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Crop watch

By Bob Streit - Columnist | Nov 2, 2020

Crop watch

The month is now more than half over and in review a huge amount of progress has been made with the harvest and tillage in preparation for the 2021 season. It has meant long hours with many of those days being quite warm, very dry and extremely windy. The apprehension this created for the operators was a renewed threat of combine and field fires which can be difficult to control and costly for the machine owners. We haven’t seen this problem since the 2012 and 2017 seasons. Harvest speeds and the frustration of running through downed stalks were already challenging enough without having them being made worse.

It took a bit of time before the harvest moistures reached the targeted range. Once that happened the hot temps and strong winds continued fields dropped into the low 12% range, which is not supposed to be possible. Having minimal to no drying cost was a reality for farmers who have been combining the past week.

The markets and longterm prospects

This return to higher markets has been a long time coming and for a number of growers in recent years it didn’t come early enough. The farmers in South Dakota and Minnesota who persevered through the extremely wet 2018 and 2019 seasons finally had enough GDUs and enough dry weather to get their field work done on time and have good crops to capitalize on these prices.

In Iowa and a few other Midwest states the season long drought reduced yields enough to trim yields by measureable amounts. We finally saw the USDA admit that their original estimate of 550K acres heavily affected by the derecho was too low and the figure was increased by 50%.

China continued their rapid pace and the amounts of grain purchasing. The Saturday afternoon news from their country was that a large area of rice production received a heavy snow which took the plants down, destroying the now ripe crop. In addition several provinces in the Yahtzee river system received more heavy rain in the last week and water levels behind the Three Gorges Dam were the highest yet.

In this country we have seen large grain surpluses in the last decade which suppressed the market prices. In 2020 much of the Midwest did not get much rain after July 20th through now. The moisture profiles have to be close to empty in much of the western U.S. except in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Will the soil get partially recharged or will be go into the 2021 with moisture deficits on our minds. As farmers get into their planning mentality and planning seasons we may see grower who has been on a 2/3rds corn and 1/3rd soybeans shift towards 50/50 as long as SCN/or poor drainage/high soil pHs aren’t an issue.

An observant 2021 corn producer may want to search for products or practices that have improved their hybrids’ ability to tolerate extreme heat and dryness. Shallow rooted hybrids suffered this year as much as they shined in 2018 and 2019. Avoiding compaction and breaking up any hard layers in the soil prior to winter could pay big dividends. Avoid recreational tillage as it pulverizes the soil to limit water infiltration. The use of Gypsum of any form should be a positive management step. Products such as BioEnsure/Protect Plus//StressTech seed applied may be well worth it. One other product that performed well was an ethylene inhibitor called Respite. When applied to crops it lowered canopy temps by 8 to 10 degrees for 15 to 20 days. Early yield results look very good.

2021 may also be a year where having a cover crop mulch to insulate the top inches of soil could be highly beneficial. Keeping the ground cooler permits soil biology to survive and nutrient release to be maximized. Soil health really entered into the level of dry weather tolerance in individual fields as microbial bodies contain lots of water, which the roots will tap into if needed. The carbon contained in the microbial bodies and the carbon added to the soil as translocated photosynthates is hydroscopic, meaning it will wick humidity out of the air and make it available to the roots.


Nothing is average this year. Nearly all corn fields were planted very early and all went through a three weeks cold spell that caused many of the plants to stall out during that period with replanting being common in Illinois and Missouri. The plants looked to be in danger of not reaching knee high by July 4th, but put on a major growth spurt that allowed most plants to add 4 feet in height in a two week period. Most of the environmental conditions looked good, but the rains seemed to keep missing most of central and west central Iowa and the predicted mid to upper 90s heat placed many acres of crop under extreme stress for many weeks. Thus much of western and west central Iowa was in a bad state of drought from mid-June on.

As expected growers north of Hwy. 3 are having good yields while those north of Hwy. 18 having the best yields. South of Hwy 20 soil types and topography are major factors in which fields perform well. Through much of the summer there were many fronts moving through that laid down narrow strips of rain that arrived at critical growth stages creating major yield differences within a few miles.

As to the derecho, 90-pus year old veterans have never seen or heard of any massive storm that affect such a large area of the heart of the corn and bean belt. There are still a number of peculiarities to that storm suggesting external forces were in play. One picture worth seeing is a snapshot of a massive wall cloud by Janice Hinschberger as it approached Cedar Rapids. (We will try to post that picture to our site) It looks like a wall cloud of a tornado inside a hurricane. Questions exist as to why massively strong metal structures were destroyed while older and sometimes dilapidated wooded structures stood. Was there some sort of EMP in the storm? Corn harvest progress in those fields has been very slow with operators having a tough time keeping on the right tows or have resorted to driving crossways to the rows.

The comments about how difficult it has been to harvest those fields range from “they think they got most of the ears into the machine” to “they believed they left 40 to 60 bushels in the field”. There are also cases where they have contacted the insurance adjustors to re-inspect the fields as the stalk quality has gotten worst since Aug 10th in many areas of the field. They are having to dig into the dirt with their snouts to pick up many of the ears.

There were questions at first about the damage done to bean fields by the 100-plus mph winds. Quite of few of them look like they had been squashed down but would spring back up. While most yielded better than expected, given the fact that July and August rains were non-existent, there were also fields where yields seemed to be trimmed by 50 to 70%. Were pods blown off or the stems whipped so hard they could no longer move nutrients and water to fill the pods? All we can do is speculate what happened.

For many growers south of Hwy. 20 the corn yields are better than 3 to 4-inches of rain during the growing season should have allowed. This was likely due to a few factors such as the roots went much deeper than five feet, humidity levels were high and dews dripped down onto the soil right around the roots to provide small amounts of water to the plants each day, and seed companies began to place screening nurseries in arid, western fringes of the cornbelt to test all of their hybrids for drought tolerance in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It they could not tolerate dry conditions after the irrigation was turn off in early June the new hybrids got canned.

Soil sampling

Fall is typically the time when greater 50% of the soil sampling is performed. Droughty soils tend to lock more of the nutrients within their silica and oxygen sheeting and not release them to any lab tests being performed. The mineral most affected by this is potassium and test levels will run significantly lower after a dry summer. Most fertility specialists suggest that we assume fall 2020 soil tests will be falsely low, and adjust for it. Tissue testing can be done early in the growing season next year to document K and micronutrient shortages. There are finally several affordable, K containing liquid fertilizers, than can be applied foliarly or with Y-drops if needed.

Residue management

Not all the acres that growers were expecting to treat with degrading microbes had that task completed on. This cold spell is expected to move out after 10 to 12 days. Warmer conditions will return and allow more field with heavy residue to be sprayed

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

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