September 16, 2011

Corn Harvest

Our dried corn field. It was sparse with corn, but not with weeds.

Last week we harvested our field corn. Last April, we planted 5 pounds, which was supposed to cover about a third of an acre. The entire crop wasn't completely dry yet, but last month's storm had knocked a number of stalks down, so that the ears were wet on the ground and getting mildewed. Also something had eaten a few, so we figured we'd better get it in.

We planted Truckers Favorite, an old, open pollinated, dent type variety. The goal was to grow for our own use as corn meal, and for chicken feed. Germination was poor and pollination was fair, so while we didn't get a bumper crop, we did get several wheelbarrow loads.

This is the best stuff.

I kept the biggest and the best for our use and for seed. These are currently being stored on the back porch.

This is the chicken quality stuff.
Poor chickens. Do you think they'll care?

That for the chickens was put in our makeshift corn crib. There's not a lot there, but we're pleased to have what we did get. It's a start.

Afterward we turned the goats and chickens into the field. They must think they're in animal heaven because it's filled with weeds and seeds galore. Good bye morning glories!

The girls in the corn field

In thinking what we'll do differently next year, we need to address a number of concerns:

  • Yield. We know we don't have a winter's supply for either us or the chickens. We definitely need to test and amend the soil. We either need to plant more or get a better yield from what we do plant, or both.
  • Germination. It wasn't great. I reckon that's why seeds are planted so close together. Not sure if we can improve germination except to make sure the seeds get enough moisture. 
  • Weeds. We need a better way to deal with these because herbicides are not an option. Dan cultivated twice with the tiller, and lawnmowing helped later on, but the spacing was not optimal for this. We need to adjust that next year.
  • Companion planting. For a field crop, this sounded good on paper, but was a less than desirable reality. I tried the "3 Sisters" and planted pumpkins and pole beans with the corn. It was difficult to harvest the beans because of the runaway morning glories, and the pumpkins (which turned out not to be pumpkins after all) were buried in weeds too. If we'd had more help, I'm sure we could have kept on top of it (no wonder farmers used to have so many kids). I'm sure the beans fed the corn, but I think monoculture field cropping is a better option for us at this time.
  • Split planting dates. We planted the corn on two different dates, with several weeks in between. The first planting did much better. The second was spindly and less productive. Nor was it helpful for harvest.
  • Water. Dry spells and scorching temps took their toll as well. Even when it did rain, hot sun the next day evaporated much of the moisture right out of the ground. I was able to water once or twice at the beginning, but trying to snake a hose through the fence and corn was nearly impossible. 
  • Shade. The area near the fence is shaded by a number of pecans and oaks. These need to be trimmed back to get better sunlight to the corn. 
  • Soil testing. We didn't do this, though it should have been done. A proper NPK balance will definitely help as well.

As expected, the most productive plants were the first planted, had the best light, and were in areas with the best germination and best soil moisture. These plants produced full ears. So it can be done!

A possible plan for next year?
  1. We'll begin with soil testing and properly amending the soil.
  2. Switch to sequential companion planning and rotate the corn's planting location. We'll put the corn on the half of the field we planted with sunflowers (which did very poorly). We'll plant cowpeas where this year's corn was.
  3. Space planting so as to accommodate the tiller, lawnmower, or both. Wish we could afford a tractor, but that only in our dreams. 
  4. Cultivate early to give the plants a good head start. After that, don't worry about it.
  5. Turn the goats in after harvest. About half a dozen goats could probably raze most of the weeds.  
  6. Turn pigs (which we don't have yet) in to root around, eat up what the goats didn't want, and "till" the soil
  7. Let the chickens in to do a clean up job on the insects and seeds.
To me, this approach is not only sustainable, but realistic for our small set-up and limited work force. And of course the bonus for allowing the animals to help, is that they leave fertilizer as well. I'm not sure if we'll be ready for pigs next year, but this is another reason they fit into our homestead plan. In the meantime, I can't wait to try some cornbread!


Dani said...

