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Kentucky harvest better than expected

LOUISVILLE — Roller-coaster weather including a soggy spring, hurricane-induced high winds and drought had Kentucky grain farmers expecting the worst for this year's harvest.

But when combines started rolling, some corn producers came away with better-than-expected yields.

"Everybody was pleasantly surprised" by the harvest in Graves County, said Kenny Perry, agricultural extension agent in the county in Western Kentucky's grain belt.

The county's farmers averaged about 145 bushels an acre for corn and about 33 bushels for soybeans, he said. Though below typical yields, the output was welcomed after setbacks in a growing season that turned so dry the federal government approved assistance for Kentucky farmers whose crops wilted from drought.

Statewide, corn yields were averaging 133 bushels an acre, slightly less than the previous five years' average, according to figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Kentucky field office.

Production of corn for grain in Kentucky was forecast at 147.6 million bushels — making the 2008 crop the smallest in six years, the crop-reporting service said this week.

That output is down 16 percent from last year's crop, which was massive in terms of acreage but had a lower average yield because of severe drought.

Meanwhile, this year's soybean production in Kentucky was forecast at 47.3 million bushels, up 56 percent from the small 2007 crop. Yield is projected at 34 bushels per acre, up 6½ bushels from the drought-stressed 2007 crop but less than the average for the previous five years.

Kentucky's corn harvest is all but wrapped up, and soybean harvesting is nearing completion.

For livestock producers, the summer drought stunted pastures and reduced alfalfa production, forcing many to dip into hay supplies early. That could leave them in a tough position for winter.

Hay supplies might be adequate without the need to bring in additional stockpiles, said Bourbon County ag extension agent Glenn Mackie. "That will just depend on the severity of the winter."

Area farmers had a bountiful spring grass hay crop due to the rains, which helped boost hay supplies for winter, Mackie said. But with beef cattle prices down 20 percent to 25 percent from a year ago, many producers are likely to cull herds rather than incur the expense of shipping in extra hay if winter turns harsh, he said.

Mike Ellis, who farms in Shelby and Henry counties in north-central Kentucky, said a timely late-summer downpour made all the difference for many of his corn and soybean fields.

"That's what pushed us over the hump," he said. "It made the difference between an average yield and an above-average yield. On soybeans, it probably would have been less than average if we hadn't had that rain."

Ellis, who farms more than 5,600 acres of corn and soybeans with his brothers Bob and Jim, said their corn averaged 144 bushels per acre, easily beating their five-year average. Their soybeans came in at 48 bushels an acre, he said, slightly better than the five-year average.

"We've been on the other side of that coin before, too, where we had the half-crop and the rest of the county was good," Mike Ellis said.

Just how important was the 2½ -inch rain that fell in late August? On a farm to the south that received only a quarter-inch of rain, the Ellis brothers got about 27 bushels an acre from a soybean field.

In Daviess County, heavy spring rains delayed planting for many corn farmers and forced some to replant swamped fields, said the county's ag extension agent, Clint Hardy.

Then came a prolonged summer dry spell, followed by lashing winds from Hurricane Ike's remnants, which battered many Kentucky cornfields in September.

Hardy said farmers in his area were able to scoop up most of the downed corn, though it slowed harvesting.

Despite all the adversity, average corn and soybean yields in Daviess County exceeded the statewide marks and were comparable to past yearly averages, Hardy said.

Besides unfavorable weather, farmers also faced escalating costs for such essentials as fuel and fertilizer during the year. Grain prices soared during the summer but have since fallen.