Farmers are watching the thermometer and the calendar, as their field crops inch toward harvest.
In many cases, the seed went in the ground later than usual during a too-wet spring, then grew slowly in a cool, dry August. How big and how well the crop grows before the first frost remains to be seen.
Field crops — those grown on a large scale across extended acreage — typically are used for animal feed in New York state, rather than for processing into other products. Every ton that local dairy farmers can grow themselves is one less ton that they have to buy.
“My yields are going to be down 25 [percent] to 30 percent,” said Jan King, co-owner of Kings Ransom Farm in Northumberland. It’s one of the largest dairy farms in the region, and its herd goes through a lot of cow chow.
“We grow a lot of what we feed,” King said. “This year has certainly been a challenge.”
It’s not unique to the Capital Region or even northeastern New York, Steve Ammerman of the New York Farm Bureau said. Most upstate farmland was too wet in May and June, then too cool and even a little too dry in August.
“Overall, we are a bit behind because of the wet weather,” he said. “I think it’s too soon to know what the total tonnage will be and whether there are going to be feed implications for our farmers.”
Kevin Ganoe, field crop specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension, said his entire seven-county region, from Saratoga County to Chenango County, is in the same situation.
“Corn in particular is behind, and it’s behind for two reasons,” he said — moisture and temperature.
Individual farms are better or worse than their neighbors a few miles away, because one has a soil structure that drains more quickly than the other, but all are seeing the effects of cool weather, Ganoe said. Corn needs warm weather for optimal growth; the combination of time and temperature is measured in “growing degree days.”
“We’re probably several weeks behind in terms of growing degree days,” Ganoe said.
David Holck, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency office in Greenwich, said the date of the first frost will be the determining factor in the quality and quantity of this year’s corn harvest.
“A lot of that corn that was planted late still has a long way to go,” he said. “What we’re really looking at now [is frost] because that’s going to end our season, and we still have a long way to go.”
Livestock feed is a carefully balanced blend of nutrients designed to maximize growth, health and, in the case of a dairy herd, milk production. Whole corn plants — stalk, leaves and the ear in its husk — can be chopped up into silage, or the kernels can be stripped off the ear and processed as feed grain. Ideally, dairy cows get both, plus hay, plus soybeans or other proteins.
New York farms typically produce enough silage corn for their dairy herd, Holck said, but not enough grain corn.
With ideal growing conditions and soil, Iowa is the national leader of grain corn production: 2.74 billion bushels in 2016 that was used for everything from sweetener to ethanol to animal feed. New York farms, by contrast, produced only 73.4 million bushels of grain corn, most of it for animal feed.
New York, with a larger dairy herd, produced more silage corn than Iowa — 8.16 million tons vs. 7.92. But Iowa's soil and climate again proved superior: Its farmers produced 24 tons of silage corn per acre, compared with a New York average of only 16 tons per acre.
So New York farmers are starting from a lower baseline when conditions reduce yield. On the positive side, Holck said, farmers who need to buy more grain than usual won’t find it any more expensive than in years past.
In an ideal New York summer, Ganoe said, silage corn could be cut starting Sept. 1. The earliest this year is likely to be Sept. 15, and some fields won’t be ready until Oct. 1, he said.
The growing season has been far from ideal at Kings Ransom Farm, but there have been some bright spots, King said. As they were sitting and waiting to plant their corn this spring, a two-day window opened in which they were able to complete an early first harvest of hay. They were beginning their fourth cutting of hay Friday, which normally wouldn’t happen until October; some area farms have had only two cuttings, King said.
So the hay bunks are full at Kings Ransom, despite an invasion of leafhoppers and other insect pests in the fields earlier this year.
Each spring, the Kings lay out the best strategy they can for the season. This year, they didn’t plant any soybeans and had to switch to faster-growing varieties of corn. Three months later, they’re not even going to try to harvest any grain corn, Jan King said.
“This year’s going to be different, we’re not able to have that luxury,” he said.
The farm always grows feed for quality rather and quantity, because that increases milk production, so all corn will be chopped into good silage rather than used for possibly substandard grain.
“We’re just so dependent on the weather,” he said. “That’s always a wild card.”