Day 1 Observations from Chip Flory

August 18, 2008 07:00 PM

From the Rows

I've done all but one Midwest Crop Tour since 1988 (I missed the 1991 Tour). I realize time in the field doesn't make me an expert on corn and soybean production... I haven't actually been responsible for putting a crop in the field since my senior year of high school in 1983. Even then,
Dad ran the planter and I did the field prep. But, I do have "time in the field" and 19 years of traveling the Midwest to take a look at crop potential.

The only reason for that little trip down memory lane is this: I've never seen a crop this late in the third week of August. At least that's true for the route I traveled in South Dakota (from Sioux Falls to Mitchell and south to cross the Missiouri River into Nebraska). We've seen similar conditions, but nothing this late. That means the Tour this year is measuring yield potential... and that's a lot different than measuring yeild on the corn crop the last two years. That's when we saw a corn crop that was well dented... and the more mature the corn crop, the better the job the Crop Tour yield procedure does in measuring actual yield. When we're sampling from a late-developing crop, we know there's a high likelihood the yield we measure on Crop Tour will change between now and the end of the growing season.

And that change depends on the "finish" the crop gets between now and black layer... or between now and the first frost, which ever comes first. The crop in South Dakota has great potential... and with that great potential comes great risk.

We pulled 48 samples out of southeast South Dakota this year, running six different routes. That's exactly the same number of samples we pulled last year from the area, so we've got a very good comparison in place. We knew late-planted soybeans would result in a lower pod count in a 3'X3' square, but I don't think anybody anticipated a 19.5% drop in the number of pods. The final count on pods this year came in at 860.82 in a 3X3 square, compared to 1068.92 last year and a three-year average of 1001.58. That pod count in S. Dakota last year resulted in a final yield for the state of 42 bu. per acre. As of Aug. 1, 2008, USDA sees a state yield of 41 bu. per acre. That may still be possible, but everything will have to go perfect between now and the end of the growing season to get that done. We've got fewer pods and the pods we saw were way behind year-ago in development. We saw some really nice, fat pods last year in S. Dakota last year. This year, the pods are mostly flat and I think we counted a higher number of "shorties" (down to 1/4-inch) across the state. While we didn't run across any really dry soils in S. Dakota this year, this crop needs another shot of water to spur late-season growth, some normal temps to develop the pods and at least a two-week extention on the growing season to get the beans we saw today to full size.

The combination of the lower pod count and the late development of the crop makes me think USDA's Aug. 1 yield estimate of 41 bu. per acre is too high for the state. I'm not saying it's a disaster... but I am saying it could be a disaster if frost ends the growing season too early in South Dakota.

The corn crop is VERY eye-appealing from the road. And, quite frankly, the corn crop in S. Dakota really didn't disappoint scouts too much once we got in the field. We saw a corn crop with very good yield potential. Ear counts are way up from year-ago (84.04 ears in 60-foot of row, compared to 73 ears last year and a three-year average of 75.1 ears); grain length is up from last year (6.64 inches compared to 5.87 inches last year and a three-year average of 5.93 inches); and kernel rows are up from year-ago (16.12 k-rows compared to 15.14 last year and a three-year average of 14.84). Those are the "corn-yield basics" and all are up from year-ago. That's a very good sign... and that's why we finished up S. Dakota with a Crop Tour yield of 147.62 bu. per acre. I thought the state could get close to 150 bu. per acre... eventually... like, in 10 years from now! But, the high ear count is driving the average yield higher.

Some of those ears counted were "second ears." At this stage in the development of the crop -- blister (yes, BLISTER!) to mid-dough in most fields -- it's not all that unusual to find a second ear that has the potential to make grain. But, the odds of that second ear making grain are low. As the crop advances in maturity, the primary ear on the stalk will start to canabilize the second ear and draw energy from that ear until it has zero yield potential. If everything goes right, those second ears will make some grain... but probably not much. (Try as we might, today's corn plant normally still makes just one "good" ear per stalk.)

The average yield compares to 111.42 bu. per acre last year and a three-year average of 118.85 bu. per acre. So... if my math is right... corn yield potential is up about 32.5% from last year. Possible? Yes. Probable? No.

We can't forget about the historical error for the state. On average since 2001, the Crop Tour yield for South Dakota has been 5.27 bu. too high. So, take that away from this year's Crop Tour yield and you end up with 142.35 bu. per acre. That might seem "doable," but the late development of the crop makes it unlikely. With a perfect finish, it could happen. With a normal finish (and a first frost on the normal first frost date sometime in the last week of September), it will be very difficult to average 142 bu. per acre. Give it a poor finish, and we'll see this crop lose much of its potential before the combines roll.

What's a "poor finish?" I've got two scenarios for you: 1) A frost before black layer. That would result in a low test weight and a bushel isn't determined by a set number of kernels... a bushel if 56 lbs. of corn. That's how a "light" or "fluffy" kernel results in lower yields.

2) Hot temps. I know... hot temps would speed development of the crop and get it to the finish line before the first frost. But, hot temps after pollination also compresses the time a crop has to accumulate dry matter... and build a heavier kernel. The shorter the time from silking to blacklayer, the lighter the kernel. Yes, the crop might make it to "safe-from-frost," but it wouldn't build yield all the way up to 142 bu. per acre in S. Dakota.

What's the "prescribed" finish? Normal to slightly below-normal temps to extend the time from silking to black layer to give the crop more time to accumulate dry matter. Then a two-week late first frost of the season. I know... that's a long shot... but that's what it would take for this crop to realize the yield potential we measured in the state today.

Finishing Nebraska...

Tuesday we travel from Grand Island, Nebraska, to Nebraska City, Nebraska. We'll sample the area south of the Platte River to the Kansas border. (Hopefully, I'll get to stop at Sugar's for breakfast in Red Cloud!)

The people we meet!

Thanks to he guys we meet at the gas station in Bartlett on Hiway 281... they filled us in on a June 20 hail storm that did some incredible damage to crops in the area. But, the winds that came with the storm were more of a concern as they tour through and flattened buildings in the area.

Thanks to PF Member Don. He was out doing some late-season weed control and took time to talk to us about planting conditions and general crop conditions before he welcomed us into his corn and soybean fields to take samples.

And thanks to the lady (sorry, didn't catch your name) in Valley Co. for talking with us about the tough conditions you faced this spring when trying to get the crop planted. It was a late-developing crop (pollinated within the last 10 days) on some flood-irrigated ground. Give this crop a chance to get ripe before the first frost and it'll be in good shape. If that first frost comes anytime in September, we'll be thinking about you and hoping for the best. By the way... she wasn't too happy when she saw us in her field. We explained what we were doing, listened to her concerns, answered her questions, gave her the results from the field (which wasn't that easy to do considering the late development of the crop) and we parted on very good terms. She even wished us "safe travels" for the week.

That's normally how it goes on Crop Tour. Landowners are concerned... as they should be... when they see a strange vehicle parked next to their field. After they talk with the scouts in the field, however, they really do appreciate what we're doing this week. We're not "snooping." If we were "snooping," we'd be "sneaking" around the countryside trying to hide what we're doing. That's not how we do it. If you'd rather scouts not be in your field, we appreciate that and we are more than willing to head on down the road. But in most cases when we're fortunate enough for the landowner to drive by while we're stopped at one of their fields, the meeting is very rewarding. So... when you see us on the road, please stop for a conversation. We learn more about local growing conditions and scouts are more than willing to share the information we've collected throughout the Tour.

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