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Farmers losing money, cows dying from so much corn on the ground

Ron Makovicka didn't know what he'd lost until he was pulling a grain cart through one of his York County fields, following the combine driven by his son.

All around him, the land remained littered with loose ears of corn, like money left on the ground.

He thought maybe the combine was the problem. He radioed his son, asking: Are you doing this? Are you doing that?

But the corn had snapped from its stalks and fallen to the ground days earlier, the result of what agriculture experts called a perfect storm: A series of weather conditions over the growing season that had been good, and then bad, for certain hybrid seed varieties, producing big-kerneled ears but weakening their grip to the stalks.

And when strong winds — exceeding 40 mph in many areas, topping 50 mph in others — raked the state in late October, the rattling corn simply couldn't hang on.

Most farmers wouldn't know they were suffering the worst recent season of what they call ear drop until the gusts died, when they were in their fields, looking down from their combines and tractors.

“It really turned your stomach when you saw all that crop on the ground,” Makovicka said. “And there was nothing you could do about it.”

The losses are significant and widespread.

“There’s no good way to get a handle on it,” said Jenny Rees, a Nebraska extension educator. ”But it’s thousands and thousands and thousands of acres statewide.”

In Makovicka's most-damaged field, he counted 70 bushels of corn per acre — grain he couldn't salvage, couldn't sell at the elevator. Rees has heard of northeast Nebraska farms that lost 100 bushels per acre, or nearly $50,000 of missed income on each quarter-section.

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star 

Extension educator Randy Pryor (left) and Garrett Dickey shovel corn into Hugh Clarke's combine last week west of Wilber, trying to salvage the ears that remained on the ground after harvest. Clarke and his wife, Linda, donated the corn to the Saline County 4-H group.

That's unprecedented and outrageous these days. “With modern farming technology, we hardly ever leave anything anymore,” said Randy Pryor, an extension educator in Saline County. “If you're leaving more than a bushel or two, people are awfully upset.”

The problems will extend beyond harvest. Many growers will be forced to pay for more herbicide, when the corn they couldn't harvest this year sprouts among their soybeans next year. Some farmers who graze their cattle in harvested fields are realizing, after it's too late, that their animals are gorging on more corn than their bodies can handle.

“I'd never had a problem and I've been doing it for 30 years,” said Steve Wenz, who farms near Firth. “I put them (cattle) out on a Tuesday morning and, Thursday morning, I had three dead ones.”

'A perfect storm'

Makovicka was preparing for his most-bountiful harvest in the 40 years he's been farming in York County.

Before the winds, he'd harvested a test plot and the yield was encouraging — 275 to 280 bushels per acre. “It would have been the best year ever,” he said.

But the ground was still wet, and he had beans to harvest, so he put the rest of the corn on hold.

West of Wilber, Hugh Clarke had no idea his crop was damaged. “I really didn't know until I got in the combine and started actually picking up the corn,” he said. “You could see it all knocked over.”

And near Firth, Wenz couldn't know anything was wrong until he counted up to 40 bushels of wasted corn per acre from the cab of his Case combine. “The shank broke off and the ears were on the ground.”

They all were realizing a problem that started months ago, at the beginning of the growing season, Rees said.

“It was a perfect storm,” she said. “We had different stress events early on.”

She chronicled them last month on UNL's CropWatch, an online newsletter for farmers, and to the Journal Star: During pollination, high heat weakened the shanks — the tie between the corn and the stalks — and cool August temperatures resulted in bigger ears. “They produced really heavy kernels, really deep kernels. There was quite a bit of weight.”

October rains contributed to stalk rot, followed by the damaging winds the week of Oct. 23.

The corn couldn't hang on.

“The Thursday of that week, that really wreaked havoc on those plants. Those ear shanks were brittle from all of these combination of factors. It was the final straw.”

But there was another straw. Certain seed varieties proved more vulnerable than others, and the loss varied from farm to farm, even from field to field, Rees said.

