'It was too dry in July and August'

No-till, cover crops mitigate drought-stressed corn harvest

Mitchell Hora holds up corn cobs that show the varying impact of this summer’s drought on corn grown in his family’s fields. (James Jennings/The Union)
Mitchell Hora holds up corn cobs that show the varying impact of this summer’s drought on corn grown in his family’s fields. (James Jennings/The Union)

Mitchell Hora steps over some freshly cut rows of corn in a field northeast of Washington to inspect some ears of corn in the still-standing rows.

He peels back the leaves and pulls out a fully developed, healthy looking cob of corn.

He counts the rows on the cob and does a quick calculation.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Hora said with a grin. “That’s 280 bushel corn right there.”

The widespread drought this year has resulted in many corn farmers seeing a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in yield.

Iowa State University Extension Field Agronomist Virgil Schmitt explained that drought-stressed corn experiences what is called “tip back.”

Tip back is where the kernels do not develop toward the end of the cob.

“It’s a typical response when the corn is drought-stressed,” Schmitt said. “The plants say, ‘I don’t have enough to support all of these children, so I’ll pull back.’”

He said a small amount of tip back is expected.

“If you don’t have a little bit of that tip back, you don’t have enough plants,” Schmitt said.

For the Hora family, this year’s corn crop has seen its share of drought stress, but their field management practices have helped mitigate the drop in yield.

Hora said that the family has been using no-till practices on their fields for 10 years and utilizing cover crops for five years.

Using no-till and cover crops, along with reducing synthetic inputs, the fields are better protected from drought by keeping more water in the soil.

“Where we are fixing these things, that plant doesn’t get burned up and get droughty as early,” Hora said. “It’s able to hold on a little bit more. We’re still experiencing some of these issues too, but we’ve got some corn that’s pretty dang good. .

“It’s because that soil has been built up so it can hold on a little bit longer.”

They use a mix of wheat, crimson clover and hairy vetch on their corn fields.

“The main thing is we are utilizing the no-till and cover crops to continue to stimulate biology in the soil,” Hora said. “In farming, we’ve really kind of forgotten about the biology piece.”

He explained that using no-till practices helps to keep the soil home for microbes more stable.

“Every time you use tillage, it destroys their house, and they have to rebuild,” he said. “It takes them backwards.”

By utilizing cover crops, they keep photosynthesis happening year round.

“In Iowa, we’re only raising corn and soybeans from May through September,” Hora said. “We have a lot of time of the year when there’s no photosynthesis going on.

“With the cover crop, we can maintain photosynthesis all the time, and that’s what’s allowing us to build up our soils.”

Brian Hora, the family’s patriarch, explained how building up the soil in his fields has helped the fields to better hold water.

“If we can take water in, that means there’s pore space in there, and that means we’re getting oxygen down into the soil,” Brian Hora said. “That keeps all the microbes going more active. You’ve got to have that air movement in the soil.”

Mitchell Hora said that they tested some fields with the heavy spring rains. The tests showed that their fields could infiltrate 4 inches of rain in less than five minutes.

“That is what is helping us survive in July,” he said. “That’s what’s helping us hold on a little bit further than if we didn’t have that water-holding capacity.”

Even using no-till and cover crops, the Hora family has seen a mixed bag in regard to yield.

“Some of the corn that we’re in, it’s running 280 bushels and some of it’s running 80 bushels,” Mitchell Hora said. “It’s way all over the board. What we’re seeing is that things just burned up. It was too dry in July and August.”

He said he was thankful that the family’s field practices have helped much of the crop through the drought.

“It would be scary to see where we were at if we didn’t have that soil built up,” he said. “We just might have a good Christmas after all.”