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Crop Watch

By Bob Streit - Columnist | Apr 20, 2021

After one of the fastest warmups and snow melts in late winter we are now encountering a drop into a period where the temps are double digits cooler than normal and snowflakes are predicted for early this week. After the much-delayed planting seasons of 2018 and 2019 most growers have either been beginning to plant at a slow pace and cautious pace or been sitting on the sideline waiting for warm up. Many seed company reps and agronomy advisors who typically advocate early planting of corn are tending to tell farmers to be observant of soil temps so as to now encounter problems with the dreaded cold water imbibition. What evolved from observation to a theory and is now gospel is worth heeding as the ever present winds from the northwest seem to be blowing most days.

A 20 mph wind can arrive in two days from North Dakota or Canada. If snow arrives for parts of the state as forecast for Iowa on Monday those who took a more measured approach to beginning to plant will say “I told you so”. Either way we will not know until this fall whether the cautious approach was correct. My advice is to calculate how many days it would take you to plant all of your corn acres and begin early enough to get most of your acres in by May 5th in central Iowa. The condition of the ground and getting a fast start for your seedlings to producing the highest yielding fields.

The markets

What are the markets trying to tell us? So far we are still waiting to hear a solid explanation for where the expected acres went. The best explanation was that it was a decoy to try to entice growers to plant enough corn acres or bean acres to boost the carry out supplies and bring the grain prices down. My guess is simply that in the Derecho footprint area most growers forgot about planting second year corn due to the expected volunteer corn problem. The second factor is that the soil profile is so depleted of moisture and second year corn were reduced so much in 2020 that soybeans seemed like a better alternative crop. A large portion of the southwest U.S. is in a D2 to D3 drought that has forced many growers to alter planting plans until the moisture profile is replenished. That will take more than one good rain. One noticeable change seen is the acreage increase in sorghum and $1.00 to $1.40 price premium versus corn for that crop. Interestingly enough that is one of the major crops that has not been traited and it is used to produce an alcohol in Asian countries. If strong export demands continue any shortfall in production this acreage shortfall will be felt worldwide. This shortfall will be good for prices though. Our huge variable in the Midwest is getting adequate rainfall and avoiding strong hail and windstorms.

Food security

The nonfarming populace typically ignores the value of an adequate food supply and expects the food warehouses and shelves to be full all the time. If you have spent any time in Germany, China or the Ukraine their older citizens have been though times when those shelves were empty. When food shortages occur people will do things they would not do when well fed. Back in the 1970s when I worked with ServiTech out in southwest Kansas, where the dust blows continually, and long droughts are the norm, I had an interesting experience one day. I was out scouting the fields northwest of Garden City one day when I came across a collection of vehicles clustered around a large truck that had a large telescopic dish aimed at the ground. I was curious about this so stopped and knocked on the door to see what was happening. I got invited inside so I could find out what they were doing. The said it was a joint project between the SCS (soil conservation service), NASA and the CIA. My obvious questions were how might they be collaborating? They explained that they had satellites in orbit that were shooting signals down to earth and were measuring how they were being reflected based on soil moisture. That allowed them to calculate the expected grain yields in each country and from that extrapolate the political stability in each area of the globe. Hungry people riot and may overthrow their governments while those governments may be trying to impose stricter rules on daily life. Denying your enemy an adequate food supply is one tactic that can be used to defeat them.

Research funding

A recent Farm Bureau article related how the level of research funding for ag was falling behind. Is this real or is it a matter of focusing on the wrong subjects, or failure to identify what is really important? They mentioned a few areas to focus on. One should be on nutritional content in the grain and survey what the markets need. One error I would agree to that because all the focus has been on bushels produced per acre to pay the bills, with a grain handling system built on volume and speed and a plant breeding network built on volume and not quality and or mineral content of the grain.

One big area of need is in soil quality and soil biology. The founding fathers in most countries recognized that their citizens survival was based on the top 6-inches of soil and it remaining productive. In today’s world a lot depends on scientists and farmers alike understanding how their tiny microbes function within the soil. Funding in that area has been very tight.

There was a series of recent articles published about a project at the University of Illinois. A team of researchers sourced old lines of corn and its ancient relatives, then spent several years studying how each of those lines supported varying microbial populations, including those known to be the ones that fixed nitrogen out of the air or ones that release organic acids to solubilize solid forms of minerals. They followed up by planting varieties from our more modern station lines that were popular each decade to see how plant breeders inadvertently selected away from the lines that best supported these beneficial lines. Dr. David Johnson of New Mexico State, who we were blessed to meet and interact with at a food conference in 2018, ran into a related phenomenon when he produced compost from local waste using common building supplies that he brewed with. He then applied the brew to his crops and the yields over the succeeding years and saw continual increasing yields with no added inputs. Soil scientist’s conclusions were that he woke those ancient microbes that soil scientists didn’t know existed and currently know little about. The project pointed out how little we understand about how microbes and plants interact in the soil. Many of them can’t be cultured in a lab.

Current planting progress and thoughts

The wacky weather and wild temperature swings creates much uncertainty. I was in Illinois two days last week and their growers are trying to figure out if they should plant into these cold soils if they are to remain cold and snow may be in the forecast. They hate to lose important days but don’t want to have to replant if the stands are not adequate. Many acres were replanted in 2020. My thoughts are always to plant the larger and heavier seeds first as their energy supplies will be greater offering more cold weather survivability. Seed treatments containing minerals will improve germination and vigor.

There were lots of soybeans being planted into soils that are very cool and dry. They assumed the seed treatments would protect against invasive root rots. The earlier planting dates in recent seasons have produced more podded nodes and higher yields as a result. The questions they had were similar to our here. Can they expect a dry season and how might they improve their chances of producing a good crop? It is a complete reversal from the 2018 and 2019 seasons. A number of them were devoting a portion of their acres to IP or organic grain as market demands had increased and offered more profit potential.

Thoughts on the upcoming season

So far we have had lots of fronts move across the state, but very little rain. Our weather runs on 9 and 17.5 year cycles. Our last dry cycle happened in 2011 and 2012. We are due. The Protect + which improves heat and drought tolerance has been selling quickly.

Much of soybean yield depends on branch number and seed size. Manipulating hormone levels to favor cytokine levels in the plant play the man role. There are bacteria that produce cytokine.

The thoughts on bean size and high yields are that dry soils run out of water, which is the vehicle to move minerals into the plant. Having a good foliar program to keep the plants short and follow it with the minerals and amino acids to boost seed size is next. Capturing more sunlight to produce more sugar is the reason that Mainstay Si improved bean yields in the Beck’s management trials in 2020.

Keeping the vascular system open and functioning, and not being plugged by any bacteria, could be very important this season. Read up on those that have been a problem. We have videos on our website giving details about these.

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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