Gene Logsdon and Friends

The Weather May Not Be the Problem

In Gene Logsdon Blog on August 29, 2012 at 5:35 am

From GENE LOGSDON

There are so many stark contrasts in the world today. These are times out of which great epics of literature ought to be written but aren’t. Society is too engrossed in drivel like whether badminton players in the Olympics were cheating or not. This summer, the driest in 50 years in parts of the Midwest, the Army Corps of Engineers is dredging deeper channels for the barges on the Mississippi River, which is at an all time low level. Just last year, rainfall in the eastern corn belt was at an all-time high and the Corps was desperately trying to control flooding on the Mississippi.

Weather-related contrasts are occurring here in my own Ohio backyard where it barely rained at all from May to August. Close to our farm stand two cornfields just across a narrow road from each other. One has nearly normal corn and the other (in one of the photos) has drought-stricken corn. I know personally both farmers who planted these two fields and both are very competent. The soil in both fields is the same. Fertilizer applied was about the same. Rainfall was the same. This contrast appears all over the county, all over the state, all over the Corn Belt. What is going on here?

Farmers and farm reporters and this blog have talked the question half to death. Our own local chapter of contrary farmers lists these possibilities for the difference in the two fields: time of planting, depth of planting, corn variety, seed bed preparation, plant population, and prayer. Since the two farmers involved both attend church regularly, I think we can rule out that last factor. Seed bed preparation was about the same, too.

I’ve yet to hear anyone claiming to have the definitive answer to the contrast, but here’s what we think happened. After an abnormally warm winter, the corn in the devastated field was planted in early April, a month before the optimum time in my opinion. This corn was planted shallow, about an inch deep where the soil was warmest and in anticipation of more rain. The corn came up quickly but with plenty of moisture then, the roots did not go deep in the soil. In late April and early May it did rain enough to keep farmers from planting the rest of their corn until late May, even into June. The corn not hurt by drought was planted late and without rain, it rooted more deeply in the soil. Unlike the early planted corn, ear development on the late corn was delayed until after the hundred degree weather in July. That meant it pollinated better and ear formation could still take advantage of the bit of early August rain we did get. Because our dense clay subsoils tend to hold moisture very well, the deep rooted corn survived, the shallow rooted corn did not. What do you think?

My own little bit of corn violated all the rules and for awhile I thought it was a goner. What follows sounds like bragging but I had nothing to do with it and can’t explain it. My corn is an old open-pollinated variety (Reid’s Yellow Dent) that usually is more susceptible to weather extremes than hybrid corn. I did not get around to planting it until the end of May. Planting depth was variable because the planter was a homemade job. Only the deeper planted kernels came up, those down two inches or deeper, which meant I had only two thirds of a stand. As a farmer friend remarked with a wry smile, “that corn is just good enough to make a poor crop.” But what came up just kept growing right through the drought as you can see from the other photo. It may be hard to find them in the picture, but there are four ears there over a foot long and they are still growing. The field had been in sod the five previous years which may be the real secret to it all, for all I know. I used no fertilizer or herbicides. I disked the sod three times and then once over with a rotary tiller. No moldboard plow or deep chiseling. The soil surface, without rain, remained covered with a mulch of dust from weed cultivation with a tiller. Dust mulch holds moisture much better than a hard dirt surface. Even in the driest time, a hoe would bring up moist soil. I planted pumpkins in the corn in the driest, hottest time of all and they grew like crazy. The corn leaves stayed green through it all and did not curl much from heat and dryness. Maybe that was because, with such a thin stand, each stalk had more moisture to draw on than would normally be the case. The ears silked out late, after the worst hot weather had past, and so pollination was better. And, bless me, Father, for I have sinned, I did not pray. I cussed at the drought all summer long.

Whatever you make of this, I think I know one thing for sure. We have not had one big drought. We have had many small local droughts. Not so far from here, around Bellefontaine, Ohio, rainfall through the summer was normal to excessive. (But overall, from January through mid-August, both areas were about the same. We got ours in late winter, they got theirs in summer when it was needed.) This was true over most of the Midwest. In many cases, human need or human greed or plain old human luck or lack of it, caused the bad effects of what we call drought, not just the weather. Because of high prices, corn was often planted on erosive hilly land that even in a normal year would hardly be profitable. My guess is that a lot of corn was planted too early, too shallow, too densely for this year. It was planted under the influence of 1211, the wettest year on record. Some of the crop loss was on land that had been stripped of its natural fertility and topsoil years ago, as can easily be seen by the difference between corn on rich black soil and on yellow eroded hillside soil in the same field. As William Albrecht writes in his essay “The Drought Myth” the problem is not the weather, it’s the way we farm.
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  1. Gene: Somewhat off topic, but well-worth passing on is the July 2012 Newsletter article Welcome To Dystopia! by Jeremy Grantham from the investment banking firm Grantham, Mayo and van Otterloo, http://www.gmo.com/websitecontent/GMOQ2Letter.pdf Rather than an emotional argument for organic farming, he makes a hard-nosed sustainability argument. The entire article, not just the portion on organic farming, is well worth the read.

