By Connor Lynch
MITCHELL — Leaving corn out over the winter is usually something that happens to farmers, rather than something they plan on doing.
As elevator operator Don Van Der Burgt, who runs V.D.B. Grains at Mitchell puts it, farmers have enough to worry about already. There’s wind damage, wildlife damage, and if you’re in the snowbelt like he is, the snow will keep you out of the fields and increase the odds that your corn either gets eaten by deer or taken down by freezing rain.
“There’s enough risks in farming to begin with.”
But this winter, thanks to last year’s slow planting season and delayed maturation, more farmers are stuck with corn in the field. And in some areas, harvesting in January or February is the norm, not the exception.
Agronomist Deb Campbell, who runs Agronomy Advantage at Dundalk, in Grey County, said her region (also in a snowbelt) is one of the coldest in Ontario, and growers have perennial problems trying to get the corn to mature.
“We’re forced to leave it out more often than not,” she said. And, more often than not, it works out well.
For many producers, the idea of leaving a corn crop out after the snow flies isn’t so much of a gamble as a prayer. Anything that stays in the field is out there because there wasn’t room in the dryer, moisture content was through the roof or the farmer just couldn’t get to it.
But Campbell said she’d recommend leaving corn out when moisture is high and when snow comes early. “If you can leave it out, and maybe only lose two-to-three per cent (yield), why wouldn’t you?” Corn naturally drying down is free, after all, while dryers cost money.
Not all agronomists, or farmers, for that matter, agree.
Dale Cowan, an agronomist in Southwestern Ontario, is happy that leaving corn out worked for some producers. But it’s a high-risk activity, as far as he’s concerned, and a decision that’s very site-specific. “It could be a strategy, but boy, you really want good-standing corn and cooperating weather.” Cowan added that if producers are trying to save on drying costs or concerned about availability (not unreasonable, given two separate rail shutdowns in Canada in less than six months), there are other ways to go about it, like planting lower heat-unit hybrids.
Crop and livestock farmer Jay Lewis at Holstein, Ont., is one of those producers who left 500 acres of corn in the field and started harvesting in February. “I should’ve done all my corn that way this winter,” he said, pleased with results.
In the fall, corn was coming off at 35 to 40 per cent moisture. When he checked on his fields in late February, it was at 19 per cent, with minimal damage.
“It’s a psychological barrier,” to leaving corn out, he said, not a practical one. Farming and farmers aren’t the same as they used to be and corn can hold up better than producers assume. “We’re better farmers than we were 10 years ago and hybrids are better,” Lewis said.
In 2000, the average percentage yield loss for corn harvested from Dec. to Feb. was 53 per cent. In 2001, it was less than 10 per cent.
But peace of mind matters too and spring is busy enough without having to deal with harvest when you’re thinking about planting. Farmer and elevator operator Mark Scott, at Lucan, has a simple reason for not leaving corn in the field over winter. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I had corn out after Christmas.”
Is leaving corn out in the winter a good idea?
By Connor Lynch