A silhouette of a silo in Houston County at sunset.
A silhouette of a silo in Houston County at sunset.
While farmers across the Corn Belt saw fields wither under hot, dry conditions last summer, those in the southeastern corner of Minnesota scraped by, thanks to a few lucky showers and improved varieties.

"We got rescued a couple different times this summer when the rain came in the nick of time," Jerrold Tesmer said last week.

Tesmer, who serves as University of Minnesota Extension educator for Fillmore and Houston counties, noted that area farmers found a mixed bag this year.

"It was kind of strange. Usually your earliest-planted corn does the best. But in at least a few cases with the later-planted corn, you got a shot of rain that occurred more timely for pollination.

"That ideal summer doesn't happen very often. This was a little less than ideal yet we came out very well overall."

Challenging growing conditions were widespread. A USDA report on Aug. 5 rated 50 percent of the corn crop nationwide as being in poor to very poor condition. Those numbers included: Illinois 74 percent, Indiana 73 percent, Ohio 52 percent, Iowa 49 percent, South Dakota 48 percent and 37 percent in Nebraska. Minnesota had 16 percent rated poor/very poor at that time.

The Houston County Farm Service Agency (FSA) collects yield data for its commodity loan program.

In 2012, Houston County farmers averaged 175 bushels per acre for corn and 53 bushels per acre on soybeans, FSA executive director Kevin Elton reported.

"That's below average compared to some years on corn, but soybeans were probably about average compared to the last five years," Elton said.

"It was spotty throughout the county, but typically we're in the 180s for corn. We were probably down 10 bushels per acre this year."

Roger Taylor of Farmers Co-op Elevator spoke from his office in Rushford.

"Beans were actually better than last year," he noted. "I talked to several farmers bringing in corn to the elevator, and they made the comment that they saw some of the worst yields they've ever combined, but they also saw some of the best."

All three men said that soil type and spotty rainfall played a huge part in the roulette wheel that farmers spun this year.

"Some of the lighter soils were a complete failure," Elton said.

Taylor agreed, "There's areas of lighter soils that got hurt a lot worse, where yields were down to zero, but we also saw the good ground do much better than anybody expected this year.

"There were an awful lot of people who were very nervous on what the year was going to bring."

Tesmer said, "When it's dry you get all sorts of complicating aspects affecting the crop.

"Sometimes insects do better, so perhaps corn rootworm beetles may clip silks off. Herbicides may not work as well, and we have cases where the fertilizer didn't work. It's out there but it's unavailable. The root is here and three or four inches away is the fertilizer. Without moisture the two didn't get together."

Elton added, "Compared to some of the areas to the south of us, the whole of southeast Minnesota was very fortunate.

"Some of the areas south and east of us missed some of those timely rains. I hope we get some rain this winter. We would hate to come into next year this dry."

Taylor pointed out, "A lot of people compare this year to 1988. One of the huge differences between '88 and this year was we did not have herbicide resistant varieties (then).

"Weed control was a huge issue that year because we were very limited as to what chemicals we could use to control weeds.

"The majority of corn varieties that are planted today have herbicide resistance in them. We were able to start this year with very good weed control, so you didn't have the competition in the field on a year when we were short on moisture."

Elton elaborated, "I would say that genetics has a lot to do with it. Most of the corn varieties have some drought resistance today, where all you need is a few spotty rains to mature the crop. It's come a long ways."

Tesmer explained, "They've gained a couple bushels per acre per year based on genetics. But it's not just drought tolerance; there are other factors as well.

"Drought tolerance doesn't mean that they can stand zero rain, obviously, but they can get by with a little less. That's kind of been pushing the Corn Belt north and further west. Now in some parts of the Dakotas that didn't used to be considered corn country at all they can grow corn.

"For a hot, dry summer, it could have been worse!"

Taylor summed it up, "Just catching that one or two showers at the critical time made a big difference.

"Our farmers in this area were blessed with not only catching a couple showers, but because of the short crop in the rest of the country, they got a good price.

"They should be counting their lucky stars."