Bob Nielsen has a slide of a chart he shows audiences that is truly worth a 1,000 words. Even if he didn't say another word, the chart would explain itself. It's a graph of crop maturity by date within the season, showing the five-year average, 2009 and 2010 and other select years.
Even if you farm another 30 years, it may be difficult to find a year where growing degree days accumulate faster than they did in 2010. As the graph shows, the curve is far to the left, meaning the crop matured earlier than normal. That plus a complete lack of rainfall during most of early and mid-fall help explain the early harvest, one of the earliest on record.
Other factors contributed to corn running out of gas, says Nielsen, a Purdue University Extension corn specialist. They include certain foliar diseases getting a fast start and building up a head of steam due to favorable conditions. The lack of nitrogen left in many fields after torrential rains in mid- May in some areas, and in mid-June in others, also seemed to shut down the crop early. Once it began shutting down, maturity went quickly.
Corn maturity is by and large controlled by temperature and accumulation of Growing Degree Days, Nielsen says. Since GDD accumulation ran ahead of schedule all summer last year, corn maturity was enhanced. Black layer occurred much earlier than normal in many cases.
Contrast that to 2009, when the opposite occurred. Except for one hot week in late June, which quickly reverted to a cool trend that lasted throughout July in many areas, 2009 ran behind on GDDs nearly all summer. Corn matured late. Coupled with fall rains, harvest was late, one of the most challenging harvest seasons in 35 years. Modern equipment and an Indian summer break the first week of November that allowed for soybean harvest to continue kept 2009 from being a total disaster.
The cool weather brought different diseases, and ear rots set up in corn, bringing along mycotoxins. Storage problems associated with the 2009 crop led to a record number of gain bin entrapments across the country this past year, as farmers and elevator employees often dealt with trying to get an out-of-condition crop out of the bin.
What will 2011 bring? It's too early to tell. But Greg Soulje, a noted meteorologist from the Chicago area, says in the January issue of Indiana Prairie Farmer that the La Nina event was actually intensifying in early December. If it lasts into spring, that could raise a question mark about whether or not 2011 will be a favorable growing season in much of the Midwest.