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Despite drought, corn and soybean yields better than expected

By Barry Adams

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    MADISON, Wisconsin ( State Journal) — Jared Ripp had been bracing himself for the worst.

Only the worst may not rear its head once he starts harvesting his 1,800 acres of corn in northern Dane County.

A prolonged drought this past summer had plants and farmers hoping for more rain. And while the storms were few and far between, there may have been just enough moisture, combined with hardier strains of grain and his rich soil, to salvage a crop that by early July looked bleak at best.

“We’re pretty happy for what it was looking like,” said Ripp, a third-generation dairy farmer. “The stalk was shorter than normal, but the grain really filled out. I don’t think we lost a lot of yield. But we’ll know more when we get out there.”

While some farmers around the state have just begun to harvest their corn crops, most, including Ripp, will likely ramp up their corn harvest next week.

State farmers in 2022 planted about 3.9 million acres of corn. Most was harvested for grain, but 880,000 acres of that was chopped into silage. The silage number is likely to increase somewhat this year due to the drought, but Joe Lauer, who studies corn and silage production at UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, says the average corn yield likely will vary greatly depending on region.

“Some soils that are real light, like sandy soils, they were hammered pretty hard and there will probably be no yield at all on those kinds of fields,” Lauer said. “But in fields that have soils that are deeper, we’re picking up actually fairly good yields. There’s potential out there but it’s going to be quite variable. I think growers might be surprised somewhat given how bad the drought was in certain areas. I think in a week or two we’ll know a lot more.”

According to Tuesday’s report from the Wisconsin Field Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11% of fields were “very short” on topsoil moisture, 31% were short, 57% adequate while 1% had a moisture surplus. Nearly 76% of the corn crop was mature but only 9% had been harvested compared to the silage, which was 83% harvested.

Two percent of the corn crop was rated very poor, 14% was poor, 33% fair, 38% good and 13% excellent.

On a statewide basis, the average yield in 2022 was 180 bushels per acre but the drought will likely negatively alter that number, Lauer said.

“Whenever you have stress, it goes out the window in how the plants are going to respond,” he said. “These plants can handle that stress pretty well, but we really don’t know yet.”

Ripp, who had the top corn yield in the state last year at 322 bushels per acre, expects yields for most farmers in his area to be down 20 to 30 bushels per acre to 220 to 230 bushels per acre. Technology also is helping farmers better deal with drought. It can include systems that analyze soil and can help determine how much seed to plant per are and how much and what type of fertilizer to use on specific pieces of farmland.

Ripp knows well his farm in the town of Dane, north of Waunakee. He grew up on the property, which was established as a farm by his grandfather.

“We’ve got pretty darn good black dirt,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good corn out there.”

Meanwhile, the soybean harvest is well underway across the state, with 49% of the crop rated good to excellent, according to the USDA report.

In 2022, farmers in Wisconsin planted 2.2 million acres of soybeans and harvested 116 million bushels, for an average yield of 54 bushels per acre.

Shawn Conley, who studies soybeans at UW-Madison, said three weeks ago he thought this year’s harvest per acre would be lower than that of 2022, but he now believes it could come in at or even higher than that of a year ago, based on early reports. High moisture contents early in the spring provided a good start for the crop and helped sustain soybeans through a summer stretch where some areas only received an inch of rain or less over a five-week period.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to is pretty darn happy,” Conley said. “We got established and basically that soybean tap root just followed that water down as it either evaporated or was used. We were able to keep tapping into water the entire season even though we weren’t able to get much rainfall. It was crazy.”

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