The end of the year makes for long days as farmers like Jeff Barlow slog away the hours in behemoth combines to get crops off the fields before night consumes day and Christmas arrives.
On a recent Tuesday, Barlow’s crew, with two harvesters, two grain buggies and two grain trucks, were tackling some of the over 4,000 acres of grains and oil seeds grown by Barlow Farms, several hundred of which lie within Niagara’s boundaries.
“Right now the ground is basically frozen, so I can drive right over it and not leave any ruts,” Barlow said from the cab of a 9870 John Deere combine, moving along at a peppy eight kilometres per hour.
This growing season has been erratic for Niagara’s corn growers, with a dry summer and sporadic rainfall that greatly affected who saw better yields.
“This is actually better corn over here than closer to where the home front is,” Barlow said. He owns Barlow Farms in Hamilton.
Wet weather at the beginning of the season delayed planting and when the sun did finally arrive, it tended to overstay its welcome, with many areas across the Niagara Peninsula not receiving rain until midsummer.
Instead of putting out leaves weekly as corn plants should, dry weather put plants under stress, causing them to stall growth, explained Melody Robinson, an agronomist with Clark Agri Service in Wellandport.
During the five-to-10-day window when corn pollinates, the heat stress also caused many plants to conserve their resources and “abort” kernels, most noticeable at the tips of corn ears.
Corn plants had poor uptake of nitrogen applied at planting and, despite applications later in the season in the hopes of providing a boost, the plants remained stubborn.
According to Robinson, Wellandport and Wainfleet areas had lower than average yields but still fared decently. Other pockets that didn’t catch rain, like Fort Erie and Smithville – not so much.
“Smithville was just decimated,” Robinson said, adding that some farmers simply left their soybean heads on to harvest with how small the stalks were.
Anecdotally, she’s heard that one out of every three Niagara farmers has a crop insurance claim in this year, due to poor yields.
The good news can be found rounding out the season, with a crisp, dry fall making for phenomenal harvesting conditions.
For the first time in eight years, fall fertilizer applications were a go thanks to dry conditions, said Robinson. That’ll save farmers a few days come springtime.
“The biggest thing that affects quality is how early it freezes,” Barlow said, back in the cab of the 9870.
This year frosted over late in the season, giving corn a chance to mature and “dry down” on its own.
A monitor in the cab showed the moisture level for the corn being harvested averaging 20 – it’s typically around 24, Barlow said.
Corn kernels rush into the bin on a combine harvester operated by Jeff Barlow (out of frame), owner of Barlow Farms, on Dec. 8, 2020.
Farmers won’t need to spend as much cash drying out kernels after harvesting.
Drying naturally is also more gentle on the kernels. What nature does in a month, a dryer does in an hour. It can cause kernels to shrink and harm their integrity.
Barlow has sold about half of this year’s crop, and with $6 cash prices, the payoff is ahead of where it should be during harvest times when corn is in higher supply.
“They’re up high because people believe China is going to buy up everything,” said farmer Lenny Summers, who also runs a grain elevator service at Summers Acres in Fonthill.
China made its largest-ever purchase of U.S. corn at 1.76 million tonnes this past summer. With significant American supplies going to China, there’s more room for Canadian exports to play in the global market.
As another one of the few remaining days in a tough year drew to a close, Barlow steered his combine toward its resting place for the night, where, facing eastward, it would be met by a new day’s rising sun.
Jordan Snobelen is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter at Niagara This Week