It’s a blue-sky day as hired hand Mike Apfel sits in the cab of a combine, gliding through 12 rows at a time in a big field near South Hutchinson.
If all goes well this last field of corn of the season might be done by nightfall - well before thunderstorms halt machinery this week.
Not that there isn’t plenty to do in autumn on the farm.
It’s October. While corn is done, the marathon of autumn continues.
“October is always a busy month,” said Apfel, who works for Haven farmer CB Showalter. “We’re finishing corn, there are beans to cut, wheat to drill. There is just a lot going on.”
For Kansas farmers, fall is one of the busier seasons of the year. They are harvesting corn, milo, beans and sunflowers. Some will be stripping cotton. And there is wheat to plant.
“We’d like to get some wheat in before the rain,” said Apfel. “But if not, we’ll have to put it in after the rain.”
Of course, no one is complaining about rain after the dry late summer and fall, Apfel said, adding it would have been nice if the plentiful spring moisture was spread out throughout the season. It was wet enough in the spring the farm had to replant some mud holes and other areas that didn’t get a good stand.
Of the 25 1/2 inches of rain that has fallen on parts of Reno County since January, nearly 14 inches of rain came between March and May, according to the National Weather Service.
“In the spring, we had a hard time getting it in the ground,” said Apfel.
However, irrigated corn yields aren’t quite what they were the past few years because of hot, dry days during pollination in late July and into August, said Apfel. Meanwhile, the dryland corners were poor.
“It’s just like anything else,” he said. “If we would have gotten two more rains it would have made a difference.”
But in farming, Apfel added, “you take what you get.”
About half the state’s corn crop is in good to excellent condition, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. While central and south-central Kansas has had a drier late summer and fall, areas in western Kansas have reported good rains for a dryland corn harvest.
The agency also rated soybeans in their Monday report as 19 percent poor or very poor, 38 percent fair and 43 percent good to excellent. Meanwhile, 58 percent of the sorghum crop and 64 percent of the cotton crop is in good to excellent condition.
“It’s just one of those harvests that are sputtering along,” said Tim Lesslie, with Mid-Kansas Cooperative’s Castleton branch.
Lesslie said while the irrigated corn is decent, dryland yields were averaging around 40 bushels an acre. A few farmers are reporting aflatoxin issues from the drought and too much stress.
Kansas State University issued a release in mid-September that aflatoxin could be an issue in central Kansas because of hot, humid and droughty conditions. Aflatoxin is a naturally occurring toxin caused by a fungus - a greenish-yellow, dime- to quarter-sized mold that grows on corn ears between the kernels. In severe cases, the mold could cover larger portions of the ear.
Soybeans are yielding between nine to 40 bushels an acre, he said. Later-planted beans should yield better.
Rains came too late to help a lot of the crops.
“We had four inches that first week of August, then nothing after that until last week,” he said.
Grain sorghum acres are down considerably this year. Lesslie estimated he might take in 10 percent of what he did last year. Issues with sugarcane aphids have scared farmers away - especially with expensive spraying during a time of downed commodity prices.
Kelly Griffin, with Stafford County Flour Mill’s Sylvia branch, said harvest has been spotty as crops mature at different times. He didn’t expect to see much sorghum, either.
“Last year there was so much (aphid damage), guys shied away from it,” he said, adding some farmers had to spray their crop two or three times. “It gets pretty expensive.”
The economy is struggling, he added.
Corn prices have fallen from nearly $8 a bushel in October 2012 to $3.30, according to Garden City Cooperative’s historical data. Sorghum has fallen from highs in the $7-a-bushel range to $2.90. Soybeans - which were nearing $15 a bushel in October 2012 have dropped more than $6.
“They aren’t too happy with it,” Griffin said of prices. “The bean price has a little bit better outlook for them, but they aren’t tickled with milo.”
“It’s really eye-opening experience when prices aren’t so good,” said Apfel. “But that is something you can’t control. So you try to do the best you can with what you can do.”
Despite the prices, the harvest tradition continues. Apfel has worked for the Showalter family since 2010. He looks forward to corn harvest every year, maybe because he grew up in the cornfields of Nebraska.
“I love coming out and working with the land and growing crops and running machinery - I just love it all,” he said. “But picking corn is my most favorite thing to do on the farm. I’ve just always enjoyed it.”