Scott Flowers pulled off the highway and eased onto a winding county road, anxious to check his crops on an eerily quiet Friday morning. Truck wheels crunched gravel as he rolled alongside one field after another. Cotton; check. Soybeans; check. Peanuts; check. Corn? Corn? Over 200 acres of the best corn on Flower’s entire farm had vanished overnight.
A bushel-heavy field set for the entry in the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) yield contest was missing, and as Flowers stared across the blank spot with a mix of curiosity and nausea, he was unsure whether to rely on memory or trust his eyesight: “At first, I was wondering if we’d already disked the field. I knew we hadn’t, but I couldn’t believe what I saw from a distance. Then I got closer, saw a few stalks sticking up and knew it was all real.”
Flattened by rain and wind from overnight storms, the missing corn was hiding on the ground, unbroken but uprooted. Pressed by the time constraints of ongoing harvest, Flowers weighed his options and ordered a corn reel, intent on recovering bushels. However, the seasoned Mattson, Miss., producer knew he was about to walk a farming tightrope: Salvaging yield with a corn reel comes with a mix of variables.
When Hurricane Harvey smashed into south Texas on Aug. 25, its fury reached far beyond the Lone Star state. Five days later the storm moved across the north Mississippi Delta (on the night of Aug. 30) and dumped 6” of rain followed by 50 mph straight-line winds. Flowers had already harvested 1,600 corn acres and had 400 acres left to combine. Beaten by a day, half of his remaining acreage was on the ground. “We were saving that field for the yield contest,” he explains. “We had made a couple passes and it was going 250-plus easy. It was the best looking field on our farm.”
At first glance, the fallen corn plants appeared to have been gently pushed to the ground, with no broken stalks, and root wads entirely exposed. The heavy rain first softened the ground around the roots and the subsequent strong winds blew over the crop. Relying on 50 years of combining experience, Joe Small, Omega Plantation, Clarksdale, Miss., compares the loosening of root wads to fallen trees. “It’s just like a fallen tree in your yard. One year winds can break it in half at 5’ high around a weak spot. Another year, rains make the ground really soft and a tree root wad rips clean out of the ground. It’s the same action with corn and variety is also a factor.”
The downed corn was composed entirely of a single variety. Flowers acknowledges the risk of tall, high-yielding corn: “Taller, top-heavy varieties without great stalk strength go down faster. Once it happens to you and 200 acres blow over, you start thinking about varieties that won’t go down so easy.”
With yield on the ground, Flowers ordered a Hawkins corn reel with paddles positioned to create narrow clearance and help prevent corn from escaping over the outside dividers. (The reel also handles flow evenly and keeps an operator in the cab.) After 10 days in transit, four days of assembly, and a missing part, Flowers finally was able to roll into the damaged corn field. “It worked very well once we got it going. The reel handled the flow evenly and didn’t chunk up the header,” he describes.
“With a reel, you come behind and go with the flow at about 2 or 3 miles per hour,” Small adds. “The reel will clear the clutter off the header.”
Flowers estimates the corn reel quadrupled the normal combining time of standing corn. Along with time spent waiting to get the reel in the field, he was forced to hire outside cutters to harvest several soybean fields. “I had to pay to have 500 acres of soybeans cut although I’d normally have more than enough combines, but that’s the way things go sometimes at harvest when a crop is ready to go.”
How did Flowers fare when the bushels came out of the field? His farm’s overall corn yield average was 215 bu. per acre, and he suspects the 200 acres were ready to yield up to 265 bu. per acre. However, after combining with the corn reel, Flowers still managed to match his farm average on the downed 200 acres: 215 bu. per acre. Essentially, he estimates a 50-bushel loss per acre from the hurricane effect.
“I don’t know if the reel paid for itself when I think about time lost and considering I paid to have some of my beans cut. Taken together, the lost time and lost bushels were tough,” he explains.
Small says loss from downed corn is dependent on a host of factors: rain, wind, variety, stalk breakage point, foliage, and how the corn is positioned on the ground. “In my experience, when you run a corn reel through a damaged field, you expect to regain just below 50% to upwards of 85% of yield,” he notes.
“I’d tell anyone with downed corn to know a loss is coming. Factor in all the conditions and estimate the overall loss, and then you can figure out if it’s time to bring in a corn reel,” Small advises. “You might not need the reel for 10 years, but you also might need it the very next season.”
“For us, the corn reel was an investment and a little bit of insurance,” Flowers says. “If we get in this situation again, we’ll hook up to the reel and be ready to go.”