Several farmers said this was primarily a problem with specific Pioneer hybrids; Makovicka, Wenz and Clarke all experienced ear drop with Pioneer seed, though Clarke also planted, and lost, Mycogen corn.

Depending on soil conditions, or terrain, growers mix up their seed selection — one variety for a dryland field, another for irrigated land. One for a creek bottom, another for a hillside.

“It's an important choice a producer makes every year,” said Pryor, the Saline County extension educator. “It's difficult to project what particular hybrid would be the best, so it's always good to not put your eggs in one basket.”

Neither Pryor nor Rees could say this year's loss was primarily a Pioneer problem.

“There are some Pioneer varieties that were implicated, but there were other varieties from other companies that were implicated,” Pryor said.

Said Rees: “Every company had some hybrid that was affected by it.”

'Food for the deer and coons’

Collecting corn from the ground is hard work — and hard on equipment. And at $3 per bushel, not always worth it.

“But if it were $7 a bushel, we'd have everybody wanting to do it,” Pryor said.

Clarke donated the leftover corn from a 100-acre field west of Wilber to Saline County 4-H junior leaders, who are raising money for a trip to Washington. Saturday, about 20 4-H members and their parents walked the field with five-gallon buckets, picking up ears for Clarke to run through his combine.

Photos: Picking up the corn

They hand-picked about 15 acres, collecting about 200 bushels. They'd hoped to do more.

“I was proud of the kids,” Pryor said. “But it was definitely hard work.”

The rest of the corn will likely stay on the ground, Clarke said. “It's going to be food for the deer and the coons.”

Some farmers have used soybean heads on their combines, but all the soil they pick up is tough on the machines. And they get docked at the elevator because the corn is so dirty, Rees said.

Pryor heard a secondhand story of a farmer who bought a used, inexpensive combine to try to harvest the corn on the ground.

Some farmers have raked it and baled it for feed. Others have opened their fields to cows, but they need to be careful, Rees said. The cows aren’t used to eating 100 percent corn, and they don’t know when to stop.

“They look at the grain like it was candy or ice cream,” she said. But their stomachs can’t digest it, and too much can kill the animals.

She and others have been trying to educate producers, instructing them to use corn-based feed beforehand to acclimate their animals, to graze multiple cows in smaller areas, to feed them first so they don’t overeat on corn, and to move them frequently.

Near Firth, Wenz didn't see the problem until it was too late. He put 80 cow-calf pairs in his field, checked them daily, and pulled them out when he found three dead animals a few days later.

Another $4,500 hit on top of the corn he couldn’t harvest.

“I could have lost them all,” he said. “It could have been a disaster.”

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'This is not your typical case,' Saline County attorney says of investigation into Sydney Loofe's death

A week after federal officers arrested two people in connection to the disappearance of a 24-year-old Lincoln woman found dead Monday in rural Clay County, the two have yet to be charged or brought before a judge.

"This is not your typical case," Saline County Attorney Tad Eickman said Wednesday.

He said Aubrey Trail and Bailey Boswell both are being held in the jail in Wilber on a federal "person of interest" warrant in the disappearance of Sydney Loofe, last seen Nov. 15 after going on a date with Boswell.

They'd met through the online dating app Tinder.

Trail, 51, and Boswell, 23, lived in Wilber but left town after Loofe went missing. Federal officers arrested them Nov. 30 in the Branson, Missouri, area.

Four days later, on Monday, searchers in Clay County found Loofe's body.

A candlelight vigil is planned for her and her family Saturday at 5 p.m. at Sunken Gardens in Lincoln.

A visitation for Loofe will be Sunday from 4-7 p.m. at Grace Lutheran Church in her hometown of Neligh, and services will be Monday at 10:30 a.m. at the church.

An FBI spokesman said Wednesday afternoon he couldn't confirm yet the cause or manner of Loofe's death until officials get results of an autopsy. 

