Harvesting the lessons of Drought '12
November 20th, 2012
10:00 AM ET
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Brian Scott farms with his father and grandfather on 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. They grow corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat and he blogs about it at The Farmer's Life.

Way back in July, I spoke to Eatocracy readers about the drought. It was hot, and dry, and it had been that way for too long. By late July all of our corn had pollinated under the stress of extreme heat and extended drought. Some amount of rain was needed for plants to have energy for grain fill. So what happened when harvest equipment finally entered the field?

corn ears

Harvest Arrived
In early September harvest began. Ironically Mother Nature decided that harvest would be a good time to turn the faucet back on again, leading to the disappearance of drought conditions here. She rained us out on several occasions during harvest, but I thought it wise not to complain about slow progress.

Results from Harvest
When Dad and I starting walking corn fields in late July we estimated there would be half a normal crop harvested, and we weren't far off. In the field where we hosted the United States Department of Agriculture, CNN, and other media, corn yielded an average of 97 bushels per acre (bu/A). This same field made 174bu/A when it was last planted to corn in 2010. Corn yields across the whole farm yielded 94bu/A this year. A poor showing at 54% of a normal average for our farm.

Lessons Learned
This year soil type and elevation dictated yield. Remove water from the equation and about all you have left is the potential of the soil. Farmers know that different soil types have different capabilities for holding on to nutrients and water. But this year the drought brought massive differences in yield according to soil type.

I have a yield monitor that displays instantaneous yield figures while harvesting. Usually the change in yield isn't so stark when water isn't a limiting factor, but this year instead of gradual changes I saw sudden rises and falls as soils changed within fields. On several occasions I'd have over 225 bushels of corn and a couple feet down the row be below 100 or even 0. This can be valuable information when we make future decisions on planting populations.

Changes for the Future
Being efficient and increasingly effective with our equipment and inputs boosts both productivity and profitability. I've always got ideas rattling around in my head about how we can improve our operation, but this drought had me constantly thinking, "What can we do in the future to be better farmers?"

We've already begun one new practice on the farm that we wanted to try this fall before the drought reared its head. We have cover crops growing on 200 hundred acres. I'm very excited about these crops we won't even harvest. In a year with low yields cover crops can scavenge unused nutrients from the soil. While next year's crop is growing and these covers are decaying they will slowly release those nutrients to the active plants. Cover crops will improve our soils' health helping our crops power through future stresses. Keeping our fields green through winter is something we're very excited about!

Currently we harvest corn with an 8-row corn head. We looked into buying new or renting a used 12-row to help gather this year's crop. That didn't pan out due to availability, but the numbers look pretty good for buying a new one in 2013.

With 50% more rows in the field that's less fuel, less hours on machinery, and wider passes leading to less soil-compacting tire tracks. In fact a 12 row corn head would work very nicely with our new 24 row planter (8 rows wider than the old one) we put to work this spring. Planter and combine could match up their wheel tracks, reducing yield-robbing compaction even further.

grain tank

As I write, our largest field is having its drainage system expanded. Even after a major drought we're thinking about having too much water in our soils. Here we usually deal with too much rather than not enough. Drainage tile helps fields dry out more quickly while allowing water to work its way through the natural filter of the soil reducing soil eroding surface runoff.

The changes mentioned here are all about getting more production off the same land while reducing whatever impact we may have on the environment. Next year we'll try some of the same things we did differently this year. The drought was so hard on crops that changes we made at planting and with our fertilizer program this year were masked by the severity of the weather.

I'm excited to get out in the field and do it all again next year. We'll do our part to give our seeds the best chance to be great leaving the rest, like always, for Mother Nature to decide.

