Production Blog

The Last Rows of Summer

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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A handful of stalks skipped by the combine serve as a reminder of what was and how lucky we are to be able to freely breathe in the meaning. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

My dogs and I take the same walk nearly every day and it never grows old. The grassy mile long stretch is lined with trees and splits two crop fields.

This season both fields were planted to corn, and we were grateful for it. The corridor served as a break when the prairie winds blew sideways. When those winds howled up and down the stalk-lined hallway, we leaned into it as the corn leaves rustled a familiar tune that grew raspier and more insistent as the season progressed.

I seldom ask others to join me on these walks. I've been told too many times that there's nothing to see in the sameness. The dogs with me know different. The land before us tells a tale, much like each new smell alerts my companions to what has come and gone.

Yesterday we found the crop harvested. The emptied fields are now golden rows of residue only slightly lighter in color than the retrievers pawing through them in search of field mice.

Along a field edge, we discover a half dozen or so ragged stalks have been left standing. These battered soldiers seem vaguely unsure of what to do now that their corn comrades have been carted off. The youngest pup woofs at them as if to ask how they escaped capture. Most likely she knows that deer or racoons will soon find them a tasty snack, and she looks forward to rolling in what they leave behind.

It will take a week or so before swaths of bright green spikes of baby corn plants will tattle on the combine and how well the operator adjusted his or her machine. Larger patches of volunteers will congregate where the grain cart filled. Such escapes are enough to make a grown farmer groan, even though the losses look worse than they really are since a bushel of corn typically contains between 80,000 to 95,000 kernels.

"Better that those volunteers show up now than next spring in soybeans," I tell my furry friends. The dogs wag an agreement to my winterkill over weedy interloper explanation. Given a treat or two, both are enthusiastic listeners and seldom argumentative.

Winter won't keep us from continuing to trudge along this path, although we sometimes wimp out on the bitterest of days. There's beauty in the snow swathed acres and promise in knowing the soil is not sleeping, but teaming with life and activity below.

Farmers generally detest winter annual weeds, but I can't help but see the spring splash of blue and purple that comes with henbit and deadnettle as harbingers of the next season. It's when planting delays give way to a yellow sea of cressleaf groundsel (butterweed) that we start to get antsy about the next round of seeds getting put to bed.

This past spring, the dogs and I watched from our grassy lane as a tractor and planter methodically wove back and forth in the field next door. From there, we had a benchmark to watch for germination and sure enough, a warm snap soon brought an explosion of slender seedlings.

Recently I have learned there is a science called plant bioacoustics. Apparently, the sound emissions plants make during germination and growth are well documented. It has always seemed one should be able to hear 35,000 to 40,000 corn plants bursting from the earth.

V1. V2. V3 ... R1. R2. R3 ... Silk. Blister. Milk. Dough. Dent. Black layer. This year our walks have been a conduit to follow the corn stages. Next year we rotate to soybeans. But that mucky wet hole filled with a chorus of spring peepers will likely still give way to a wicked tangle of cockleburs and common waterhemp. And the dogs will almost certainly haul home some of the beggar's lice and other weedy hitchhikers that live there too, which is better than ticks.

We stroll among snakes, hawks, rabbits, squirrels and an occasional coyote or fox. I feel their stares and we pass like the seasons while watching back. There is so much to see and so much that could go unnoticed -- like how our shadows lengthen as the days shorten and the sun is low on the horizon.

In what seems barely a blink of time, we are wiping spider webs from our eyes rather than swatting mosquitos or complaining about chiggers. And, in the November grass, is the miracle of a lone wild violet -- either a late or early bloomer, depending on your perspective.

We always stop and breathe deep and give thanks for this place where we can walk free and think freely. The dogs dash ahead to pause faithfully on the spot where we carry out this ritual of reverence. They wait just long enough before we turn and head home, past the last rows of summer toward what comes next.

Pamela Smith can be reached at

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Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
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