When north Alabama farmer Gordon Fennel decided several years ago to give up on soybeans and move into corn production, he noticed during harvest that too much of his corn crop was being left on the ground.
“We were letting corn dry down to 15 or 16 percent moisture, and a lot of it was going out onto the ground,” says Fennel, who farms in Colbert County. “I figured we were dropping 15 to 20 bushels on the ground, and we needed to do something to get that back.”
The solution, says Fennel, was to purchase grain dryers, allowing him to get corn out of the field earlier and to dramatically reduce harvest losses. He initially bought two batch dryers.
“We ran the batch dryers back to back,” he says. “They each held about 320 bushels, so we could dry only 650 bushels at one time. And that worked fine the first year.”
The next year, Fennel says, he could have used much more drying capacity. “That was the year corn prices went up to about $3.50 per bushel on the cash market. So we held off on our contract and caught some of the cash market. No one else in the area had a dryer, and the corn was ready to pick at 25 to 26 percent moisture.
“We harvested corn and started drying it, and it worked out pretty well for us. We didn't mind staying late to dry down the corn. Once everyone else started shelling corn, the market went down. But we were able to take advantage of that early cash market.”
The batch dryers worked well, says Fennel, but the semi-automatic machines were labor intensive. The logical next step, he says, was to move up to a continuous-flow dryer.
“We couldn't do it alone because of the cost,” he says. “So we went in with two other farms and bought the dryer and an air system to go with it. With three farms and more corn acres, we were able to spread the cost of the dryer.”
Getting corn out of the field early is a definite advantage when you're also growing cotton, says Fennel, who produces about 700 acres of corn and 1,500 acres of cotton.
“The dryer allows us to start earlier — we can finish corn harvest before cotton is ready to pick. Last year, we picked corn when it was 28 and 29 percent moisture and dried it down. And, we finished with the corn about 10 days before we needed to start picking cotton. Without the dryer, we probably still would have been shelling corn when we should have been picking cotton.”
Test weights also have improved through the use of the grain dryer, he adds. “When the market is up and the cash price is high, like it was the year after we put in the batch dryers, you don't mind starting early on corn.
“Also, we don't drop nearly as much corn in the fields as we did before we bought the dryer. When you can cut corn at 20 to 25 percent moisture, you don't leave hardly anything on the ground. You'll see some corn on the ground when the moisture level is below 20. But if it dries down to 16 or 17 percent moisture, you leave quite a bit of corn on the ground. You can fine-tune a combine only so much.”
The continuous-flow dryer is relatively easy to operate and doesn't require much labor, says Fennel. “All we have to do is get corn off the truck and into the wet tank. Then, the corn is pulled into the dryer. It takes from 45 minutes to about an hour and 15 minutes for the dryer to reach the correct temperature.
“After the dryer begins running, we check the moisture to make sure it's where we want it to be. Corn should come out at about 17 percent moisture. From the dryer, corn is blown into the bins. Then, when the bin floors are full, we turn on the fans and blow the corn down to 15 to 15.5 percent moisture.”
During the first year of using the continuous-flow dryer, Fennel says he over-dried much of the corn. The instructional manual that came with the dryer was written for northern conditions, where humidity isn't a factor, he adds. After talking with another Alabama farmer who was using a similar dryer, Fennel finally found the proper adjustment.
“We check the moisture of corn in some of our trucks to see what it is going into the dryer. Then, once the dryer is up and running, we check the moisture of the corn coming out.”
Once corn comes out of the dryer, an air system meters it out and blows it into the bin, says Fennel. “We went with an air system because we didn't want to deal with an overhead auger. With the air system, we don't have to climb up and unchoke an auger.”
When Fennel started growing corn in 1992, some people around the farm questioned the wisdom of his decision, he says jokingly. “We just weren't successful growing soybeans, and corn is so beneficial for cotton. In that first year of growing corn, it was cool and wet throughout the season, and we averaged 150 to 160 bushels per acre. All we had in the way of equipment for corn were two old grain trucks and a combine. We grew that first crop in 1992, and we've grown corn every year since then. I'd like to grow even more corn, but that's all I can handle.”
For the first time ever, Fennel planted his entire corn and cotton crops this year using no-till. “We plant rye as a cover crop over everything and kill it down about two to three weeks prior to planting. Corn has done great in the no-till system, but we still have some work to do on our cotton.”
Fennel prefers to plant corn on or about March 10. “I like to get corn planted as early as possible and get it made before dry weather sets in. We plant Pioneer conventional varieties in 38-inch rows. Our only weed control this year was with the herbicide Guardsman, and it appeared to do a good job. Rye residue also helps to suppress weeds.”
Corn, he says, has found a permanent place in his farming operation. “We've never failed to make money from corn, and it gives us much-needed cash flow from August through September. It also helps our cotton yields. We'll stick with corn.”