"It's a very fluid situation," spokesman Huston Pullen said.

He said investigators are working diligently on putting a picture together to determine what happened and who was behind it. 

"That's the biggest part we're working on right now," Pullen said.

Law enforcement officials suspect foul play was involved.

Pullen said Trail and Boswell are the last two people known to have contact with Loofe, and investigators are interested "in keeping our dialogue open."

Pullen said investigators still are accepting tips from anyone with information.

In Wilber, Eickman said he's waiting for the entire investigative process to progress some more.

Late last month, he charged Trail, a convicted felon and alleged habitual criminal, with illegally possessing a firearm on or between Sept. 1 and Nov. 20.

A judge sealed an affidavit in the case detailing the allegations, and Eickman declined to give details, but a week after he filed the charge, Lincoln police publicly said they were looking for Trail and Boswell in connection with Loofe's disappearance.

Eickman said Wednesday there are a number of things about the case that don't fit the traditional model where a person is arrested, charged and in front of a judge within two days.

"It was important for us to get him (Trail) in custody," he said.

Now, with additional developments, Eickman said, he's looking at the possibility of amending the complaint to add charges.

As for the warrant on the gun charge, Trail hasn't yet been served with the warrant or given a date to appear on the charge, he said.

Similarly, Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said he hasn't made efforts to bring Boswell back to Lincoln, where she's wanted for failing to appear last year on two infractions for possession of drug paraphernalia and less than an ounce of marijuana.

If Boswell satisfies investigators that she's no longer a person of interest and is released from Saline County, only then might she be brought back to Lincoln.

"We wouldn't go down to Missouri, ordinarily," Kirkpatrick said.

Here, the federal warrant meant it didn't come down to a question of whether to extradite.

Jan Sharp, a spokesman with the U.S. Attorney's Office for Nebraska, said in general, someone may be taken into federal custody on an arrest affidavit supported by probable cause or a warrant issued by a federal judge. Or someone may be detained as a material witness with a judge's permission.

"Under each of these scenarios, the detained person has certain rights to include the right to a prompt presentment in court and the right to be represented by counsel. Of course, those rights, like all rights, can be knowingly waived by the person detained," Sharp said.

Courtesy photos 

Aubrey Trail and Bailey Boswell

Courtesy photo 

Sydney Loofe

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Stebbing says no one asked for better detail after state audit critical of record-keeping

Andy Stebbing

Most of Lancaster County Treasurer Andy Stebbing’s $3,400 in mileage expense reimbursements for the past three years lack proper documentation, according to a report by the state Auditor’s Office.

The issues include providing no reason for trips, no date for trips, potentially incorrect mileage and trips taken on legal holidays, said the report, which was released Wednesday.

Stebbing acknowledged he has never provided detail on his mileage requests. He has been filling out the mileage form the same haphazard way since shortly after he took office in 2011, and no one told him he needed to provide more information. 

"I just figured it was being approved by the county clerk and the County Board," he said. 

"It (the report) should have been much more detailed, but that was the way I was trained." 

In a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon, Stebbing said he asked for reimbursement for part of the miles he drove each day for work after his deputy told him there was money in the budget to cover a portion of his mileage expenses.  

Stebbing said he generally drove a loop to all three treasurer offices in the city, driving about  75 miles daily. But he requested reimbursement for just a fraction of that. 

Stebbing said he was unaware of a 2014 Lancaster County Board resolution requiring substantiated cost records for expenses. 

"In hindsight, I wish I would have been much more detailed," said Stebbing. But, he said, he just went out and did his job and didn't spend time keeping detailed information. 

The state auditor’s office examined 568 days of mileage records. Only four of those days included the purpose of the trip, according to the report.

“In most cases the mileage reimbursed appeared to be questionable, unreasonable or not supported based on the locations of travel stated on the form,” according to the report.

Given the lack of documentation, the "subsequent payments by the county do not appear to have been made in accordance with either state law or the board’s own reimbursement policy," the report said.

