Corn Comedy Hour!

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Ok, so it’s dark humor, but I feel like I should be sharing the good *and* the bad with you.

As you know, we planted our own corn last season. It was a bad year for corn because it was such a wet Spring, no one could plant it on time. Ours went in late, around mid-June, but it got in. Our corn took 85 days to get to maturity, so this is called “short corn”, or at least shorter than most of the corn around here (95-105 days usually). The corn performed really well actually, but it was still a wet year in the fields, so there was some mold on the ears and that leads to a lot of “fines” being mixed in with the grain as it is harvested because those moldy, crumbly kernels are kind of pulverized by the process. There are also “bee’s wings” which are the thin shell around each kernel that often peels off and flies around the field, the area around the bin and many even get in the bin. If it was more of a dry year, there would be far fewer fines and bee’s wings would likely come off better as the corn is harvested. The fewer fines and wings, the easier it is to dry your corn in the bin as these things are not in the air’s way. You can use a grain cleaner to remove this stuff as you put it into the bin, and we didn’t do that this year since we don’t have one. We’ll be getting one this year. Anyway, we got the corn combined in the beginning of December, and we put it in the bin and froze it. Then the record-setting Winter started, and I figured we were good until Spring and warmer temps (i.e. 35-40F for at least a week).

I figured wrong.

You see, everything I had read or been told up to that point gave me a false sense of security. Believe me, I researched growing corn, harvesting corn, storing corn and everything else corn, corn, CORN for months. My brain was saturated with corn information, but there were still those little things that end up wreaking havoc on your operation and eroding any peace of mind you thought you had.

So what happened? Well, I opened up the corn bin to do my regular inspection and it smelled musty. This is the first sign that something is going wrong. Then, I climbed down into the bin about six feet and waited for my eyes to adjust to the lighting inside so that I could see what was going on with the corn. As I climbed down, I noticed some water on the rungs of the ladder. This is a *MAJOR* sign that something is amiss. Once my eyes adjusted, I looked down at the corn and saw a few small circles of mold forming on the top layer of the corn. This, as I’m sure you realize, is not a good thing. I then looked up and saw condensation on the underside of the roof and some icy frost in spots where it was still cold enough to freeze the condensation on the metal surface. Basically, everything that you don’t want to have happen inside your bin is going on inside of ours.

Crap.

Now, having researched everything, I definitely know what can be done at this point. I’m just not sure which action *should* be taken or when. So, I started reaching out to people I know. I wrote the bin company I purchased the bin from, nothing. I wrote my contact with that company personally, nothing and–UPDATE–they got back to me today, so I’ll call them here in a bit. Greeeeeeaaaaaaaat. I read some more and found Matt Roberts at Purdue University, and he actually wrote me back and also put me in touch with Klein Ileleji, also at Purdue. They both took the time to respond, give me advice and make sure that I was aware of any and all safety issues involved. Basically, they’re my heroes of the day. So, thanks to them for taking the time to help out some random farmer in Wisconsin who had some questions and a need for a little help.

So, the corn is starting to mold on the top and it’s likely forming a “crust” which then forms a “bridge” and makes it harder to get the corn out of the bin. Actually, mold formation is not uncommon in grain bins, and it’s one of the top two problem areas for farmers who store grains (insects are the other). Some molds aren’t harmful, but there are at least a couple that can be harmful if fed to animals and harmful to people as well if inhaled. At this point, I’m pretty sure that the mold I’ve got isn’t the dangerous kind (yet), and it probably rode in on the fines and then the conditions became ideal for the mold to start growing. How did that happen though?

You see, I did do everything I should have, but I neglected to realize (or read about) how the head space in a bin (the air above the corn) can and will heat up on warmer days as the sun shines down on the metal roof and walls and warms them up. This, in turn, raises the temperature in the head space, which gets the mold to a happy place. Then, the head space causes some condensation to occur and that drips back onto the corn and the mold is fed its other main ingredient for life. The mold starts to grow, and the cycle continues and it will get worse and worse until you do something about it. What I needed to be doing on those warmer days–I think we’ve had 3 or 4 total since December–is ventilating that head space so that the air wouldn’t stagnate, warm up and cause trouble…woopsie! So, I’ll be remedying that situation this year and having that solution in place before harvest time.

So what else could go wrong?

