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CROP WATCH

By Staff | Dec 26, 2014

I’m wishing you a Merry Christmas and an obligatory Happy New Year.

It is time to take stock in what you and people around you have accomplished and learned in the last 12 months.

It can be a bit like Thanksgiving where you show appreciation for what you have been blessed to have worked for, as well those you have learned from or been able to help.

The growing season was sure different, and we were all hoping it would be, after three years of some degree of drought in much of the Midwest we were hoping for enough moisture to grow a decent crop.

In the end we could have used about 10 fewer inches of rain in May and June, perhaps saving a few of those for August when it turned dry for four to six weeks over parts of the region.

Farmers were already looking ahead and preparing for the 2015 growing season as they prepared for an improved year by investing heavily in field tile to drain away excess spring time moisture.

That is considered good for yield potential as air/water management is often category No. 1 in seeking optimum yields.

The biggest change versus two decades ago is that systems are now designed for .5 inch of water removal per day instead of the normal for the 1980s of .25.

This help remove excess water, but it pushes water that didn’t soak in properly into the creeks or drainage ditches at a rate that many major rivers are not capable of handling.

So with soil organic matter of 50 percent of what they used to be, less water is retained in the upper profile when it can be stored for use by the crop later in the season.

News media items

In the past week or so I have had the chance to look through a few of the farm publications that came in the mail during harvest. It’s surprising how fast they pile up.

I noticed several stories where they discussed the newer ideas that receiving press and are predicted to be big influencers of farm operators as they seek to produced higher yields and hopefully higher returns on investments.

Included in the lists were ideas such as ultra-high populations, variable rate seeding, having planters that were able to switch varieties on the go, sensors that could monitor individual plant stress levels, or traits that were geared to some as-yet-to-be-evolved pest. This is at a time where there are now farm management meetings being held where the actual yield trends in areas of the state are being graphed and the trend is actually downward between 2003 and 2014.

So what is going on in the fields that is hindering the climb up the yield ladder, or at the very least, to maintain yield levels of the past. Is it just variable weather or is there some unknown factor?

An insightful quote is, “If everyone in the room is thinking the same way, there ain’t no one thinking.”

I have attended soil conferences and worked with growers who recognize we have not been taking good care of the microbial life in the soil that serves an all-important role in feeding the plants; or developing fertility plans best suited to inconsistent weather patterns.

As to preserving the soil, it is the organic matter in the top 6 to 24 inches that is meant to store water.

Flash droughts are actually when there is not enough of a sponge left to absorb and retain that water until the plants can use it. Compacting the soil or killing off the glomalin producing microbes seals off the soil, allowing soil particles and the bound nutrients to float away.

If the root system grows to the same depth the plants are tall, as it should, there should be enough moisture in reserve to supply the plants’ needs through rainless weeks.

The stress sensors are nice and are a good tool if one has an irrigation systems to turn on whenever the plants are under stress.

As to higher populations, Dan Davidson, an agronomist, wrote a letter to DTN, saying what farmers now needed were hybrids that developed strong stalks with flex ears and the capability to put at least two full-sized ears on each plant.

That would deliver more grain with less residue and less interplant competition above and below ground.

And while yield data and summaries are nice, if other management programs create an environment where disease is so bad the corn crop dies six weeks early and grain fill can only occur for about 40 days, where is progress being made?

More growers are beginning to ask such questions and deserve answers since their livelihood and this country’s food supply depends on it.

Market trends

We are now roughly four to six weeks after the glut of harvest. And it is not over with entirely.

I was in a neighborhood last week where one large operator still had 2,000 acres of corn to harvest. So why when the corn and bean markets were supposed to collapse, are they showing signs of strength?

Several meteorologists who have been accurate the last few seasons differed in their assessment of the Chinese growing season. They stuck their necks out in forecasting the Beijing area weather as being hotter and drier than normal and detrimental to corn and bean yields.

This differed from what the Chinese government or the USDA stated. It was sure hot and dry the week we were there. That would leave them short of coarse grain needed for animal feed at a time when Ukrainian grain is unable to be shipped to them due to the politics and unrest in the region.

Now that the corn market has gained about a dollar, the prices for March are now close to break even in central Iowa. More people are also recognizing, at least in Iowa, that there are not the big piles of grain being stored outside in piles as is typical in big yield years.

As we go further into the winter and nearer spring more people will realize that the acres devoted to second-year corn may not materialize since no-till corn on corn without fall tillage has its drawbacks.

It will likely mean beans no-tilled into stalks instead. We are also hearing that Dakota farmers who are facing $1.50 to $1.75 basis due to rail car and engine shortages, plan to move away from corn planting for economic reasons.

They are no longer fans of Mr. Buffet and his stranglehold on rail movement of grain in the northern plains.

With all of the above going on, 2015 looks like it could be a year containing many notable events. How do you expect to keep up with the twists and turns?

The ability to stay on top of those events and capitalize on several could make for a good show.

Good luck in doing so. See you next year.

And be safe.

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

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