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"Spotty" harvest season in Colorado wraps up just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday

corn harvest - Richardson Farm.jpg
Rae Solomon
/
KUNC
A combine harvests corn on Ruben Richardson's farm in Yuma, Colorado

The 2022 harvest is wrapping up in Colorado, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. Federal Agriculture data shows more than 90 percent of corn, sorghum and sunflowers – the very last crops to be brought in from the fields – were all at least 90 percent harvested last week.

That means it’s time for farmers to take stock.

For growers of all crops across the state, harvest yields were highly variable. Everyone was affected by drought and heat during the growing season.

A mixed bushel for corn growers

Nicholas Colglazier, executive director of the Colorado Corn Administrative Committee, said corn producers in the state had very different experiences this growing season, depending on their location and the availability of irrigation. But generalizations fail to capture the complete picture.

“You've had some decent yields in dryland,” Colglazier said, referring to fields with no irrigation. But on the other hand, Colglazier said, even on irrigated land, “you also had producers that had water-short years, where their wells either couldn't keep up or they didn't get as many water shares as they needed. And I think there's those yields that suffered.”

Ruben Richardson knows that story all too well. Richardson is a farmer in Yuma, Colorado, where he grows a mix of dryland and irrigated corn, among other crops. This year, his deep irrigation wells weren’t enough to insulate him from the ravages of drought and heat.

Richardson said he used more water this year than in the past. “We're going to check our wells here in the next few days,” Richardson said, “and I'm real worried about what we've lost in the holes, as far as how much water we pumped this year.”

He hasn’t finished crunching the numbers yet, but he estimates that even with extra water, his irrigated corn yield is down about 30 bushels an acre from last year.

But that’s still a world ahead of his dryland corn fields. “On the dryland, out of a thousand acres, we ended up picking about 160. The rest of it burned up,” he said.

A similar story for sorghum

Sorghum is a more versatile late-season crop. It’s better equipped than corn to handle the vagaries of the weather, according to Burl Scherler, who grows dryland grain sorghum and wheat in Sheridan Lake, in Kiowa County.

“Sorghum is a water sipping crop,” Scherler explained. “You can have a dry spring, but it gets rain in August and you'll make a crop.” Corn, on the other hand, “if you have some stress on it early, it really hurts the yield and it just never catches up.”

Even with a more forgiving crop, Scherler’s experience with this year’s sorghum harvest echoed that of the corn growers.

“It was spotty this year, the rain was,” Scherler said. “It's all over the board. We had some that was really poor, where it didn't rain,” he said. “But then there are little spots where they got that good rain in in August and it made crop. So just depending on where you're at. It's really diverse the way the rain fell.”

Terry Swanson agreed. He has grown sorghum in Southeast Baca County for 50 years. “For the most part, we had an extremely dry spell going on here and it’s been marginal at best,” Swanson said. But "In the north part of the county, they had some very rich yields where they had some rains.”

But Swanson also has the benefit of 50 years of sorghum-growing perspective. “we've got new technology now,” he said, citing new herbicides, better seed genetics and the shift to no-till sorghum farming.

“It's just a whole different ballgame. Now, I'd say you probably get 100% increase in the yield over the last 25 years,” Swanson said. That mean this year is hardly the worst crop he’s seen in his 50 years. But he added “all that stuff costs money. And so, it's still terribly stressful economically.”

Gratitude

The harvest may be mediocre – or worse. But, for the most part, the crops have been brought it from the fields, and that means it’s time for growers to reflect on the blessings of even a disappointing season.

A bad year isn’t enough to rob Terry Swanson of his appetite for life on the farm. “We were put on God's Earth to make a contribution. And we made we made it in agriculture. And so, we're thankful for the opportunity to do that,” he said.

Ruben Richardson says he feels “cautiously blessed,” with his access to groundwater irrigation..

“I'm really grateful for the yield that I got. We all know what it would be like without irrigation. It would probably be a zero,” he said.

Richardson is looking forward to the holiday break and some family time. But just a few short weeks after wrapping up this year’s harvest, his mental calculations have already moved on to the next one.

“We've got some problems that happened this year. And let's hope that next year it rains,” he said.

Corrected: November 23, 2022 at 12:46 PM MST
And earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that Nicholas Colglazier is the executive director of Colorado Corn. In fact, Colglazier is executive director of the Colorado Corn Administrative Committee. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.
I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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