Drought, disease take toll in Ont. corn, wheat

ESSEX County, Ont. — There’s an old adage among Ontario farmers when they talk about corn: knee high by the fourth of July.

That’s the case for Terry Byrne and his brothers, a 20-minute drive from the Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor and Detroit, but their corn isn’t healthy deep green-blue hue. Instead, the bottom leaves and leaf tips are firing and insect pests have taken up residence to take advantage of the weakened state of the crop.

“It isn’t a pretty picture,” Byrne said.

“It’s dry. All that rain we got last year, well, we’re not getting it this year. We had three farms we didn’t planted last year. That was the first time in 40 years I remember that we didn’t it get it all in.”

Essex County where Byrne farms is prone to weather extremes. It sits on a kind of inland peninsula squeezed between Lake Erie to the south and Lake St. Clair to the north.

This year, however, it’s not just Essex County farmers who are worried about the weather. A lack of rainfall has been a pressing concern across southern Ontario and into southern Quebec.

It’s dry as well in much of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York state and New England, according to Geoff Coulson with Environment Canada.

Along with Essex County and nearby counties, eastern Ontario has experienced drought. There have even been records set for the lack of precipitation in some locales.

It was a different situation at the beginning of May when the Byrne brothers had concern for the excess of rain. They couldn’t begin planting their 1,600 acres of heavy clay-loam fields until May 18 and finished on May 24.

Only 25 millimetres of rain have fallen since on many of their fields. For others it’s been even worse. Just a few kilometres west of their home farm there’s corn that has only reached 30 centi-metres in height and even the weeds are stalled.

Corn isn’t the only crop to suffer. The lack of rainfall has reduced yield expectations for wheat and is likely behind the invasion of thrips and mites, which have since moved into corn.

“Six weeks ago, I would have said 90 to 100 bushels. That would have been exceptional. Now I’d say it will go 60 to 70 bushels but it’s always hard to say with wheat until you’re in the field with the combine,” Byrne said.

Drought-stressed, corn has become a common sight across most of the province.

Byrne said it’s too early to be concerned for Ontario’s other big crop, soybeans. Soybeans are relatively drought tolerant but can suffer if there’s a lack of soil moisture during the critical flowering period at mid-summer.

Rainfall is always highly variable in Ontario but this year, instead of some farmers getting a little and others a lot, it’s been a case of some getting a little and other none at all as the storm fronts move through.

Dave Torrance, who farms 45 minutes east from the Byrnes’ home farm, has been fortunate.

“Our corn grew a foot this past week because we got the rain,” he said.

The long-term forecast calls for rain in Ontario but it’s expected to be scattered, with some farmers benefiting from storm fronts and others staying dry.

Precipitation in the Great Lakes region is remarkably consistent most years. On average, there’s an accumulation of 25 to 50 mm every month.

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