Stebbing has also been accused in recent months of selling vehicles as a business without a dealer's license, falsifying bills of sale and filing fraudulent state income taxes. He pleaded not guilty to five felony counts regarding his sale of vehicles.

The newly released auditor's report also criticized the County Board for failing to monitor the expense documents.

Board Chairman Todd Wiltgen renewed his call Wednesday for Stebbing to step down.

"I reviewed the letter from the auditor’s office and stand by my earlier statements. The taxpayers and employees of Lancaster County deserve better than Andy Stebbing. He has failed to faithfully perform the duties of County Treasurer on more than one occasion. An honorable man would have resigned by now," he said.

Wiltgen, a Republican like Stebbing, said his comments are his own and not the official stance of the board, which will discuss the auditor's report at Thursday's meeting.

Stebbing told the auditors that since his election in 2011 no one had requested additional documentation for his mileage reimbursement claims.

The claim forms Stebbing filled out included space to document the date, to and from locations, number of miles and purpose for the trip.  

Generally, Stebbing left blank the line for the purpose of the trip and scribbled a destination and sometimes a starting point in the to-from line.  

Traditionally, the board has not scrutinized expense documents for elected agency heads, such as the treasurer, sheriff, county clerk and assessor.

Since Stebbing’s potential expense record problems were discovered, commissioners have set up a system for monitoring those requests.

Now all elected official expense reports are reviewed by the County Board’s administrator and approved by the board.

In a prepared statement, the board apologized to its constituents and reaffirmed its commitment to protecting public dollars. 

"As stewards of Lancaster County taxpayer dollars, the Lancaster County Board is extremely concerned with the findings of the Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts report regarding potentially unlawful reimbursements made to the Lancaster County Treasurer," the statement said.

"The board is now requiring more documentation in relation to mileage and travel costs for county business and has empowered staff to question and investigate claims that do not meet the County Board’s existing policy on reimbursement," the statement said. 

The report recommends the County Board improve its oversight of expense reports from elected officials and suggests the board could seek reimbursement or even remove Stebbing from office if there is “verifiable proof” of intentional falsification of expense reimbursement request forms.

The auditor's report, on expenses from June 2014 through February 2017, raised these issues:

* 44 days (448 miles) contained no documentation to support the miles claimed. No destination was provided.

* 33 days (370 miles) were claimed for travel to automobile dealers or auto auctions without any indication the trips were for official county business.

Stebbing said he went to dealerships and to the auto auction to meet with dealers, who are among the treasurer's biggest customers.  

* 11 days (112 miles) in late August 2015 were for travel to Carpetland, apparently referring to a store at 4301 Industrial Ave. The place Stebbing left from was not provided and the mileage “inexplicably varied in distance from 6 to 14 miles.”

* Eight days (88 miles) were claimed on county holidays without adequate documentation to support the travel.

* The auditor’ office also checked whether Stebbing went through the parking lot gate on days when his mileage report indicated he traveled to or from the downtown office. On 18 of the 41 days in 2017 he claimed to drive to or from that office there was no record he used the gate — which requires an access card.

* The report noted Stebbing did not appear to accurately report mileage. For example, he claimed 465 miles over 45 days to go to his 46th and R streets office, but the distance varied from 3 to 16 miles. The reports don't indicate where he was coming from.

Mapquest shows the actual mileage from the treasurer's downtown office to the 46th Street office to be 3.4 miles one way; from the treasurer's West O Street office to 46th and R is 4.9 miles, according to the report.

Stebbing also claimed mileage of 3 to 20 miles for travel to the West O Street office (on 39 days for 366 miles) and claimed mileage of 6 to 12 miles for travel to the Capitol (for 12 days and 126 miles). 

“Based solely upon the information provided on the expense reimbursement forms, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether more than one trip was made to the identified location on the same day or the actual number of miles that should have been claimed for the aforementioned travel," the report said.