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With a lack of hay, corn is now the focus of farmers in central Minnesota

The drought continues to make farmers in the region come up with new ways to cope with a lack of forage.

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One local harvester, Matt Richter, started round baling drought stricken corn fields in the region including this field near Verndale. Photo contributed by Judy Richter

WADENA, Minn. — Jordan Folkestad, a custom hay baler in the Wadena, Minnesota, area is thankful that he's been able to bale hay this year, even if he's only getting half as much as usual in the normally wettest areas.

"I've been blessed to a do a lot of meadows," Folkestad said. Meadows are about the only thing producing right now after dismal amounts of rain throughout the entire growing season for much of the sandy soils of central Minnesota. Areas often under water during the summer are now dry enough to get in and cut off any forage.

While the hay crop will be down significantly for most farmers locally, at least one farmer is looking to get the most of drought-stricken corn this August.

Matt Richter, with Richter's Cattle Company would normally be baling hay for area farmers. With limited supplies of hay coming, he went to work Monday, Aug. 9, baling dryland corn in and around the Verndale, Minnesota, area. By Tuesday, he had amassed about 150 tightly wrapped bales of corn. With the corn at about 70% moisture and surprisingly low levels of nitrates, he was pleased to be putting up what he considered a good feed for area feeder cattle.

"Most guys are only getting 30-50% of the hay they normally would," Richter said.

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Farmers have headed to the low grounds to pick up any extra meadow grass they can get like this area along the Leaf River north of Wadena. A two-man crew was baling and stacking there Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

The activity brought out a flurry of interested onlookers who watched as the withering corn crop was cut and baled within 12-24 hours. Matt's dad, Jack Richter, stopped in to see the process as it was something he'd never seen in his 84 years.

"He'd never seen anybody do it this way," Matt said with a laugh.

"This was a brainstorm, about six to eight farmers got together," Richter said Tuesday, taking a break from the baling action. The crop in many of these areas includes little if any actual corn kernels to harvest. Harvesting the corn plant at least allows for a feed option.

He said he saw similar baling done while working in North Dakota when they were going through a worse drought period in 2017. He brought some of those practices along with the help of nutrition experts to devise how to get the most out of the corn. A moisture level too high or low and this won't work. Nitrate levels too high and it can be dangerous.

"It's hard on equipment, takes the right equipment and technique," Richter said.

He said this has been tried several times back in the '70s and '80s when there was drought. At that time the equipment was just not good enough to get the most out of the feed. Farmers may like this option as opposed to paying the shipping costs of hauling in hay from bordering states. Richter said states such as Nebraska and Wisconsin are having much better hay crops than Minnesota. About 35% of Minnesota is currently in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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While Richter is busy baling, he said he's now seeing others get their corn choppers out and starting to chop some of the dryland corn, too. These areas of dry corn, he said, are not going to recover with any rainfall. And at this point, no significant rainfall is forecasted.

The University of Minnesota offers some helpful tips on handling the harvest of drought-stricken corn on its Minnesota Crop News website blog-crop-news.extension.umn.edu.

The recommended moisture levels for the different storage options of corn silage are:

  • 65-70% for bunkers
  • 60-70% for bags
  • 60-65% for upright stave silos
  • 55-60% for upright oxygen-limiting silos
  • 40-55% for baleage

While taking a crop off the field in these dry conditions opens up the ground to soil erosion, getting a cover crop to germinate could also be difficult, according to Jared Goplen with the University of Minnesota. In the drought-stricken areas that will be chopping drought-stressed corn for silage, there is insufficient water in the upper soil profile to germinate cover crop seed. Any seed planted will remain ungerminated until rainfall is received, making this a riskier practice than normal. Every field is unique, so farmers should evaluate their options to protect soil from wind and water erosion on a field-by-field basis and utilize cover crops this year if it is a good fit for their fields.

Related Topics: AGRICULTUREWADENA COUNTY
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