Crop Tour Preview: Agronomists Weigh In

August 17, 2012 01:38 AM
Crop Tour Preview: Agronomists Weigh In

Experts review crop conditions and yield expectations from each state on Pro Farmer's Midwest Crop Tour.


Minnesota Farmers Count Their Blessings

The most emotionally draining scenario for farmers is when crop prices rise to record highs yet they have no or little crop to harvest, says Seth Naeve of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Agronomy & Plant Genetics. That may be the case in many states this year but not Minnesota, where producers will have a "respectable" soybean crop. "A few will have excellent yields. Many will have poor yields. But all will have something to haul to the elevator. Producers here know that they are very fortunate."

The state benefitted from some strong rains after planting. Unfortunately, the rains then stopped. "Since June we have relied on small localized thunderstorms to deliver rains," says Naeve. "Those producers who happened to lie in the path of a couple of key thunderstorms are sitting pretty. In many cases farmers a few miles away are very dry."

Most of the state’s soybean fields appear to be in good shape. Farmers received enough rain to create a good canopy, and rows closed relatively early, setting up a strong yield scenario. Soybean yields could average 45 bu/per acre if current conditions (cooler daytime temperatures and widespread rain) continue. Under the opposite scenario, rising temperatures and no rain, yields could drop below 40 bu/per acre.

The state’s overall corn crop looks good, too, though yields will vary depending on rainfall and soil conditions, says Jeff Coulter, assistant professor & extension specialist at the University of Minnesota. Coulter adds that Minnesota may only have an average corn crop for the state, but it will still do better than most states.

"This year's corn crop appears to have a very good root system and is accessing water at depths below 4 feet. But areas in fields that have sandy or gravelly subsoil with low water holding capacity are easily visible from the road in many areas, and many of these pockets won't produce any grain."

The corn crop is about 10-14 days ahead of normal, but the recent cool conditions have slowed its development some. Dry conditions during and after pollination resulted in the loss of kernels on the tips of ears that was greater than normal in many fields, says Coulter.

Nebraska: Variability Is the Watchword

Given varying amounts of rain and irrigation throughout the state, it’s difficult for analysts to generalize about crop yields in Nebraska. The health of this year’s soybean crop depends on where you look, says Charles Wortmann, an extension soil fertility specialist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

"Rainfed soybean has failed due to drought in parts of Nebraska, but it is better in southeastern and east central Nebraska," says Wortmann, adding that there has been strong variation in plant size and pod load. Also, kernel development has been slow.

"Considering that there was not been useful precipitation in Lincoln since June 23, I am amazed the crop is as good as it is in some fields....The situation is much better for irrigated soybeans, but it is still below average."

The same goes for Nebraska corn: Irrigation separates the best from the rest, says Greg Kruger of the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Irrigated corn looks good. The rest looks, well, dry. "This seems to be true for almost the entire state," says Kruger.

One silver lining in the lack of precipitation is that there hasn’t been much hail. Also, dry conditions aren’t conducive to many diseases. But Kruger is watching closely for reports about high nitrate levels now that farmers are chopping corn silage.

Iowa’s Bad Year Would Be a Good One for Most States

Clarke McGrath compares calculating corn and soybean yields to a massive geometry problem, with too many variables. "We have areas within the state, even within individual fields, that will yield very well. Then we have areas that will be a complete loss. And...we have everything in between."

The problem is that there is so much in between. McGrath, an Extension field agronomist for Iowa State University, has done yield checks over the last month with seed dealers, retailers, grain merchants and growers. "The more we look, I think the less we know, simply because there is so much variability." The USDA estimates that 49% of Iowa’s corn crop, historically the largest in the country, is in poor to very poor condition.

Even so, a bad year for Iowa corn growers is an average year for much of the nation. The USDA’s latest estimate is that corn yields in Iowa will average 141 bu/per acre, the lowest level since 1997. That was just about the national average last year, even if it’s well down from the 171 bu/per acre that Iowa produced last year.

McGrath is much more certain of at least two things: Today’s genetics are much more stress- tolerant and stable than even 5-10 years ago; and even with today’s incredible genetics and improved agronomic management we still aren’t "drought proof" yet.

The field agronomist says that corn grain harvest will kick off in earnest next week, weather permitting "simply because we are very concerned about corn standability. We have fields that as you walk through and barely touch stalks, they fall over. Harvesting lodged corn in a good yield year is no fun. Harvesting lodged corn in a poor yielding year is excruciating.

Iowa soybeans are in a little better shape than corn; only 37% are judged by the USDA to be in poor to very poor condition. The agency forecasts a yield of 43.0 bushels per acre, 7.5 bushels below last year’s level. This would be the smallest yield since 2003.