Leigh - "If we'd had more help, I'm sure we could have kept on top of it (no wonder farmers used to have so many kids)." LOLOLOL

Re: hot dry weather - perhaps you could scatter straw as a mulch? I have been reading up on a lot about permaculture - where they allow the weeds and plant in between. If you'd like to see what I'm talking about, Mr H did a posting on it a few weeks ago and gave a link to:

Completely inspiring!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear you didn't get as much as you were hoping for from the corn crop. But thank you for sharing your learning experiences with the rest of us, it is invaluable:)

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I've tried the three-sisters method as well but while the squash and corn did well, the beans just couldn't figure out how to climb - lol ;)

Am sorry to hear your harvest wasn't what you were hoping for, but you know there's always next year! Do you think your soil was nutrient-rich enough for the crop? I've read somewhere that native americans used to bury a fish with their maize/squash/bean seeds to feed the crops. Sounds like an interesting experiment to try out.

Norma from Misty Haven Alpacas said...

Congrats on your first corn harvest! How exciting for you! even though it wasn't the bumper harvest that you hoped for, it was a start and you have a good plan for improvement for next year.

Jane @ Hard Work Homestead said...

I would like to reserve your goats to come over and do a little clean up for me too. Do they have a bus pass?

Leigh said...

Dani, thank you for the link. So far I've only been reading about permaculture as applied to things like my vegetable and herb garden, never to anything like a field crop. It looks like a long video, so Dan and I will watch it this evening. I appreciate it!

Straw as mulch sounds like a good idea, once we are producing better resources. I did get most of the garden mulched with leaves, but after that harvest set in and that was enough of that!

Stephanie, thanks! My philosophy tends to "something is better than nothing." I figure at the very least, I'll gain valuable knowledge and experience, just as you say. :)

Tanya, I'm sure we're lacking in plant nutrients. It was a completely "let's try it and see what we get" decision. Now we have some experience to build on, and hopefully next year will be better.

Interesting that your 3 sisters didn't work out as well as you hoped either. I've thought from time to time about those fish the Indians used. I only wish we had a pond or a stream to go fishing in. They really had it down to a science.

Norma, thank you! I am very happy to have even the small harvest we did get. We've definitely learned a lot that should help us next year.

Jane, they'd love it! Actually, when I was researching tiller pigs, I found a blog where they did indeed borrow pigs. You may likely have someone close by with goats who'd be willing to loan or rent goats. Weed clearing and bonus fertilizing, how can a body go wrong with that!

Lisa said...

Hi Leigh,
Our corn did not do as well as we wanted either and as it dried I was (am!) so excited about having our own dried corn stalks for outdoor decorating for Fall! Those things are expensive to buy. Sounds like you've evaluated well and have a good plan in place for the future. That's what's so fun too. PS I also had problems with seeds germinating well...had to replant 2 or 3 times in spots. Finally planted 3 seed in each little hill and wished I had a fish to put in there too like the pilgrims were taught by the Indians!

Mr. H. said...

Any area that you raise pigs in will no doubt be one of the best garden areas afterwords. The gardens I have grown on old pig ground always, always do the best. It has been about 14-15 years since I raised pigs and I definitely miss the fertility they helped provide our soil with.

Renee Nefe said...

I go away for a week and miss out on a bunch! I had problems growing corn too, but ours was mostly pummeled by hail. When we were in Michigan (they grow a lot of corn there!) the farmer told us how they grow soy beans to loosen up the soil and add nitrogen, then the following year they plant the corn there. They were growing mostly feed corn so I guess they feed the soy beans to the animals as well.
Your window project seems to be going very well despite the set backs. So I assume Dan will be adding support to the rest of the kitchen floor as well.
I don't know chickens, but I sure hope the integration goes well as it wouldn't do to have to cull the older generation each year. Maybe just the bullies?

Cat Eye Cottage said...

I love reading your blog because not everything you do is perfect or fabulously successful. Of course, I wish you loads of success, but through your posts you teach valuable lessons. It ispires me to keep going through my "not so great" experiments. I also take the approach of "plant it and see what happens" sometimes. This approach has proved to be a great teacher. Better luck next year!

Susan said...

Is there some sort of cover crop you could over-winter that could be 'knocked down' to serve as mulch? Controlling weeds is almost as much fun as fighting insect pests. Thanks for the good/bad report. It holds a wealth of information for the rest of us.

Leigh said...

Lisa, that's a great idea about decorating for Fall! Sorry yours didn't do well either. Like you I replanted in some spots, and then worried that they wouldn't all germinate at the same time. Maybe I should try planting three together next time.

