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Drought makes corn crops thirsty for rain

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“Knee-high by the Fourth of July” is the maxim farmers use to gauge the success of their corn crops.

But while most fields are now chest high, a drought lasting nearly a month has farmers across the north country wondering when they’ll be able to quench the thirst of their corn and hay crops.

Farmers say their corn crops already are showing signs of drought stress — a sign that growth has begun to stagnate and will continue to worsen unless Mother Nature cooperates by sending down a heavy batch of rain.

“Up to this point our corn crop has looked very good,” said Joseph R. Lawrence, field crops educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County. “However, we’re reaching the stage now where we need rain, and if we don’t get it in the fairly near future, the crop is going to suffer.”

Fields in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties suffered from uncharacteristically low rainfall in the past month, Mr. Lawrence said. In Lowville, for example, the last rainfall — a mere four-tenths of an inch — was June 25. Apart from that, there’s been no rainfall since June 13.

“We’ve had less than an inch of rain for almost three weeks,” Mr. Lawrence said, adding that most farms already are showing signs of drought stress. “If this continues, we could easily see a yield loss of a couple of tons per acre,” about 15 percent of a field.

Jefferson County is in the same boat, said Arthur F. Baderman, agriculture outreach coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. Watertown recorded 0.4 and 0.1 inches of rainfall June 19 and 23, respectively, but the last time the city had more than an inch was June 12.

“Corn has started to curl right up at farms north of the Black River,” Mr. Baderman said. “If we don’t get enough rain in the next two weeks, this drought-stressed corn is going to tassel out.”

Corn plants begin to tassel, or sprout, earlier than normal if they don’t absorb enough rain. When plants tassel, they stop growing upward and start developing ears of corn. Premature tasseling grows ears that are smaller than usual and have smaller kernels; it also decreases the amount of corn silage harvested by farmers, which is made by grinding up the entire plant to produce cattle feed.

Though farmers are hopeful, the extended weather forecast doesn’t look favorable: while showers could visit today, the only rain predicted is for next Saturday. If the drought continues a week after, cornfields probably will begin to tassel prematurely, Mr. Baderman said. Fields with short crops will be the most vulnerable.

“We could probably go another week before plants that are stressed begin to tassel,” he said, “especially smaller plants on the heavier soils.”

Hay crops already are suffering, Mr. Baderman said, and most farmers harvested only about 50 percent of their normal yield this month. If the dry weather persists, there won’t be any hay worth cutting two months from now.

“If we don’t get rain now, there’s not going to be a third cutting to speak of,” he said. “The hay will just sit there without any more growth.”

Dairy farmer Charles L. Eastman, who manages 1,100 acres of cornfields in Ellisburg, said growth has slowed noticeably over the past month. Plants have begun to shrivel in dry areas with heavy soil, he said, which means they now have an empty water supply.

“There are a couple of farms in the area that say they’re in trouble, but we’re not in big trouble yet,” he said. “But it’s so dry right now that even if we did get rain, it would be sucked up right away.”

The hay harvest at the farm was about 60 percent of its normal yield for this time of year, Mr. Eastman said.

“We’re thinking about our inventories for next year at this point, because if we have another cutting like this, we’re going to have to adjust our cattle feeding to cut back on hay.”

Gregory G. Porter, co-owner of Porterdale Farms in Adams Center, said that while the 2,400-acre corn crop looks good right now, “it’s starting to show signs of drought stress and leaves are starting to curl. It’s quickly approaching a critical period where we need rain.”

In other words, he said, he hopes the drought isn’t the first chapter of a long story.

“This becomes a bigger topic of conversation every day that it goes by and it doesn’t rain,” he said. “We’re not in a critical danger zone yet, but we could be.”

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