Better Luck This Year

March 13, 2009 07:00 PM

When the history books are written, 2008 will go down as a test of survival for most farmers. From Midwest floods to hurricanes in the South to pockets of searing drought throughout the U.S., Mother Nature seemed to take delight in dishing out one growing challenge after another. 

"It seemed like the longest season of my farming career,” says Rob Carls, Stonington, Ill. Rain delays and subsequent ponding of water that required replanting kept Carls' planter in the field until June 21. Come fall, more rain made for a long-drawn-out harvest.

Likewise, Charlie Hinkebein was experiencing frustrations on his farm in Chaffee, Mo. He started planting in late March and didn't get done until the middle of June.
"One thing we learned is how fast we can get the job done. Once the weather broke, we never stopped working and did everything within a three-week period. It was grueling.”

While it might be tempting to write the season off as one best forgotten, every crop year is a learning experience. "Sometimes the best lessons are learned from adversity,” Hinkebein says. He coaxed 109.32 bu. per acre of soybeans out of the chaotic production year, which topped the nonirrigated category of the Missouri Soybean
Association's yield contest in 2008.

"There are no normal years,” he adds. "For me, the key to dealing with the uncertainty is to experiment and try lots of things so I understand how my farm responds to weather events.” Hinkebein has been farming for 40 years and plants 150 acres of experimental corn and soybean plots on his farm each year.

In spite of the seemingly poor year and all the doomsday predictions, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service summary of 2008 shows that one of the most volatile years in the history of agriculture was also one of the most bountiful. Following a 2007 record corn production, the 2008 crop was the second largest in history, with average yields estimated at 153.9 bu. per acre, up 3.2 bu. from the previous year and the second highest on record. Soybean production for 2008 was the fourth largest crop on record, with average yield dropping 2.1 bu. per acre, compared with 2007.

Carls admits he was pleasantly surprised when the combine hopper filled beyond expectations. "Luck was with us with regard to a late frost. I hope I can remember to be more patient this spring and remember that no matter how things look, it's rarely quite as bad as it seems,” he` says.

Here's more take home from the past year to consider for this year:

Silking matters.
Silking is the most critical growth stage for corn, and late silking dates typically result in yield reductions. Iowa State University agronomist Roger Elmore says 2008 was actually the slowest year on record with regard to silking. The compensation factor was plentiful sunlight (solar radiation), plus rainfall after silking was ideal to maximize corn yield. Cool temperatures and slow heat unit accumulation resulted in slow crop development and a longer grain-fill period.

"Without a late frost, this would have all been for naught,” Elmore says. "Instead, the crop season finished better than we could have ever hoped.”

The late harvest and cool fall did contribute to higher grain moisture, an increase in grain molds and some low test weights that could lead to long-term storage issues.

Sidedressing makes sense.
Every drop of nitrogen (N) applied this past season was like liquid gold. If you'd already put on 200 lb. or so, it was tough to dig out the sidedress bar and put on more—no matter how yellow and pathetic the crop looked.

"With nitrogen management, the best-laid plans often get waylaid by weather,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. "Many of the growers that applied all their nitrogen the previous fall found that even nitrification inhibitors couldn't save them against late spring washout.”

Pulling nitrate samples helped clarify the need for more N. "Yield maps are showing that those willing to put on an extra 60 lb. to 90 lb. per acre of N as a sidedress application were rewarded with yield increases of 30 bu. to 100 bu. per acre,” Ferrie explains.

Wet spots can produce.
An entirely new type of crop circle dotted the farm landscape this past summer: wet spots that drowned out the crop. Ferrie says those able to
replant wet areas were rewarded if they managed the field properly.

"Replanted areas needed careful monitoring and spot spraying for all sorts of issues. For example, we see rootworms migrating to those freshly emerging silks on the late-emerged plants,” Ferrie explains.. "However, yield maps show replanted corn that went over 200 bu. per acre if managed closely—something growers aren't used to seeing.”

When the ponds dried out, Missouri farmer Carls decided it was too late to plant corn, and he filled the holes with soybeans. Soybeans used the N that had been applied for corn and yielded 50-plus bushels per acre.

Conservation copes.
You can't stop the rain, but conservation farming practices help keep and water and soil in place. Matt Helmers, Iowa State University ag engineer, says 2008 confirmed the need to
upgrade drainage systems.

"In some cases, it may mean simply realizing a grass waterway makes sense, rather than continuing to till an ephemeral gully,” Helmers says.
Last year also served up positive confirmation of conservation measures that have already been done.

