From the Rows - Chip Flory - Western Tour Day 2

August 21, 2012 08:34 PM

From the Rows - Chip Flory - Western Tour Day 2

Day 2 of the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour ended just like I hoped it would... all the scouts made it from Grand Island to Nebraska City safe and sound.

Unfortunately, we found exactly what we feared would. A poor corn and soybean crop in Nebraska.

We stopped and talked with Bob and Jeanie near St. Mary, NE, as they were harvesting their 2012 corn crop. It was dryland corn and the moisture level in a half-mile row ranged from 12.1% to nearly 18%. The yield monitor showed a yield that ranged from the low 30 bu. per acre to as much as 130 bu. per acre (again within the same half-mile row). That's an incredible example of how variable this year's crop is... if you can find 100 bu. yield difference within the same row, that should be all the evidence you need to understand how difficult it will be to estimate yields in the western Corn Belt this year.

Bob is a great guy... and Jeanie is a great lady. When Bob saw me and a guy from Connecticut, Chicago and London (yes, London, England) standing at the edge of the filed as I was waving my arms frantically trying to explain how a combine works, he could have easily shook his head, turned the combine around and headed back down the row. Instead, Bob pulled forward, shut it down and by the time he hit the bottom step I was there to shake his hand and he had a smile on his face. A half hour later, our fiend from London that had never seen a combine in action had made a round sitting in the cab.

Oliver (from London) said, "I've learned a lot on Crop Tour, but the 15 or 20 minutes I spent in the combine with Bob was the best learning experience I've had."

That, my friends, is what the Crop Tour is all about. Later, Oliver made this observation: "You can feel like you're a part of the Crop Tour by reading about it and reading all the tweets from scouts, but I'll guarantee Twitter won't get you a ride on a John Deere combine in St. Mary, Nebraska!"

Excellent point, Oliver. And I'll say it again: That, my friends, is what the Crop Tour is all about.

But lets back up about 7 hours in the day. We were driving down a gravel road in (I think) Clay Co., NE, and we saw some shiny new steel standing tall on the horizon. I kept the Chevy pointed toward the bin and it just kept getting bigger and bigger as we got closer. It was a 200,000-bu.-bin that was getting tied into existing storage of about 150,000 bushels. New drier, new leg and a new pit. What a great opportunity to talk with three non-farming scouts about what it takes to grow, harvest and store a corn crop.

Again... that's what the Crop Tour is all about.

And the Crop Tour is also about collecting corn and soybean yield data. There's been more coverage of the Crop Tour than ever before and I'm struggling to understand exactly why it's happening. It's a bad crop... USDA told us it was a bad crop as of August 1 with a national average corn yield of 123.4 bu. per acre and a national average soybean yield of 36.1 bu. per acre. How much worse does it need to be before it's "bad enough." Honestly, this is all we really need to know about the 2012 crops: They're too small. We're not going to produce enough corn or soybeans to meet all the potential demand.

But what we're finding out is the corn crop is falling short of USDA's Aug. 1 yield expectations, which points to the need for even more demand rationing in the weeks and months ahead. It's becoming abundantly clear the market will likely have a tougher time dealing with a 400 million to 500 million bu. cut to the 2012-13 corn supply than it would have if we'd found "an extra" 400 million to 500 million bu. of supply in the 2012 crop. Think about it... extra supply of corn (and soybeans) would easily be absorbed on the demand side of the market. But if the crop is 400 or 500 million bu. smaller than expected, where will the demand be cut even deeper than it has already been cut to keep carryover near at least 650 million bushels.

Before hitting the road, I honestly didn't see the risk of a significant cut to USDA's corn crop estimate of 10.8 billion bushels. After two days on the western leg of the Tour, I now see a risk of a significant cut to the 2012-13 corn supply.

Here's a great example of what we're dealing with. On Oliver's combine ride, they shut down the harvester in the middle of the worst part of the field and pulled three sample ears to compare to higher-yielding corn at the west end of the field. In the poor spot of the field, the yield monitor was reading about 45 bu. per acre. The ears in this area of the field had an average number of kernel rows around the ear of 16. These ears were also about 6 inches long on a harvestable ear population of about 60 ears per 60 foot of row. That calculates out to a yield of about 100 bu. per acre. Again... the yield monitor was reading about 45 bu. per acre in that spot of the field.

So let's use another yield formula: the ears were 16 kernel rows around and kernel rows were about 42 kernels long. That means each ear had about 672 kernels per ear. Assuming a "normal" bushel takes about 90,000 kernels to make a bushel, it would have taken about 134 ears in this field to make a bushel of corn. At 18,000 ears per acre, that would put the calculated "kernel count" yield at 134 bu. per acre. Again... the yield monitor was reading about 45 bu. per acre in that spot.

The difference (and in this case the huge difference) is in the size of the kernel. We walked out of dryland corn fields all day and calculated a corn yield of 90 to 110 bu. per acre and my response each time was, "It'll never make that." The reason is kernel size. In a normal year, it takes about 90,000 kernels to make a bushel of corn, but the dryland corn in Nebraska this year might make a half bushel with 90,000 kernels. Seriously... I'm not kidding. They are tiny kernels that made Bob's yield monitor read 45-bu. corn in an area that had a calculated yield of 100-bu.-plus per acre.

Soybeans were better than we saw on day 1 of the Crop Tour, but that doesn't mean they were good. Beans on day 2 of the Tour were a lot like the economic data we see every day: It's not good... it's just less bad than expected.

When we finished Nebraska, the average pod count we had in a 3-foot-by-3-foot square was 894.43. That's down 30.5% from last year. I'd like to elaborate on all the reasons why pod counts are down 30% from year-ago from a state that gave us irrigated yields on nearly 40% of the fields we samples, but I can't. I guess what this is telling us is that you can fight drought with irrigation, but you can't fight heat with irrigation.

On corn, we wrapped up two days of touring Nebraska with a Tour yield of 131.79 bu. per acre. That's down 14.3% from last year's Tour. Keep in mind that we always measure the Nebraska corn crop too low. That's because the state is 60% irrigated and 40% dryland. Our Tour, however, travels through a higher percentage of dryland yields. We pulled 187 samples from Nebraska and 43.3% of them were irrigated, so 56.7% of the samples were dryland. USDA saw a yield in Nebraska on August 1 that was down about 8% from last year's final yield in the state. What we found is that USDA might have to cut a few more bushels from it's average corn yield estimate for Nebraska.

Check out the results from the Crop Tour on to get the details of all the numbers.

Tomorrow, we'll travel through the western three crop districts in Iowa as we make our way to Spencer, Iowa. Most of what we see tomorrow (later today) will be dryland corn, so we'll see just how well the crop survived the worst growing season since 1988.

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