Ron Makovicka didn't know what he'd lost until he was pulling a grain cart through one of his York County fields, following the combine driven by his son.
All around him, the land remained littered with loose ears of corn, like money left on the ground.
He thought maybe the combine was the problem. He radioed his son, asking: Are you doing this? Are you doing that?
But the corn had snapped from its stalks and fallen to the ground days earlier, the result of what agriculture experts called a perfect storm: A series of weather conditions over the growing season that had been good, and then bad, for certain hybrid seed varieties, producing big-kerneled ears but weakening their grip to the stalks.
And when strong winds — exceeding 40 mph in many areas, topping 50 mph in others — raked the state in late October, the rattling corn simply couldn't hang on.
Most farmers wouldn't know they were suffering the worst recent season of what they call ear drop until the gusts died, when they were in their fields, looking down from their combines and tractors.
“It really turned your stomach when you saw all that crop on the ground,” Makovicka said. “And there was nothing you could do about it.”
The losses are significant and widespread.
“There’s no good way to get a handle on it,” said Jenny Rees, a Nebraska extension educator. ”But it’s thousands and thousands and thousands of acres statewide.”
In Makovicka's most-damaged field, he counted 70 bushels of corn per acre — grain he couldn't salvage, couldn't sell at the elevator. Rees has heard of northeast Nebraska farms that lost 100 bushels per acre, or nearly $50,000 of missed income on each quarter-section.
That's unprecedented and outrageous these days. “With modern farming technology, we hardly ever leave anything anymore,” said Randy Pryor, an extension educator in Saline County. “If you're leaving more than a bushel or two, people are awfully upset.”
The problems will extend beyond harvest. Many growers will be forced to pay for more herbicide, when the corn they couldn't harvest this year sprouts among their soybeans next year. Some farmers who graze their cattle in harvested fields are realizing, after it's too late, that their animals are gorging on more corn than their bodies can handle.
“I'd never had a problem and I've been doing it for 30 years,” said Steve Wenz, who farms near Firth. “I put them (cattle) out on a Tuesday morning and, Thursday morning, I had three dead ones.”
'A perfect storm'
Makovicka was preparing for his most-bountiful harvest in the 40 years he's been farming in York County.
Before the winds, he'd harvested a test plot and the yield was encouraging — 275 to 280 bushels per acre. “It would have been the best year ever,” he said.
But the ground was still wet, and he had beans to harvest, so he put the rest of the corn on hold.
West of Wilber, Hugh Clarke had no idea his crop was damaged. “I really didn't know until I got in the combine and started actually picking up the corn,” he said. “You could see it all knocked over.”
And near Firth, Wenz couldn't know anything was wrong until he counted up to 40 bushels of wasted corn per acre from the cab of his Case combine. “The shank broke off and the ears were on the ground.”
They all were realizing a problem that started months ago, at the beginning of the growing season, Rees said.
“It was a perfect storm,” she said. “We had different stress events early on.”
She chronicled them last month on UNL's CropWatch, an online newsletter for farmers, and to the Journal Star: During pollination, high heat weakened the shanks — the tie between the corn and the stalks — and cool August temperatures resulted in bigger ears. “They produced really heavy kernels, really deep kernels. There was quite a bit of weight.”
October rains contributed to stalk rot, followed by the damaging winds the week of Oct. 23.
The corn couldn't hang on.
“The Thursday of that week, that really wreaked havoc on those plants. Those ear shanks were brittle from all of these combination of factors. It was the final straw.”
But there was another straw. Certain seed varieties proved more vulnerable than others, and the loss varied from farm to farm, even from field to field, Rees said.
Several farmers said this was primarily a problem with specific Pioneer hybrids; Makovicka, Wenz and Clarke all experienced ear drop with Pioneer seed, though Clarke also planted, and lost, Mycogen corn.
Depending on soil conditions, or terrain, growers mix up their seed selection — one variety for a dryland field, another for irrigated land. One for a creek bottom, another for a hillside.
“It's an important choice a producer makes every year,” said Pryor, the Saline County extension educator. “It's difficult to project what particular hybrid would be the best, so it's always good to not put your eggs in one basket.”
Neither Pryor nor Rees could say this year's loss was primarily a Pioneer problem.
“There are some Pioneer varieties that were implicated, but there were other varieties from other companies that were implicated,” Pryor said.
“Every company had some hybrid that was affected by it,” Rees said.
'Food for the deer and coons’
Collecting corn from the ground is hard work — and hard on equipment. And at $3 per bushel, not always worth it.
“But if it were $7 a bushel, we'd have everybody wanting to do it,” Pryor said.
Clarke donated the leftover corn from a 100-acre field west of Wilber to Saline County 4-H junior leaders, who are raising money for a trip to Washington. Saturday, about 20 4-H members and their parents walked the field with five-gallon buckets, picking up ears for Clarke to run through his combine.
They hand-picked about 15 acres, collecting about 200 bushels. They'd hoped to do more.
“I was proud of the kids,” Pryor said. “But it was definitely hard work.”
The rest of the corn will likely stay on the ground, Clarke said. “It's going to be food for the deer and the coons.”
Some farmers have used soybean heads on their combines, but all the soil they pick up is tough on the machines. And they get docked at the elevator because the corn is so dirty, Rees said.
Pryor heard a secondhand story of a farmer who bought a used, inexpensive combine to try to harvest the corn on the ground.
Some farmers have raked it and baled it for feed. Others have opened their fields to cows, but they need to be careful, Rees said. The cows aren’t used to eating 100 percent corn, and they don’t know when to stop.
“They look at the grain like it was candy or ice cream,” she said. But their stomachs can’t digest it, and too much can kill the animals.
She and others have been trying to educate producers, instructing them to use corn-based feed beforehand to acclimate their animals, to graze multiple cows in smaller areas, to feed them first so they don’t overeat on corn, and to move them frequently.
Near Firth, Wenz didn't see the problem until it was too late. He put 80 cow-calf pairs in his field, checked them daily, and pulled them out when he found three dead animals a few days later.
Another $4,500 hit on top of the corn he couldn’t harvest.
“I could have lost them all,” he said. “It could have been a disaster.”