Mr H, ah, that's very good to know. Another plus for pigs. :)

Renee, I think next year we're going to try something like that. Instead of soybeans, I'm going to try cowpeas, another legume to fix nitrogen, that I can use as chicken feed as well. Like you, I figure that at the very least, I'll learn something good to know!

Susan, we're planning to grow winter wheat. I hadn't thought about using the leftover stems as mulch, but that's an idea worth trying. I think too, that weeds will always be somewhat of a problem since we don't use herbicides, but maybe with some of the things I mentioned, we can minimize them. I hope. :)

The chickens are actually beginning to get along! I'm very relieved about that.

Candace, everything's far from perfect, LOL. I figure if I'm struggling with some things, then likely others are too and we can encourage and learn from one another.

sheila said...

I like your corn crib. I was wondering how you feed the corn to your chickens? Last year we gleaned corn from my aunt's corn field and after the corn dried we shelled it by hand. Then I fed it whole to our chickens as a treat...didn't know whether feeding it whole was bad or not, but they ate it and are still alive. Shelling the dry cobs was hard on my hands though; this year I'll have to figure something else out.

We bought corn seed, but it was so wet this spring that we never got a chance to plant it. We'll be going out to my aunt's soon when they harvest corn (and grapes, last year I gleaned those for canning grape juice). Of course it is silage corn, not for people eating, maybe next year we'll be planting our own corn. Hope we get less rain and you less heat.

Leigh said...

Sheila, thank you! The corn crib is pretty make shift, but it's a start. I think it's fantastic you can do some gleaning; that's a lost way of sharing one's bounty, to be sure!

We're pretty much following Gene Logsdon's advice, from his Small Scale Grain Raising. He feeds corn whole to his chickens, and just rubs two ears together to get the grains off. Ours isn't quite dry enough to try that yet. I also have a popcorn sheller I might give a try on the smaller ears. If we had a big harvest every year, I'd consider getting a hand crank corn sheller, but we aren't there yet. :)

DebbieB said...

Leigh, I laugh every time you talk about feeding the cowpeas to the chickens. Around here, those are "blackeyed peas", and we love eating them ourselves, cooked down with seasoning and ham and served over rice with cornbread, just like red beans. Mmmmm. :)

I'm curious about your corn storage - around here, any food left out like that would be attacked by insects. Of course, we live in/on a swamp...

Sarah said...

your goats and chickens must be in absolute livestock heaven!!! I'd just be spendin my day out there watching them in their delights!

Leigh said...

Debbie, I love black eyed peas and cornbread! Yum. Actually though, these are a different kind of pea. The variety is called Ozark Razorback and I found them at Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. You can see a photo and their description here. They are a small pea and prolific, so I thought they might make a good option for protein for the chickens. I probably should find out what the chickens think before I plant a whole bunch, LOL

We have problems with insects too. And mice. So we're not sure how well storing corn will work. That's part of the experiment. I have a terrible time with moths both in my pantry, and in the feed storage. Of course the chickens love moth larvae, but still, I don't want to lose a lot to moths. One thing I'm finding that helps is to put a chunk of cedar limb in the feed cans. That won't help the corn, but may the open air will (?) I'll have to report back on that next spring.

Sarah, it's true! And you're right, it is fun to watch them. :)

Andrew said...

Congratulations on the corn crop. I wish I'd gotten that much. I pulled all mine in last night. I got worried that the damp week forecast would start molding them. I ended up with one wheelbarrow load.

Your field corn looks like the kind that a friend gave me a few kernels of. It slightly crossed with my blood butcher, but it has nice big flat kernels with wide spacing between the rows. I'm hoping that means it's going to be super easy to shell out when it gets dry. My bloody butcher and pastel corn have really tight kernels and it takes forever to get the kernels started coming off. The ear itself was about as long as my forearm, a complete record for anything I've ever grown.

I can now say that the rows of corn that I put in where I had a strong stand of crimson clover this spring had ears that were almost twice as big. The stalks all looked spindly and I had poor germination and all that, but in the end, the ones that made it were much better where the clover had been. So, based on the forecast, if it is dry Wednesday I may be taking a day off work to go and pull all my stalks, gather my husks and as many weeds as I can easily grab and have a little bonfire in the middle of the cornpatch. If it's too wet to burn I might just end up throwing it outside the fence. As long as I can get in a combination wheat-clover mix to get going before frost. I have dreams of more forearm-length corn next year, ha ha.