As you drive around country roads in our area today, you will see many fields of corn mostly standing tall and brown after last week’s touches of frost. Occasionally you will notice a patch of green stalks that’s growing in an unusual frost-free spot, but most fields are now under close scrutiny by the farmer for evaluation of the moisture content. The “right time” for every stage of growing corn is determined by the planned use of the grain: for silage, storage of the ears, or shelling for storage or sale.
Both silage and field corn, even sweet corn must be planted at the right time in the spring so that the young plants, once above ground, wouldn’t be killed off by spring frosts. There have been years that corn could have been planted early because no killing frosts ever came along – but none of us ever knew that until it was all over and summer had arrived. The Grants usually aimed for a time after the 15th of May because everybody expected the annual hard frost around Decoration Day while the new shoots were barely out of the ground.
My dad liked to plant his corn using a hand planter adjusted to drop four grains in each hill (one for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the cutworm, and one to grow). To do this, he created a wooden frame to serve as a marker for the tractor, and then dragged it back and forth across the plowed field in both directions to make squares. The grains of corn were then planted hill by hill with that hand planter, adjusted to drop the proper number of kernels. In later years, we modified a grain drill with compartments that would allow corn to be sowed in two rows only, and much later, we even bought a real “corn planter” to mount on the tractor. We still have it in the barn.
When I was young, all the farms in our neighborhood had silos for the storage of chopped corn over winter. Timing was very important to cut the corn once the kernels were fully formed on the cobs, not yet dented, but in what was known as the “high milk” condition. The stalks were standing high and the leaves were very tender, sweet and tasty when chewed on by the farm kids.
The other element of timing was out of man’s control – the arrival of the first killer frost. Several of the neighbors joined together to buy a horse-powered corn binder that was pulled through the field and tied bundles of prime corn. Whether cut by hand or by machine, the corn bundles were stood on end in shocks to either preserves their green qualities for the silo or to dry out later for the corn cribs. The shocks were often built around a removable “corn horse” to help keep them standing. This sort of temporary storage is still visible in Amish fields these days.
I think it was Willie Kearney, the neighborhood mechanic, who had a steam-powered, belt-driven blower set-up that was moved around from farm to farm as quickly as possible to lift the chopped corn stalks up into the silo. As the silo was filled at the bottom, little doors were added to the attached ladder to make it airtight, preserving quality and prohibiting mold. It was important to keep the top end of the pipe open or the system would plug up and would be really hard to get open. It was also important to never let any piece of hardware such as a pitchfork or any other hardware get caught in the blower and become silage by mistake. Then over winter, it was important to climb up into the silo and skim off the top layer day by day to keep the under layers fresh and tasty to the cows.
When silo-filling time was over and the shocked corn bundles had become fully dried and the grain had turned to firm, golden kernels, it was time to husk the ears from the shocks. In nice weather, many farmers sat right in the fields under fresh air and sunshine and tossed the husks aside and the ears into a wagon for transfer to the crib. I do remember many evenings when family and friends moved into the barn and husked the corn under lights with bundles piled by the barn door to keep out the cold night air. Around the country, many farm families and friends got together for a “Husking Bee” and all the young people hoped to find the uncommon ear with red grain – a ticket for a kiss of the best girl or boy.
Corncribs were constructed with fencing on the sides to allow fresh air to blow through the corn and then either ground up, including the cobs, for livestock feed or shelled for the grain itself, a special favorite for the family’s chickens. We had a crank-driven corn sheller to separate the grains of corn from the cob for the chickens.
On nice late-fall days we spent many hours picking corn by hand in the field. My dad would pull his tractor out in the midst of the field and every available member of the family would gather around to pull ears off the stalks and toss them into the cart. Other farmers had similar operations with wagons equipped with a high sideboard on one side to bounce the tossed ears into the box. Mechanical pickers were a big improvement and saved a lot of time and work.
My dad was always an innovator around the farm and we still have the remnants of four different corncribs beginning with the original family crib in the back corner of the barn floor. He added a piece to the back of our dairy barn and constructed a crib on the second floor. He invented an elevator system with block and tackle that required two people to use, or a lot of running up and down the ladder. One would load baskets of corn going up, or later going back down when needed for feed, and the other to unload or load at the top – a pretty slow but effective operation.
Over the years, many changes took place on the farms in our neighborhood. We invested in a New Idea corn picker to separate the ears from the stalks. These machines were very dangerous and well known for getting plugged up with clumps of dirt clinging to the corn stalks as the ears hung to the stalk. There are still many people around with deformed or amputated limbs because they risked clearing the picker while the power takeoff was still running. Our picker finally expired and we sold it to Farmer Royce Sprague and he hauled it off to Paradise (over toward Big Run).
Times have changed since we raised corn. Today’s ideal corn varieties have a much higher yield potential, better weight gains, disease resistance both during growth and at harvest, and stronger stalks that avoid lodging problems when the stalks break and fall to the ground. Corn planting may be done as “no-till” with a treatment of weed killers first, followed by cutting the soil to inject seed directly into the ground along with appropriate fertilizer. In many cases, the fertilizer choices come from soil tests along with GPS mapping of the farmland.
Another treatment of herbicide may be applied for weed control during the growing period, a way to diminish competition for soil nutrients. At the end of the season, moisture content is monitored closely to determine harvest field by field, and then the combines move in to strip the ears from the stalks and shell the grain from the cobs, all controlled by the farmer with monitors and controls mounted in a climate-controlled cab.
What other advances are just around the corner. Meanwhile take the kids out to the neighborhood farm. Look for the perfect pumpkin. Just don’t get lost forever in the “Corn Maze.”