"Beans are a complete mystery for much of the state," says McGrath. "They have been sitting there doing very little except for fighting off spider mites, waiting for more favorable temps and moisture. While it appears that many of the bean fields will be very disappointing, there will be some that may surprise us simply because they got a few rains at key times."

Poor Yields in Store for South Dakota

Variability is the word to describe the majority of the corn and soybean fields in South Dakota, says Paul Johnson, South Dakota State University crops field specialist. Early planting, combined with an extreme lack of moisture for most of the summer has caused fields to be a varying growth stages and health stages going into the fall.

"Corn ranges from dead and already chopped with no potential yield to in some small area normal corn with potential yields of 150- 200 bu./acre," he says. Overall, he ranks 50% of the state’s corn crop as very poor, with little or no yield, 25% will have poor to average yields and 25% will yield average.

For soybeans, the story is much rosier. "I would guess about 25% of the soybean crop is very poor, 25 % poor to average and 50 % average but still in need of moisture." In all cases, he says, moisture is still needed for the rest of the growing season.

If significant rainfall doesn’t come before harvest, Johnson is predicting extremely low yields. "Overall yields will be way down, the poorest since 1988 and may be close to 1976 type yields. But there are still some areas that could have normal yields."

Illinois Corn Crop Poor, Soybeans in Better Shape

Farmers in Illinois were able to plant corn much earlier this spring, but it likely won’t help yields. Emerson Nafziger, a professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois, says a lack of rainfall this year will definitely limit yields.

Corn is not in very good condition in the drier areas, which include much of southern Illinois and parts of central and northern Illinois, he says. "The main problem at this point is lack of kernel set due to poor pollination. The crop canopy is also in poor shape in many fields, so grainfill may not be complete even if there are kernels to fill. Standability is also expected to be an issue."

For soybeans, Nafziger says, the crop is in relatively better shape, thanks to August rainfall. "Podfill is underway, and in areas that were really dry in July the number of seeds/pods filling is less than normal. The early varieties are starting to lose their green leaf color and in areas that remain very dry, some leaf color is starting to be lost before seed-filling is complete. This will limit yields."

Nafziger says he expects average Illinois corn and soybean yields to be similar to USDA’s expectations of 116 bu./acre for corn and 37 bu./acre for soybeans. "There’s a little upside potential for soybeans if we get more rainfall and warm weather over the next few weeks."

Ohio Corn Struggling, Soybeans Improving

Crop conditions for both corn and soybeans are looking lackluster, says Peter Thomison, The Ohio State University professor of crop science. He says corn conditions are below average, but soybean conditions are improving.

He says this year’s crops were plagued by drought, heat stress and violent storm damage. Overall, the crop is maturing earlier than usual, and he expects yields to be lower than normal this year.

Producers in the state seem to agree. An Allen County, Ohio, farmer told AgWeb’s Crop Comments: "Recent rains were a great help for developing soybeans. For corn, rain came just too late. Field I looked at over the weekend had lots of respectable ears, but just about as many that will not have any harvestable grain. Generally speaking, any stalk I looked at that was less than five feet tall will not contribute to the corn yield. Bottom line on this farm: average soybean yield and 50 to 60% on the corn crop."

Meanwhile, a Putnam County, Ohio, grower said: "Corn crop looks good from the road, but a walk inside shows a whole different story. All I can say is walk the fields and see what is really there and don’t get surprised at harvest."

Indiana Corn Yields Expected to Come Up Dry

Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension corn specialist, says corn and soybeans overall are hurting in Indiana this year, but some fields are still in good shape. Nielsen says crops are, "As bad as they have been in years, at least as far back as 1983, though also quite variable around the state, within a county and within fields. Yields will range from absolute zero to above average."

The biggest challenge for Indiana farmers this year? "Drought, heat. Drought, heat. Drought, heat. Did I mention drought and heat?" Neilsen says.

In fact, Indiana was dubbed "ground zero" for this year’s historic drought, and it definitely took its toll. Nielsen says the corn crop is maturing about two weeks ahead of the five-year average, and three weeks ahead of last year’s crop.

With that in mind, Nielsen’s expectations for this year’s harvest aren’t good. "It goes without saying that the percent departure from historical trend yield for this year's corn crop will likely be worse than any year since USDA began recording yields in 1866," he says. "Yes, I meant to say 1866."

Read more about the Indiana grain yields.


For More Information

See full coverage of the 2012 Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour, hosted by Pro Farmer.
Take your own field measurements and participate in Pro Farmer’s Virtual Crop Tour.




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