By STEVE BINDER
WHITE COUNTY, Ill. — Richard Gates and his son tend approximately 2,200 acres in southeastern Illinois, and this year they planted about 1,000 acres of corn. They put the seed in the ground early, thanks to perfect conditions in late March and early April, and all signs initially pointed to a bumper crop.
Today, as Gates looks at his fields, stalks are barely three feet tall, and he’s pulling out all the stops and hoping for an average yield of about 10 bushels per acre; he usually produces about 130.
Welcome to the world of southern Illinois growers. The country’s second-highest-producing corn state is withering under extreme drought conditions, with little relief in sight.
“I’ve got a friend nearby who told me the other day that he’s going to have a bumper crop this year. I said, ‘What?’ And he replied, ‘Yep – my crop will end up as high as my bumper,” Gates said. “You gotta try and find some humor in this. You can either cry or laugh, and I’d prefer to laugh.”
What to do with fields full of scorched corn now is posing a dilemma for growers because what little matter produced is likely nitrate-heavy due to a lack of soil moisture. Robert Bellm, a University of Illinois extension educator, said nitrate concentrations in drought-ravaged corn are highest in the lower portions of corn stalks. Harvesting the top two-thirds of plants is recommended if growers shoot to salvage their fields for livestock feed.
“These (nitrate) levels will be highest in fields that received high nitrogen fertilizer or manure applications and in plants that are severely stunted and did not form an ear,” he said.
Mixing high-nitrate forages with other grain lower in nitrates should be safe to use as livestock feed.
“Within limits, animals can be conditioned to consume high-nitrate forages as long as they are introduced to them slowly,” Bellm said. “Making hay from drought-damaged corn will not reduce nitrate levels. Hay made from drought-damaged corn should be tested prior to feeding.”
Ensiling the forage can reduce nitrate levels by up to 60 percent. Because fermentation may take up to 21 days, silage should not be fed for at least three weeks after being put into a silo or bag, he continued.
“Care should be taken when ensiling high-nitrate forages because of the potential for production of nitrogen oxide silo gases, which are toxic,” he said.
Fermenting corn as silage can reduce nitrate levels by 25-40 percent, said the U of I’s Mike Hutjens, an animal sciences professor. Baling corn silage as hay or baleage is similar to grass hay quality when the plants are immature. No nitrate changes will occur when producing dry hay.
Adding a silage inoculant to improve fermentation is recommended because naturally occurring bacteria may be low. Do not add urea or limestone; it can slow fermentation, he said.
“Livestock producers may be able to purchase drought-stress corn locally, as it has little value for grain or hog producers,” Hutjens said. “Like livestock producers in the southwest areas of the United States last summer, dairy managers are asking what will be available and affordable for their dairy cattle this fall and winter. Drought-stress corn silage may be an alternative, locally.”
Gates, who doesn’t raise cattle, said he’ll salvage as much corn as he can. “Even a little rain will help right now, but it doesn’t look good at all,” he said. “If I did have cattle, I’d be very careful using this because of the potential for nitrate poisoning.”