Southwestern Ontario corn farmers playing catchup following late start

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It’s an expression you hear a lot at this time of year in the farming communities of Southwestern Ontario.

In order for a farmer’s corn fields to produce a bumper crop, the corn must be “knee-high by the first of July.”

“That’s an old saying. Then you know you’ve got a good start,” said Chatham-area farmer Clarence Nywening, president of the Christian Farmers Federation.

So given that standard, how are corn fields in our region measuring up?

“This year, there’s a lot of field that just made that,” Nywening said of the knee-high yardstick.

The problem, he said, is that with modern farming machinery and advances in growing technology, the corn really ought to be shoulder-high by now — as has been the case in the last five or six summers.

What happened is that a lot of farmers weren’t able to plant their corn at the beginning of May.

The London area received above-average rainfall in April and May — 133 millimetres fell in May compared with the average of 89 millimetres.

There was too much moisture because of spring rains, so farmer didn’t plant until the last week of May or first week of June, Nywening said. Some farmers even decided to go with soybeans instead of corn.

“Your biggest challenge is getting it in the ground. We’re basically a month behind on average,” Nywening said. “It’s been a challenging year.”

What that means in the long run is that farmers risk bumping up against a fall frost in September or October, which can be devastating to corn.

Todd Austin, the wheat marketing manager for Grain Farmers of Ontario, has also heard of some growers switching to soybeans. He calls the growing conditions so far this year “a mixed bag.”

“We’ve had some challenges this year with weather,” Austin said. “It’s certainly been frustrating for a number of people.

“The corn crop, some got in in relatively decent time. A lot got planted later than we hoped to get in.”

What this means is that some corn is knee-high, some shorter, some taller.

“What’s come in looks decent for the most part. It’s at various levels of development,” Austin said.

What’s working in the favour of farmers, he said, is that modern strains have a superior “suite of agronomic traits” than previous strains. That still doesn’t change the fact farming is an art, as well as a science.

Farmers can go from a drought one year, like last year, to flooding the next spring.

“Knee-high by the first of July is kind of an older saying,” Austin said. “Everyone still uses it.”

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