"Those landscapes that employ conservation tillage and conservation practices appeared to weather the storms the best,” Helmers notes.

Aphids get ornery.
Before 2008, outbreaks of aphids occurred almost exclusively in odd-numbered years, and this past summer's onslaught wasn't expected.

"We knew weather plays a key role in aphid development, and we learned exactly how big when the season started out too wet and cold and delayed soybean planting,” says David Ragsdale, University of Minnesota entomologist.

Staggered soybean emergence and a patchwork of very young plants created a smorgasbord for the aphid. Cool nights also kept the aphid's natural enemies from developing.

"Each year they [aphids] show us a new trick. They started acting differently last year—so much so that we have quit predicting what is going to happen. Scout, be on guard and act in a timely fashion when warranted is the best advice right now,” Ragsdale says.

Residuals return.
The persistent wet weather during 2008 delayed many postemergence herbicide applications at least one day.

"Fields that had soil-residual herbicides applied were better able to withstand the extended weed interference than fields where a post-only approach was used,” says Aaron Hager, University of Illinois Extension weed specialist. "Wet holes in fields became weed nurseries—especially when the spots couldn't be replanted. Those areas need to be considered when planning weed management for 2009,” he says.

Another lesson: Timing of herbicide applications is critical. Late applications of glyphosate to corn beyond
the labeled size was greatly associated with reproductive development.

Fungicide use increases.
When commodity prices soared this past summer, so did the spray planes. Although some plant pathologists still wince at the idea of routine fungicide applications to protect yield, few dispute the effectiveness of the products in the presence of disease. Mississippi State University plant pathologist Tom Allen estimates that 65% of the state's soybean acreage receives a foliar fungicide (typically strobilurin) at the R3 growth stage to control a host of diseases.

Iowa State University plant pathologist X. B. Yang says recent studies from six years of Iowa research farm data shows increasing incidence of brown spot, frogeye leaf spot and Cercospora leaf blight in soybeans in his state. The higher the foliar disease severity, the greater the return from the use of fungicides, Yang says.

Farm Journal's Ferrie says fungicide response is easier to demonstrate in corn. "Last year, we saw bumps of 10 bu. to 30 bu. in fields with heavy disease pressure. Clean fields typically gain 3 bu. to 5 bu. from timely treatments,” he says.

Size up hybrids.
No two years are alike, but Pioneer Hi-Bred technical services manager Mike Hellmer, based in Bloomington, Ill., says farmers that had water issues early in 2008 took note of which
hybrids emerged well for good stand establishment and applied that to selections for 2009.

"Growers also noticed that hybrids that have ear flex—as opposed to fixed ears—did better in reduced stand situations,” Hellmer notes.

Pioneer—as well as other seed companies—evaluates and characterizes hybrids for stress emergence under cold and disease conditions. Hybrids are also characterized for yield potential under low and high plant populations. All this information is available to help with hybrid selections.

"I think a lot of growers were surprised at how well hybrids bounced back given the conditions, which is testimony to built-in defensive packages,” Hellmer says.

While it's tempting to concentrate on wet conditions, drought stress causes more lost corn bushels than any other cause. Hybrids that perform one year can be in the middle of the pack another year. Using multiple-year yield map data can help you match hybrids and seeding rates to your farm.

Yield maps tell the tale.

Memories can get sketchy—especially when it comes to bad years. The history from 2008 and what it means for the coming season lies in your yield maps, Ferrie says. He likes to use maps to create management zones that show the variability within the field.

"When pushing yield to the next level, it's not just about raising yield on good areas but also about minimizing yield loss on poorer areas,” he says. To create management zones, the two most essential maps you can have are the ones you may be tempted not to collect—maps reflecting yield in dry years and wet years. "During those years, it's natural to feel frustrated,” Ferrie says. "You don't feel like spending the time to calibrate the yield monitor. But you'll learn more from those two seasons than you will from 10 normal seasons.”

Get help.
When the going gets tough, Ferrie finds many farmers tempted to throw in the towel on a crop.

"We get emotional about our crop. Questions like how quick you tear a crop up for replant or whether you
apply more nitrogen are tough to make alone,” he says. "Don't be afraid to pull in a seed company agronomist, banker or an insurance agent—anyone that is not in your shoes but understands the problem and can provide input.”

Crop disasters are seldom as bad as they seem. "I see a lot of guys willing to farm for the insurance, rather than invest anything else in the crop.

Unfortunately, it often comes in a few bushels above the insurance cutoff and in the end they just end up with a crappy yield,” he says.

You can e-mail Pam Smith at

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