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North country corn crop harvest losses lower than predicted after summer mini-drought

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Like an older brother pulling a prank on a young sibling, Mother Nature had farmers across Jefferson County fooled by unpredictable weather this season.

The sizzling six-week drought from mid-June through July had them expecting gloom and doom for the harvest this fall, forecasting that as much as half of their corn and hay crops could be lost.

But while Mother Nature was indeed cruel when fields needed precipitation the most, rain began falling just in time at the end of July to save their fields. While experts predicted farmers could lose up to 30 percent of their crops, farmers who have harvested their fields this month are only reporting losses of 10 to 20 percent. And most farmers say they will have enough forage to feed their cattle herds.

“There’s a little bit of gloom for farmers, but not so much doom” as expected, said Arthur F. Baderman, agricultural outreach coordinator in the Jefferson County Cornell Cooperative Extension office. Because of crop shortages, “farmers are still hoping they have enough forage (for cattle) to last until June and July next year.”

Painting farms in Jefferson County with the same brush, however, would be a mistake: Corn and hay yields reported by farmers have varied widely because of unique circumstances. Some farms received more rain during the drought, for example, while others withered in the sun for longer periods. And the widespread invasion of army worms and potato leaf hoppers that attacked fields in June and July took a heavy toll on hay crops for some farmers.

But for all the talk about no rain this summer, the total rainfall recorded from May to Sept. 30 at the Watertown International Airport in Dexter was 16.33 inches, making it the 15th wettest summer since 1949, according to the National Weather Service.

The main problem for farmers was that the six-week drought struck at the worst time possible, said Michael E. Hunter, field crops educator for Jefferson County’s extension office. A meager 1.58 inches of rain were recorded at Watertown International Airport over a 42-day stretch from June 13 to July 25.

Corn stressed by the drought began to tassel and develop ears earlier than normal. That’s why corn plants that normally stand 10 to 12 feet high are typically only 6 to 8 feet; corn ears are also smaller than normal in most cases.

Farmers who planted their corn earlier than others in late April — which would normally mean a more successful crop — actually did worse than those who planted later in May because their fields were baking in the sun when they were in their critical growth period. “They couldn’t have predicted we’d have a six-week drought,” Mr. Hunter said.

Dairy farmer John D. Lassen, owner of Clover Crest Farm in Belleville, finished harvesting 170 acres of corn silage last week and was pleasantly surprised by the results.

“We’re maybe 10 percent lower,” he said. “I thought it was going to be much worse.”

Mr. Lassen said the farm was fortunate to record some rainfall during the drought when neighboring communities got shut out. The trend illustrates how weather patterns in the county can be vastly different.

“One time we got eight-tenths of an inch when Ellisburg got nothing,” he said.

Douglas W. Shelmidine, owner of a large dairy farm in the town of Ellisburg, harvested 750 acres of corn silage and is finishing 150 acres of grain corn this week.

“It’s been extremely variable,” he said, explaining that some areas sustained significant losses while others are healthy. “We get a lot of dew at the end of (Lake Ontario) in our microclimate, and that kept the plants from getting burned up. It was a case where we had just enough moisture in the soil” during the drought.

Some farms, however, were teetering on the brink of disaster near the drought’s end in late July. Experts said at the time that another week or two without rain could devastate crops.

“During the last week of July, I would have said it was going to be a total loss,” said Ronald C. Robbins, owner of dairy farm Robbins Family Grain in Sackets Harbor. “I’m not sure we would have gone another week without the 1.6 inches of rain we had July 28. Those plants were doing everything to survive until the rain came and turned things around.”

After chopping about 1,000 of its 2,600 acres of corn silage this week, Mr. Robbins said, the harvest is about 15 percent lower than anticipated. All of the corn chopped so far was planted in April, however, and he anticipates better results from fields that were planted between May 10 and 20 that weren’t punished by the drought.

“We might not be looking at much of a yield loss at all,” he said.

Another highlight will be the 1,100 acres of soybeans now being harvested at the farm, which are yielding above-average results. The field is averaging about 55 bushels of soybeans per acre — six bushels more than last year.

“We had a really good spring and timely rains,” he said, explaining the crop requires the most rainfall in August. “Soybeans have a unique ability to handle stress at a certain time in their life cycle, but they absolutely have to have rain in August.”

If anything, he added, this season’s fickle weather has proven Mother Nature shouldn’t be gambled on.

“The great thing about farming is no two years are ever the same,” he said. “You start out every spring dumb as a rock and you learn something completely new this year, but there’s never a clear-cut pattern.”

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