Well, as you know, this year was a ‘wet’ year for corn. Normally, you harvest corn and it’s around 20% moisture in the field, hopefully less. This year, corn in our area was anywhere from 25-30% in the field, which is nuts. This is part of what caused the LP shortage, as farmers who dry with LP heaters had to dry their corn from 30% to 15% or less, probably less because of mold formation on the ears. That means around 14%. Our corn was at 26-28%, which is very high to be putting into a bin like ours that is a natural-air drying system. So, in a sense, the corn was kind of doomed from the get-go unless everything went really well. You can’t dry in Winter with natural air, at least not very well, because you don’t get many low humidity days and the temperatures below freezing don’t give the air moving through the corn much of an opportunity to glom on to some moisture and move it out of the bin. In that scenario, you ‘freeze’ your corn and wait for warmer temps and better drying conditions.

We did that, and it worked well…..until that head space warmed up. Now, in a normal year I could mitigate the problem by removing the moldy corn from the bin, core the bin to remove a lot of fines (where a lot of mold’s potential ends up after putting the corn in the bin), and then cool the grain down–again–to stop mold growth. Then, because it’s still so cold, I’d just haul my corn to the elevator and sell it. So, I called the elevators in our area and discovered that, due to the LP shortage, none of them are accepting wet corn. ADM is accepting wet corn, but at 20% or below. Since I can’t dry our corn yet due to the weather, dropping our corn 6-8% looks pretty impossible.

So, I’ve got wet corn that I can’t store for much longer or the bin will become a massive, moldy problem. I’ve got corn I can’t dry because the weather still isn’t suitable. I’ve got wet corn that I can’t sell because of the LP shortage. I’ve also got corn that I can’t even dry with LP (I could put a heater on our fans to dry the air that way) because the amount of LP it would take would cost too much at my scale. So, how do I get something out of this corn? Not counting equipment or the bin, we’ve invested a lot of hours in the field, hours researching and ~$4,000 in growing it this year and drying it a tiny bit. I thought of spreading it on the field, but then, there is three feet of snow everywhere and the ground is still frozen. I called DNR to ask about best practices for wildlife in this situation, and they confirmed that spreading it now won’t do much good for the soil and any wildlife could find it, eat it and maybe get sick from it if they ingested some of the moldy bits. So, I can’t spread it. Basically, I can pile it up somewhere, keep wildlife away and wait for the snow to melt, the ground to thaw, some green to return and then I can spread it. I could try composting it too, but I’m not quite set up for that. Either way, I’ll probably be watching a lot of work and money rot away over the next month or so and that stinks…pun intended.

We’ll see. Hopefully, I can solve most of the problems and feed at least some of it to the birds we have now. Some of the corn is definitely a loss though, and the chances that it all is a loss are probably in the area of 90%. A lot is going to have to go right over the next week or two, and during that time I’ll have to watch everything like a hawk so that the situation in the bin doesn’t get out of control. The last thing I can do is let the corn go crazy in the bin because then I’ll be unloading 1500bu. by hand and wearing a Tyvek suit, goggles and a respirator to make sure that I don’t get any bad molds on me or in my lungs (Farmer’s Lung is a well known disease caused by molds and is apparently incurable because the mold just works into your lower lungs and scars them up permanently if it’s not caught fast enough).

So, I’m laughing at the situation because I did everything I knew to do, what I didn’t know bit me and the easiest solution to the problem (sell it) is not available because of the LP shortage. Even the worst solution (spread it) isn’t available, hahaha. Either everything works my way for a week or so and I manage to dry it down and keep mold from forming, or the whole crop is a loss outside of what benefits I can get from spreading and/or composting it once it’s actually Spring. It’s dark humor because it’s still a multi-thousand dollar lesson to learn, but you can’t help but laugh because one little thing that was in your control got you here and your solutions are taken away from you by everything outside of your control. So, you make the best of the worst and get to work on something else once you’ve taken care of the situation.

There’s always more things to do on the farm, and most of them aren’t total losses. There’s also so much more to learn, and situations like this really drive that home. The word “Humility” is derived from the Latin word “Humilitas” which is in turn derived from “Humus” or “Earth”. It’s this sense of humility–being grounded, having a clear perspective of your place in context and maintaining a healthy respect for it all–that is a requirement for being a farmer. It’s really the same for just being a human, at least, as far as I’m concerned. It’s that humility that keeps you from going crazy when things go wrong, and it also fosters a reality where there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic and continue your dance with Mother Nature & The Ignorance (my favorite fake band).

Let’s hope for a normal corn year in 2014! 🙂 For now, I’m off to the bin to get started.