Harvesting downed corn: "You just have to go down and get it."

“I’ve always said that for a farmer, hell would be having to combine downed corn for all eternity because there’s nothing more stressful or more of a pain point than harvesting downed corn.”

The above comment came from Beaver Crossing, Nebraska farmer Cole Anderson, who says he would “rather do a lot of things other than pick down corn.”

He’s not alone. In fact, 67% of 450 corn farmers responding to a Dragotec survey say downed corn is the greatest factor influencing yield.

“It’s not uncommon to see 10-20 bushel per acre of yield loss in downed corn,” says Denny Bollig, farmer and president of Dragotec USA. “In severe cases losses can go as high as 50 bushels per acre.”

“Minimizing the amount of yield lost from downed, lodged or wind-damaged corn often depend upon having the right equipment during harvest,” says Bollig. “It’s one of those frustrating things about farming, In a matter of minutes, everything you have strived for can be chewed up and laid flat by Mother Nature.”

“When corn plants lodge and go down, the yield is still there, you just have to go down and get it.”

Bollig says Drago corn heads are unsurpassed when it comes to harvesting downed corn. “Drago corn heads feature aggressive overlapping gathering chains that reach down and get completely behind the stalk, brings it in with less trash, and gets more ears to the combine, he says.

Grower Experiences

Anderson said he likes the way his Drago GT works its way through downed corn.

“The thing I really like about the Drago is the shape of the snouts on the corn head. They seem to really work well with downed corn – they slide in through there and get underneath the corn well. That’s one difference I’ve noticed compared to another brand we’ve used before.”

Rick and Phil Castlen, brothers who farm near Owensboro, Kentucky, recall when heavy winds from left-over hurricanes blew and whipped green corn in July. The soil had been saturated with moisture and the corn was almost flat.

“We had one of the best corn crops we’ve ever had, and Mother Nature decides to make us earn it,” says Phil.”

The brothers said when harvesting downed corn in the past, they had always needed to mount a reel with their previous corn head, but didn’t need it with the Drago GT they now own. Among other features, they credit the GT’s oversized, slower-turning auger for limiting residue from building up.

“The GT worked through the corn pretty good – amazingly good!” he adds. “One of our neighbors came over to the field that was so bad, thinking he would pick up some ears for the deer and squirrels and gave up saying ‘it was too much trouble for what little was left.’”

Prepping for downed corn

When going into harvest with downed corn, Iowa State University Extension ag engineer Mark Hanna (now retired), says it’s best to start with any downed areas to minimize ear loss because as plant material starts to dry out and break down, yield loss potential mounts quickly.

“Scout fields to determine where problem areas are and the condition of stalks and ears. Harvest problem areas first when field conditions are better and before ears in close proximity to the ground have an opportunity for potential further deterioration,” Hanna says. “An exception might be made to harvest an area with particularly weak stalk strength that is still standing if the odds of lodging from weather seem high.”

The right equipment is key

  • Set gathering chains aggressively. If a producer is running a corn head with bolted deck plates, make sure they are “only slightly wider than cornstalks” in order to cut down on stalks breaking off before ears can be removed. If running a Drago corn head with automatic self-adjusting deck plates, variable stalk sizes are accounted for in each individual row.

  • Get low, but not too low. “Operate the head as low as practical without picking up rocks or significant amounts of soil,” Hanna says.

  • Adjust how you drive. Moving against the grain of the stalks of downed corn can reduce harvest losses. “Evaluate losses, though, before spending large amounts of time dead-heading through the field,” he adds.

  • Slow everything down. Harvesting slower than normal if harvesting downed corn is typical. Make sure everything is adjusted to account for the necessary slowdown. “If harvest speeds are significantly reduced, the amount of material going through the combine is reduced. Fan speed may need to be reduced to avoid blowing kernels out of the combine and rotor speed may also need to slow to maintain grain quality. Check kernel losses behind the combine and grain quality to fine tune cleaning and threshing adjustments,” says Hanna