.

But knowing what Mother Nature can do in northern Illinois, those are words that he could live to regret.

“The corn that has been planted is struggling mightily to survive the soil conditions and to emerge,” said University of Illinois crop sciences professor Emerson Nafziger.

“If we are lucky enough to ‘skip’ a month and May begins to look more like a typical June, it’s not too late to get the planting and crop back on track,” Nafziger said. “So while yield potential will start to drop as we get further into May with planting, chances of a good corn crop remain high.

“Most of our planting-date studies show that yield loss accelerates as planting is delayed in May, and getting corn planted by the end of April is a recognized goal in Illinois. The reality is, though, that on average, we only manage to get a little more than 40 percent of our corn planted by this target date, and it’s nearly the end of May before we reach 90 percent planted.”

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