  2. There are some other variables: you might ask the farmers what kind of seed corn was planted. There are drought tolerant varieties in various degrees. Downside of this kind of investigation is it’s like asking someone with a grocery bag full of morels where they found them, or a guy with a six pound bass what he used for bait.

  3. I think you may be on to something. My mother commented about the same. My dad was sick at prime corn planting time and got to his late. The last fields planted look the best here in drought-stricken central Wisconsin.

  4. I particularly appreciate that yours did well in a field that had not been growing corn, thus the soil was not exhausted by nutrient depletion, that you didn’t use fertilizer or herbicides, and that the ground wasn’t left to bake in bare soil. To me these are the key elements.

  5. Since I can’t grow corn at all without irrigation, summer rainfall isn’t an issue. I’m thankful we have a spring that allows me to use flood irrigation so I don’t have to pump out groundwater with electricity. But if the Hopis and Navahos could grown corn, squash and beans in the desert without irrigation or summer rain, I would agree weather is not the primary issue…

  6. I’ve noticed that at a certain point after planting, a young plant will just hang out during a drought period, kind of in suspended animation, and then resume growth when the rains come. If drought hits too soon or later in the life cycle the plant dies or doesn’t produce. Has anyone else noticed this?

    Also, regarding corn, I planted Bloody Butcher, a more drought-resistent, heirloom, field corn for my chickens that did OK to good despite the drought (all of June drought here) and no watering from me. I also planted a little silver queen sweet corn for me that I watered weekly and that did fair to poor. Both planted at the same time and same depth, same spacing and foliar fed with worm tea.

  7. I planted corn here in Latvia and normally we do fine. The plants actually grew quite well but the ears of corn are pitiful. Not sure if it is the variety as we managed to actually save the seed last year, thanks to your advice Gene, but our summer has been the opposite of yours, mainly overcast and a lot of rainy days. It’s not saturated but it hasn’t been great either and I wonder whether there just was not enough sun this year. Cool weather plants like peas and cabbages have done well but the beans took a long, long time to get going and some squash plants are now only just getting going and frosts are possible in the not too distant future. All I can think is at least we haven’t had as much rain as the UK where even making silage has been difficult and confident gardeners gave up with the onslaught of pests and diseases.

  8. Re: these are times when great epics of literature ought to be written. I agree BUT in these times great works of literature are not marketable. We have skimmed the cream from all of our economy, our organizations, our systems and are left with only having to make a profit. We can’t afford anything else, like quality of life, art, literature, curiosity and exploration, blue sky adventures. How sad a world “it’s just business” has dumped us in.

  9. Gene I think you are in the right track. Newly broken soil makes all the difference. The sod on top had been holding the nutrients from permeating the deeper soil or just washing away.
    We did have an early warm spell here in southern Ohio, that tempted everyone to get an early start. A few years back (at our old place) I tilled up part of the yard for a garden. We had the best crop we’d ever had. At our new place, I’ve put mountains of manure and compost on the existing plot, and we are barely getting by.

  10. I like the use of your lovely model displaying the corn. The contrast of the size and appearance of the ears and stalks are easier to view with Carol’s assistance :)

  11. I’ve been listening to Steve Solomon’s Gardening Without Irrigation via the LibriVox program. Makes for a peaceful bedtime story, listening to the woman read it with crickets chirping in the background. Mostly what he recommends is to space the plants very widely and make a dust mulch, so that matches what you noticed.

  12. Gene, it would seem you contrarily stumbled on resiliency with your late planting into previous sod with just discing and tilling and then leaving the dust mulch to protect it all. Who would know and it speaks well that you take no credit for it. All paradigms have been challenged by the ideosyncracies of precipitation this year. My pastures, left unmowed and ungrazed by circumstance until after the wicked heat of July have continued to regenerate after grazing and clipping despite no rain in 3 weeks. Deep soil moisture and that protective mantel is responsible, I’m sure. I pray for rain but curse out the other side of my mouth so it probably all balances out in the end. Great post, as always.

  13. Gene,

    My open pollinated corn did wonderfully this year. I’m told just north of here the hybrid corn is looking horrible. I don’t know how true that is because I haven’t been there but those same people telling me that look at my old open pollinated Leaming corn and are amazed at how well it did this year.

  14. To make good corn here in central VA the old saying was you needed a dry June and a wet July.Dry June to get the cultivation done and the corn to get deep rooted and a wet July when it was silking and tassling.The other important factor you left out was under what sign each field was planted and whether it was a New Moon or Old Moon all very important in any crop production.Also things like Planters II and
    Kelp that add minor elements to the soil have a major impact on a plants ability to withstand any stressful situation

  15. How can you talk about drought & farming without talking about manmade climate change? Seems like an incomplete discussion.

  16. I couldn’t find an email address for you, but I have been reading another blog with a similar ethos while also reading your book All Flesh is Grass. I came upon todays post about planting root vegetables in pasture for thier pig farm and remember you had put this in your book as well.

    http://sugarmtnfarm.com/2012/09/17/compost-pile-turnip/

    I am not affiliated with them, I just thought two people with similar ideas about farming, but seperated by 500 miles should probably know about each other.

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