INGALLS – As he drove his red combine through his field of corn, Joe Jury hoped this wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime crop.
But it doesn’t normally rain like this in southwest Kansas. The Gray County farmer has received 30 inches of moisture since January. In a normal year, he might average 18 to 20.
No, he said with a smile: Years like this one don’t come along often. But with plentiful rains filling his soil profile, Jury took a gamble, and it has paid off.
On this September afternoon, as heavy yellow kernels poured into his combine tank, the fifth-generation farmer estimated the dryland crop he was cutting was yielding anywhere from 115 to 130 bushels an acre. That’s the best he’s ever harvested.
“Everything just came together: rains at the right time, good genetics. That’s what you work for. That is what you hope for every year,” he said.
Based on Sept. 1 conditions, Kansas’ 2016 corn production is forecast as a record-breaker. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the state’s farmers are expected to reap 687 million bushels, 18 percent above last year.
Meanwhile, U.S. corn production is also predicted to break records at more than 15 billion bushels.
“I’ve heard a lot of good reports on dryland yields,” said Sue Schulte, spokeswoman with the Kansas Corn Growers Association.
She noted the state’s corn acreage has doubled in the past 20 years – largely dryland. Genetic advancements, including more drought-tolerant varieties, have made the expansion of dryland acres possible.
Schulte also said irrigated acres are doing well, too, and some farmers haven’t had to pump as much water from their wells.
Jury said he has had yields hit 100 bushels an acre in the past, but normal good dryland yields are around 70 to 80 bushels an acre. The yields he was reaping on this day might not have happened without genetic advancements, such as the development of corn varieties protected from pests like the corn borer.
However, not all farmers are seeing record yields, said Jerald Kemmerer, general manager for Dodge City-based Pride Ag Resources.
“It’s a good crop,” he said, but for many farmers in his cooperative’s territory, “It is not meeting the expectations of a bin-buster. It’s a good year. It’s just not a record.”
He noted some farmers are reporting fungus and disease, as well as worm and other insect problems.
Rain spurred some disease issues, according to the Kansas Corn Growers Association.
“It seems like this corn crop has its challenges, but it is still doing good,” Kemmerer said.
In south-central Kansas, some of the cornfields are yielding well despite the fungal and disease issues, as well as hail damage. Darren Busick, Reno County Extension agricultural agent, said some of the rougher fields that missed timely rains or were hit by hail are still yielding around 60 bushels an acre.
He added he’s heard dryland yields of 120 to 130 bushels an acre. Typically, farmers might see 70 to 90 bushels an acre on the higher end.
Busick said he has walked many good milo fields, but noted sugarcane aphids have exploded in the area.
The insect can eventually hurt yields. It sucks out the sap and excretes a sticky substance known as honeydew that will gum up harvesting equipment such as combines and ensilage cutters.
Farmers can spray for the aphid, but must wait four weeks before harvesting the crop, Busick said.
As the fall harvest commences across Kansas, elevators are battling storage issues after good harvests in 2015 followed by a bumper wheat harvest in June – causing some to buy more land for ground piles and bunkers. While Pride Ag didn’t have mountains of wheat on the ground, Kemmerer expects to put this year’s milo crop, which he predicts to yield at or near last year’s record bushels, on the ground.
Yet the farmers’ good yields might not be helping their bottom line. The glut of corn has depressed prices, with some elevators reporting cash prices at $3 a bushel.
Those with bumper yields could see some profits. However, some farmers are losing money on every ear they harvest.
“Right now, I don’t know if it is cash flowing,” Kemmerer said. “That is the challenge. If farmers didn’t market this corn when it was $4-plus – there was an opportunity to market it at $4 or $4.25 – if you didn’t get it marketed in that area, it is going to be pretty tough.”
Already farmers are struggling financially after a poor 2015 due to the low prices. Kansas net farm income last year hit a 30-year low, reaching a level not seen since the 1980s farm crisis.
Accrual net farm income across 1,159 Kansas Farm Management Association farms averaged $4,568, drastically down from a five-year average of $120,000.
The softening follows a boom that has occurred for the past several years as crop prices and land values soared thanks to drought and rising demand for crops – including corn for ethanol and overseas buyers. From 2006 to 2011, Kansas farmers’ net farm income augmented by 250 percent.
“I was talking to a guy at the fair ... he is retired and his son is farming,” said Busick. “He said he ended up losing money. (The crop) got hailed on and had major wind with rain early on – and it never recovered.”
Jury said with his best-ever yields, he should make some money. But, he added, “I’m holding off on everything,” he said of purchases.
As a veteran farmer, he knows the economy will again improve.
“The U.S. economy is cannibalistic,” he said. “We feed off others’ disasters. Someone has to lose a crop.”
Farming the High Plains
“It’s wheat harvest weather,” Jury said Tuesday as he maneuvered his combine through the cornfield on a near-100-degree day.
The Ingalls branch of Pride Ag Resources is visible in the distance. The lines are already long as farmers bring in a bountiful harvest.
Jury didn’t grow up in Kansas. His family also farmed in Iowa and his father would “suitcase-farm,” taking the train from Iowa to Kansas to manage the family’s crops.
He’s been farming the Kansas land since he got out of college. But it has been more challenging compared to the rich Iowa farmland he left. Rain comes sparingly, and Jury blames it on what he calls the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Jury’s Gray County farm lies just beyond the 100th meridian. Everything west of the imaginary line, which goes through Dodge City, is in the shadow – an area storm clouds seem to blow by.
Even Zebulon Pike noticed this as he explored the west, calling this portion of Kansas the Great American Desert.
Thus, farmers rely on irrigation instead of Mother Nature, and up until 2009, Jury did the same on this parcel of ground just west of Ingalls. Now the groundwater table is too low to pump. He planted his last dryland corn crop in 2010 before a drought plagued the region.
In 2011, he watched his milo crop fail and his wheat crop was poor. 2012 wasn’t much better.
Then something switched. “Instead of La Nina, it was El Nino,” said Jury. The El Nino pattern brought timely, soaking rains to the drought-stricken plains – a few inches at a time.
With a full moisture profile, he planted his crop in early April, sowing 14,000 to 15,000 seeds an acre – about half of the population planted for irrigated acres.
His kernels are heavy. Test weights are well above the crop’s 56-pound benchmark – hitting nearly 60 pounds a bushel in some instances.
“The timeliness of the rains, it almost never happens,” he said.
Is this a once-in-a-lifetime crop? Jury is quick to answer: “I hope not.”
“It all filled to its maximum genetics,” he said. “Every ear pollinated.”