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By Staff | Oct 28, 2011

As we are now nearing the end of the 2011 harvest season, we can honestly say that it was one of the most erratic and tough to manage growing seasons in recent seasons.

There were several serious weather challenges including the major drought that was due, a major crop disease issue that has hurt corn yields, and wildly fluctuating grain prices.

Only after the grain is sold and we know the cost of next year’s inputs will we know how the bottom line will end up. An honest statement by any farmer might be, “did you get the license of the truck that hit us?”

My wife and I finally have several empty guest bedrooms after two months of hosting guests from South America.

They came for the Farm Progress Show and wanted to see how the ag industry and agronomists functioned here in Iowa and the rest of the Midwest.

The two Argentines were a young agronomist and a senior government scientist from west of Buenos Aires. The six Brazilians were fertility researchers and plant breeders with the Mato Grosso Research Foundation.

All were from the productive heart of their respective countries and well versed with production practices in their home areas. We began by visiting a newer top-rated ag company in the Kansas City area, and then headed to the Ames area where we were graciously given an audience at The Soil Tilth Lab (National Lab for Ag and the Environment).

Next we attended a field day at Bruce Johnson’s farm, near Osage, followed by visits at Ag Leader in Ames, John Deere Works in Ankeny, and finally at the Bill, Nancy and Tim Couser farm, near Nevada.

On Sunday night, when we were grilling burgers and brats on our front lawn out west of Ames, and it was warm with the sun going down and no mosquitoes, I asked them what they thought of rural Iowa.

They said it was just as they hoped it would be. Thanks to everyone who served as gracious hosts.

Palmer Drought Index

Unless we get 4 to 6 inches of rain over the next two weeks, it may be time to start paying particular attention to the Palmer Drought Index for the Midwest. I can’t remember so much of the western Midwest going into the late fall season with so little moisture in the profile.

Somehow we have to get roughly eight inches of moisture by late next spring. Normally we don’t hope for lots of snow, as typically only one inch of snowmelt enters the profile, but repeating that process several times this winter and spring could help our prospects quite a bit.

You can bet that many foreign grain buying customers will be paying attention to this index over the next eight months.

One pertinent question is if growers can expect great accuracy from their soil testing work this fall. This is a valid point as when the soil get very dry the crystal lattice structure of the different types of clay shift their structural angles.

This shift can trap a number of the minerals so tightly that they will not be released by the extracting solutions used in the testing labs. Though this degree of non-release can be estimated, there is no firm guideline to go by.

The best guidance on how to read sampling results this year is to blend the results from this fall’s testing with past results, do removal calculations, then do some rough extrapolation for each field.

The one trend that has been noted by testing lab managers, is that soil phosphate and potassium test levels have been trending down the last few seasons.

High prices and rates that have not kept up with the greater removal of today’s yields are the likely culprits of this decline.

One other point is that more growers will soon have to recognize is that the ‘NPK-only’ fertilizer programs, that have been the rule the past 40 to 50 years, failed to recognize that the other 10 to 12 micronutrients have still been required by the plants.

The light green, dark green streaking that was so pronounced in 90 percent of the corn fields last summer, verified that there was a problem occurring.

Ignoring it didn’t do too much good for those fields. Typically low yields are not an accident, they are the result of taking the ostrich approach.

Soil microbiologists

In more of the recent ag press publications, there is attention being paid to soil microbiology and the role that activity plays in both making nutrients plant available and boosting plants health. Since it was so obvious that much of the corn crop had disease problems in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and likely in 2012, responding in a proactive manner is likely to be a wise choice for growers trying to make a profit next season.

A small percentage of growers have already been paying attention to the few good soil microbiologists who have been doing some teaching in Iowa.

At the same time, a small number of crop advisors have been trying to upgrade their knowledge base so they can give the most valuable and up-to-date information.

In a small meeting Wednesday, we got to spend hours with a top notch researcher and consultant.

We learned about a new way of testing soil samples to find out if the microbial balance favors the good or bad bugs.

Second on the list was how the use of cover crops has proven to build soil quality and subsequently maintain or increase yields.

The researcher has the opinion that a likely component involved in the decline of second-year corn yields is the lack of adequate soil biology and cross talk activity.

In many past cases, the adoption of a monoculture has caused such a decrease in yields. The problem can be resolved by recognizing it and taking remedial action, which may include increasing soil oxygen levels and using inoculants consisting of varying species.

In a related manner, I had to run down I-29 from Sioux City to Omaha. Seeing the devastating damage caused by the Army Corps’ flood was eye opening.

The puny $207 million estimated yield somehow didn’t include any property damage such as houses, sheds, bins, roads and farm field erosion.

That surely didn’t make the flooded out farmers feel any better as the total will likely be multiples of that estimate.

During that meeting, we learned that our old friend from 1984 and other years, fallow crop syndrome, which turned out to be a die-off in phosphate reducing bacteria, is likely to be a serious problem in 2012 in the flooded fields.

The second problem is that the soil structure that existed previously in those fields has been destroyed.

The curative recommendations include trying to plant a mixture of cover crop seeds in those fields this fall.

The root exudates of those grasses and legumes will foster root colonization making soil-fixed nutrients available again and help rebuild soil structure.

Thus, growers who have high yield expectations may want to get their drills out and line up their rye and winter pea seed to plant cover crops in fields dry enough for traffic.

Good luck in getting any final harvest work completed and any necessary fieldwork done.

Bob Streit is an independent crop consultant and columnist for Farm News. He can be reached at (515) 709-0143.

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