In each of the last two Novembers, area grain operations piled towering mountains of corn on their lots — lasting images of the two best corn yields on record.
Those lots are empty this fall, symbols of a drought-ravaged growing season that has led the National Agricultural Statistics Service to predict that Wisconsin's corn yield will be the lowest in 16 years and 20 percent lower than last year.
However, this season hasn't been the disaster for farmers many were forecasting earlier this year when the drought was threatening to wipe out much of the corn in the southern third of the state.
Based on conditions as of Nov. 1, NASS is forecasting a yield of 125 bushels per acre in the state, which would be the lowest since 1996 when a corn borer outbreak cut yields to 111 bushels per acre. It also would be 31 bushels per acre fewer than last year and 37 fewer than record-setting 2010.
But it's far higher than the 67 bushels per acre yield in 1988, which had a drought comparable to this year's. Experts are crediting genetic technology that has created more drought-resistant corn.
"I think everybody is looking at the numbers and saying this wasn't their best year but it was a decent year," said Joe Speich, an agronomist who specializes in corn production for Landmark Services Cooperative's Evansville office. "It depends on crop insurance and final yield. Plus, they might not have had a higher yield but they got a better price for it."
Prices help some, hurt others
Corn prices rose to $7.12 per bushel in Dane County on Tuesday, according to the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association. That is 22 percent higher than 13 months ago, more than offsetting the lower average yield.
"Net result, you'll probably see cash grain farmers better off in terms of total revenue, particularly if they get any crop insurance to cover any losses they might have had. The crop farmers are going to get through this fine," said UW-Madison agricultural economics professor Bruce Jones.
But the higher corn prices are bad news for ethanol producers as well as dairy and livestock farmers, especially those in the western parts of the country who don't grow corn. Wisconsin livestock farmers have more of a buffer because most grow some of what they feed, Jones said.
Ethanol plants are feeling the pain from the combination of the higher corn prices with lower gas prices. Jones said he won't be surprised if some ethanol plants are shut down at least temporarily over the next several months. "The only thing that is helping them right now is the 10 percent blending mandate," Jones added.
Corn production suffered around much of the country. Total bushels produced this year are forecast to drop 36 percent in Illinois, 28 percent in Indiana, 19 percent in Iowa — the top corn-producing state — and 13 percent nationally.
Speich said the average yield for south-central Wisconsin farmers is around 100 bushels per acre, which is worse than much of the rest of the state. It's evident at Landmark's Evansville grain facility, where Speich said there were just 9 million bushels on site as of Wednesday. Last year at this time, there were 15 million bushels of corn on site, and there was a growing pile on the lot because the elevators and other storage facilities were full, he said.
UW-Madison agronomy professor Joe Lauer, an expert on corn production and cropping systems, said this has been an educational year for everyone in agriculture. What stands out for him are the performances of the hybrid seeds and the importance of crop rotation. He said fields planted with corn every year "got hammered the hardest" by the drought.
"When you rotate, those will be better-performing fields," Lauer added.