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By Staff | Apr 13, 2012

April is here and we are still waiting for the typical showers. Most areas of the western Corn Belt greatly need rain if they are to have a good chance of trend line yields.

We have all heard that the Southern Oscillation Index values have dropped and the patter is supposed to switch to El Nino, but until we start measuring the precipitation in the rain gauges, promises and expectations don’t mean squat. Most of us remember 1983 and 1988 and have heard of the older farmers talk about the 1950s.

Now, with the stakes so much higher and grain stocks down having top production is the Midwest is vital.

We will have to see if many of the top media outlets track what is going on in grain producing countries. We have never had anything close to a food shortage in this country for many years, but in an era where wacky weather and disease seem to dominate, it seems anything is possible. Since April has arrived and the winter months’ weather reading can now be tabulated, it is not surprising that those months ended up being one of the warmers winters on record.

The theories I have heard range from the two major volcanoes erupting in the northern hemisphere setting up two high-pressure areas to the earth’s crust having shifted and we are now getting weather from what is normal 300 miles south. That gives us weather more typical around Columbia, Mo.

When to plant

A week ago the cautious advice given by myself and other prognosticators was to wait with corn planting until closer to the insurance date. That date has now been reached. The advice lately was to wait for that date, plant on Wednesday, and knock off Thursday due to the cold rain predicted for Friday.

The reason being that when the first moisture the seeds soak up is from a cold rain they often produce abnormal and weak growth. Waiting has been tough, as the fields are dry enough and the soil temps have been well above 50 degrees.

The main risks involved would be a late freeze that would catch plants that have the growing point above the soil surface, killing some stands and the issue of not having enough replant seed if a major replant situation were to occur.

Once fields dry and planting begins there will be rapid progress, with so many 16-, 24- to 32-row planters operating these days. The majority of the corn acres could be planted within five to seven days.

Weather overview

The March weather that produced daily high temps 15 to 20 degrees above normal attracted attention. Producers and governing groups in other producing countries pay attention to the weather in the U.S. as it affects their grain prices and the resulting marketing opportunities.

The same warn temps also had growers in the Midwest wondering what they should be doing. Typically, after the snow melts, the days warm above 60 degrees and we make the final preparations for field work and planting. The chance of frost through April and having corn with the growing point close to or above ground level is slowing us down.

With less than a normal amount of moisture in the ground every producer wants a high level of crop insurance in effect for the entire season. The April 11 date is likely to be when most planters started rolling. Meanwhile these sub-freezing temps may have raised havoc with Iowa and northern Midwest fruit crops.

Field observations

When the advice was given to not plant many growers were wondering what task to tackle. In many cases the answer was to get busy applying their pre-emerge herbicides and any burndown products that were needed. The early warm-up promoted two to three weeks worth of weed germination and early growth with the weed flush being heavier than in previous years.

Growers typically responded by adding products that would provide additional burndown activity to their mixes. The challenge in some cases was that both 2, 4-D and paraquat supplies were limited. Getting early control of those unwanted plants and limiting moisture use in a potentially dry year is what everyone is after.

South American trip

My wife and I got back in late March from an annual trip to South America looking at fields and different crops, getting into private labs, meeting with producers, agronomists, company people and a huddling with grain contractors.

The normal producers typically begin their planting season in mid-September and finish in early March. Nearly all acres are double-cropped so they are always thinking a crop ahead when it comes to fertility programs, weed control and other management items.

Much of Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay suffered from the effects of La Nina throughout December through January and early February. The farmers and crops were affected much more than Midwest farmers would have been because their winter months are dry and no subsoil moisture supply is built.

They normally begin planting in mid- to late-September after two to three spring rains have fallen to provide some topsoil and subsoil moisture. Those rains began five to six weeks late. The rains quit and it stayed dry and hot through December and January.

Those multiple stresses, along with sap-sucking insects, created extreme stress for both corn and soybeans. Pollination and grain fill were heavily affected in corn. Beans remained stunted with charcoal rot and thrip damage very common.

The degree of stress and resulting grain loss was still being measured when we were there. Their February planted crops, generally planted after wheat or field pea harvest, were looking good, but were going to be filling at a cooler time of the year when there is a risk of frost. You can envision what their corn may look like if there was no moisture in the ground, and there were 40 miles per hour winds and low humidity levels for weeks and months during the critical grain filling months.

Those conditions also hurt the fields that had plants in the early vegetative stages when early stunted and insect feeding occurred. The week after we left there were reports of temperatures down to the lower 30s.

Being down there with hosts of top agronomist helps me to sharpen my crop scouting skills. Their lack of winter allows better winter survival by six legged pests. Those guys and gals have to be on top of every insect each week. We scouted quite a few fields for bugs and diseases.

Another goal I had for this visit was to spend time with a friend who is president of a large biological firm. The company employees include a number of good soil microbiologists including several Cubans.

Scientists from that country, due to economic pressures and the continual need to feed their populations, developed their biological control sciences well and have been successful with it. Now that U.S. producers are in an era where weeds and insects are escaping the newest and most modern control programs, it may be information those scientists develop that will help us develop the next control programs.

Their groups have already partnered with cutting edge companies from the U.S. and around the world in working to produce new means of controlling insect, weed and disease problems.

They are always scouting for the next organism to develop and tweak. Such research tends to more affordable than the $600 million price tag put on developing a new herbicide or insecticide family by today’s major firms. We will be keeping tab on their work.

There are also groups from other countries that have set up projects to have grains grown for them in these countries, where they can better dictate what they want to import. This may be a novel idea to some, but is one that better suits those importers. It is typically cheaper and bypasses the FM problem that still exists. They are more likely to see the quality of grain get delivered that they saw in the bins and trucks producers’ farms. I had the chance to visit with such a group late the last week and it was a learning experience.

I have not mentioned politics yet. In Argentina the socialist government has imposed several severe taxes on grain and meat exports and shut off imports of many goods and parts. Producers only get to export the goods that are surplus to the amounts government officials think are needed for domestic consumption.

Their domestic grain and meat prices are controlled to limit food price increases, since cheap food is beneficial for the people who either don’t want to work or of lower economic class. Their president eliminated imports of ag goods and spare parts as a political move that sounded good to some, but it included auto and machinery repair parts and slowed industries and farmers at harvest time that had JD, IH, Claus, or NH equipment.

May the sunshine and warmer weather allow everyone to get their planting 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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