Opinion: Forward-thinking farmers are preventing another Dust Bowl
Opinion: After the drought, seeking long-term solutions for farmers
Farmer in the drought – if you plant it, it might not come
Farmer: 'If you eat, this drought will affect you'
Praying for rain in the Arkansas drought
From the field – tweets from #drought12
How the drought could hit your wallet

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. LALADY1

    with the existing and expanding food shortage around the world it seem a stupid move to use a food product as a fuel for vehicles. it needs to be stopped before it is too late and the epa needs to be eliminated and the states control their enviornmental needs. where is the news on the 100 yr. old farm that was recently shut down by the obama agenda?

    December 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  2. Stanley Seibel

    I know about ddgs for feed, been there did that,not that great. and with removing more oil that's less value as a feed product. and the antibiotic residue in ddgs from making ethanol, I think is going to be a problem with consumers.

    November 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Stanley Seibel

    I know all about that.Been there done that ddgs not that great.Plus antibiotic residue in dddgs may be a problem for customer relations in the future, I fear.

    November 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  4. Taysha R

    Great article!!

    November 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  5. stilllovesme

    Thanks for posting about the continued investment in conservation and good stewardship in your operation. While it is super dry on our wheat and cattle farm in Kansas this year, we also took advantage of the opportunity to make some improvements by re-working terraces to help prevent soil erosion, clearing silt out of our ponds and even installing some solar-powered water tanks for our cattle. Investments like yours demonstrate that farmers are good stewards of the land every year – no matter what the weather may bring.

    November 20, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Brian

      You just have to plan around this kind of weather event only happening to you maybe just a few times over a long career. One year is no reason do deviate from a long term plan. Maybe the worst thing about farming is you have to wait a year before you know if something you changed worked or not!

      November 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  6. Brian

    Reblogged this on The Farmer's Life and commented:
    Hello, readers! I'm honored to have been able to write another post for CNN's Eatocracy food blogging site. Please head on over to see how the 2012 drought affected our farm this year, and learn what changes we may make in the future.

    November 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  7. Jerv

    Great read, thank you. This is what I love about Eatocracy, interesting perspectives and views from folks that make and grow our food.

    November 20, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      I wonder how much of the corn harvested in this manner actually makes it into our food supply. My gramps was a farmer in South Dakota and the corn he grew was mostly for cattle feed. The corn we eat on the cob tends to be a different variety often called sweet corn, which my grampa grew in his garden, not necessarily in the fields.

      November 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
      • Brian

        Sweet corn accounts for about 1% of US corn acres. Quite a lot of field corn goes to feed livestock, but there are many other uses for it. A blog I follow just put a new post that shows the many uses of cows, pigs, corn, and soybeans. Take a look! http://bit.ly/RRoNC2

        November 20, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  8. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    That corn reminds me of Hillary Clinton's teeth.

    November 20, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  9. SlowMoneyFarm

    So much depends on the larger farms, and have had a nervous eye on feed prices here for the poultry. Here's to hoping next year will be a great crop.

    November 20, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Brian

      Let's hope so. I'd much rather raise 200 bushel corn and sell it for $5.00 than have continued high prices for everyone else down the line.

      November 20, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  10. ninime

    Thank you, Brian, for working hard every day to feed me and more than 150 others. You save me from having to do hard work in bad weather, and from having an income that depends on things we cannot control–weather and prices. I'll be thanking you again on Thanksgiving day–and praying that farmers have better weather next year.

    November 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Brian

      Thank you. That means a lot. This is what I'm supposed to be doing in my life. After college I worked off the farm for almost six years. If I could go back I wouldn't change that because although I was successful, I learned that I should be back on the farm being passionate about my work. I gained valuable experience at my other job, but I always new somehow I'd end up being a farmer. I wouldn't trade the bad weather and volatile markets for a "real" job any day!

      November 20, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  11. Robin Rastani

    Brian- Thanks so much for sharing your story. I'm a dairy cow nutritionist, and while the impact of the drought is obvious, it's wonderful to hear another point of view. Corn farmers, like those in any field, try to improve and be better year after year. I hope you are successful in adapting and moving forward.


