MANDAN, North Dakota — A field of corn north of Mandan, North Dakota, serves as a perfect illustration of what the drought of 2021 has done to crops and what the potential could have been with some moisture.

The field is under pivots, but like many such fields, several rows on the end miss out on the irrigation water. The stalks are short, some barely reaching knee high, and the rare ears of corn that come out of them stick out at odd angles. Some ears even seem to have grown out of the top of the diminutive stalks. Many of the tiny cobs did not fill with kernels to the ends. Most stalks have nothing on them at all and had already browned by Aug. 31 when the Agweek Corn and Soybeans Tour came through the area.

The end rows of a corn field north of Mandan, North Dakota, show the effects of the drought of 2021. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
The end rows of a corn field north of Mandan, North Dakota, show the effects of the drought of 2021. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
"Where the water didn't hit from the pivot, we have nothing," Spence Koenig, owner of Direct Ag Supply said. "There's some stalks and a couple little tiny ears."

But walk in the corn just a little ways, where the end gun of the pivot hits, and Koenig points out a "night and day difference." The stalks gradually become taller, and the cobs are long and thick, with kernels filled to the end. It much more closely resembles a normal year of corn.

Spence Koenig, owner of Direct Ag Supply in Mandan, North Dakota, shows the difference between corn cobs taken from irrigated fields versus dryland. In addition to being smaller, less filled cobs, the dryland corn also has fewer ears. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, north of Mandan, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Spence Koenig, owner of Direct Ag Supply in Mandan, North Dakota, shows the difference between corn cobs taken from irrigated fields versus dryland. In addition to being smaller, less filled cobs, the dryland corn also has fewer ears. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, north of Mandan, North Dakota. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Unfortunately for most farmers, little corn is irrigated in western North Dakota. Plenty of entire fields look like the end rows of the field north of Mandan, with short stalks, inconsistent growth and few ears.

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"Probably 5% of the corn is under irrigation, and that all looks really good," Koenig said. "The (growing degree units) were there. There's going to be some really nice irrigated corn."

That irrigated corn could yield 180 to 200 bushels per acre, he figures. That's a much different picture than the dryland corn.

Ears of corn from a field north of Mandan, North Dakota, show the difference between irrigated corn and dryland corn during the drought of 2021. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Ears of corn from a field north of Mandan, North Dakota, show the difference between irrigated corn and dryland corn during the drought of 2021. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Very little dryland corn will end up being combined, he said. Silage chopping is well underway in the area.

"Most of it is getting silaged due to the fact that the nitrates are so high on it," he said.

The fermentation process involved in silage reduces nitrate levels, while baling the tiny stalks could lead to overly high nitrate levels that could hurt or kill livestock. Even so, Koenig said there is a small amount of corn being baled, too.

A corn field under pivots north of Mandan, North Dakota, shows the difference between dryland corn and irrigated corn in western North Dakota. The corn on the ends of the field did not get hit with irrigation water and is stunted and will not produce much. Plants are inconsistent sizes and have few cobs. Moving deeper into the field, the crop improves significantly. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
A corn field under pivots north of Mandan, North Dakota, shows the difference between dryland corn and irrigated corn in western North Dakota. The corn on the ends of the field did not get hit with irrigation water and is stunted and will not produce much. Plants are inconsistent sizes and have few cobs. Moving deeper into the field, the crop improves significantly. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Koenig has heard reports of silage yielding two to five tons per acre. There aren't a lot of ears in the corn to help bulk up the feed. A normal silage yield in the area would be about 15 tons per acre, he said.

A normal grain yield in the area is 120 bushels. If there is grain corn good enough to be combined, Koenig estimates the very best stuff will run 30 to 40 bushels per acre.

"If it does that, that would be really good," he said. "I would say most of it, that will be combined, more like that 20, though."

Spence Koenig, owner of Direct Ag Supply in Mandan, North Dakota, picks some cobs of corn from an irrigated portion of a field north of Mandan on Aug. 31, 2021. Unlike nearby dryland corn, the cobs on the irrigated corn are full and normal sized.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Spence Koenig, owner of Direct Ag Supply in Mandan, North Dakota, picks some cobs of corn from an irrigated portion of a field north of Mandan on Aug. 31, 2021. Unlike nearby dryland corn, the cobs on the irrigated corn are full and normal sized. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
Koenig has noticed some agronomic management decisions that have helped some fields. Lighter tillage has helped in some places. When he harvests, Koenig will be watching for the differences on his own fields where he used vertical tillage versus no till.

Another factor that seemed to help some farmers was using planters that regulate the amount of force used to put seeds into the ground. With the ground already drought-hardened in the spring, some planters were not set with enough force to get the seed in far enough to hit moisture. Koenig said newer planters equipped with precision tools to regulate that continually helped get the seed into the right place.