    November 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Brian

      Here's to a future of high yields and lower costs for ranches and dairies next year! Thanks for you comment, Robin, I truly appreciate your input.

      November 20, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  12. Ryan Goodman

    Thanks for the follow-up Brian! It's pretty interesting, for me as a livestock farmer, to read how crop farmers are dealing with the remnants of the drought. And thank you for the brief insight on how you plan to make improvements for future years. I think it's pretty interesting to hear how farmers of all types are constantly working to improve and progress. There's a lot of technology available out there, we might as well utilize it!

    November 20, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Brian

      Thanks, Ryan. I try to keep up with what's happening in the livestock world and you know you're one of my sources. A lot of what I do feeds livestock so I ought to keep an eye the industry.

      November 20, 2012 at 11:56 am |
      • Stanley Seibel

        Please don,t sell it to the ethanol plant, we need all we can get for food :)

        November 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
        • Ryan Goodman

          Stanley, did you know that grain used in the ethanol process is used for food too? Much of the by-product of the ethanol process (distillers grains) is used to feed livestock. those are use for our meat, dairy products, and numeeerous non-food products.

          November 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
        • Brian

          Stanley, we do sell a fair amount of corn to a nearby ethanol plant. That plant is about 10 miles further down the road than the next closest elevator. If the ethanol facility is offering enough of a price premium over another location we will likely take corn there because that's the best business decision for us. Every farm will be different due to varying distances on where they can deliver grain.

          Ryan Goodman is right. Nearly 30% of the corn that goes into an ethanol plant ends up being fed to livestock. Our plant is installing and oil extractor right now. That means that every kernel going into the plant will leave as fuel, feed, and corn oil. I think a common misconception is that corn for ethanol is totally lost to the food system.

          November 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
        • Stanley Seibel

          I would hope if I was a corn grower money would not blind me to what is right and wrong,and I would not sell for ethanol till the mandate would be removed and would encourage all farmers to do the same.
          The unfair market caused by the mandate and problems with ddgs is making that stepping stone very heavy for us in livestock.

          November 21, 2012 at 8:40 am |
      • Stanley Seibel

        30% means 70% less for feed and is being blown out our tailpipes.Also I believe mandates are a Un-American way to do business and as a chicken farmer I would be ashamed if the government would mandate everyone would have to have 10% chicken in their diet,even if it is the greatest protein.:)
        Every morning when I'm pounding on the feed bins to get the mash out to feed my hens I know who to thank. DDGS do not flow very good.

        November 20, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
        • Brian

          I think grain ethanol is a stepping stone to better things. Algae seems very promising. It may take a while to scale up that technology to make it feasible, but I think it's in the pipeline. Here's my short answer to gov't involvment. I believe in the future of biofuels technologically, but I'm not a fan of the politics behind such things.

          November 20, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
        • Stanley Seibel

          I would hope if I was a corn grower money would not blind me to what is right and wrong,and I would not sell for ethanol till the mandate would be removed and would encourage all farmers to do the same.
          The unfair market caused by the mandate and problems with ddgs is making that stepping stone very heavy for us in livestock.

          November 21, 2012 at 8:44 am |
        • Brian

          I know we discussed on another platform that I think RFS could be done away with since the industry actually says waiving it wouldn't affect production. Part of the reason is that right now ethanol is the most cost effective way for refiners to bring octane ratings up to 87, 93, etc. As I understand it, much oil when refined into gasoline is only 81-84. Of course there are many other factors in play for high corn prices such as a few years of average at best yields per acre and China has gone from a corn exporter to a corn importer in the last three years.

          Maybe 2013 will bring a bumper crop and help stabilize the market and provide some healthy carryover stocks. I've been farming full time for 4 years know and have sold corn from $3.12/bu to $9.00/bu (for waxy corn) and everywhere in between. Quite a roller coaster.

          November 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
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