From the Rows - Western Tour - Chip Flory - Day 1

01:42AM Aug 21, 2012

From the Rows - Chip Flory - Day 1 Western Tour

Day 1 of the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour is in the books... and it was exhausting. And disappointing.

We knew it wasn't going to be good... and it wasn't. But it was even worse than I expected. It may not have been as bad as everybody on Tour expected, but it was P-E-W-R... pewr. (Say it outloud and you'll understand.)

I left Sioux Falls and headed straight south, which was headed into the worst of South Dakota's 2012 corn and soybean growing conditions. Growing conditions north of Sioux Falls have been better than south of town, but that doesn't mean conditions are even close to "good." My route today pulled an average corn yield out of South Dakota that was close to 60 bu. per acre. But, that average included a zero corn yield and one at 7 bu. per acre. These were obviously some of the worst South Dakota corn yields I've seen in the state since we started the western Tour in the late 90's.

That's not to say we haven't seen bad crops in South Dakota before. We have... corn yields south of 100 bu. per acre are not good and we've seen plenty of them on dryland corn in the state. But we haven't seen them with the consistency that we saw them this year. That's what's really troubling about the South Dakota corn crop.

I pulled all my South Dakota samples out of crop district 9. That is the most heavily sampled crop district in the state and it's the most-concentrated area of corn and soybean production in the state. If crop district 9 in South Dakota isn't producing a "good" crop, it's likely the state average won't be "good" either. If the corn yield potential in crop district 9 is "poor," odds are the state yield will be poor, too.

Let'sstart with soybeans:

Beans are not good. Last year, the average pod count in a 3'X3' square was about 1107. This year, the average pod count was 584.93 -- down an astounding 47.1% from last year and down a touch more than that from the three-year average. Normally, this is where I would argue that a smaller pod count don't necessarily mean the yield will be smaller. The ability to plump up bean size at the end of August is one of those factors that can result in a "surprise" yield for soybeans. This year, I don't think there will be any surprises. What we've got on the bean plant for pods is what we're going to have... there won't be any pods added by an unexpected late-August rain. And to realize the yield that's represented by the pod count, it needs to rain now. The average size of the bean will only shrink from this point forward unless it starts to rain now.

Corn isn't good either. In fact, it's the worst South Dakota corn crop I've seen since we started running a western leg of the Midwest Crop Tour. Where did the corn crop lose yield in South Dakota? Let's break down the data. The average ear count in two 30-foot plots (total of 60 foot of row) was just 52.13, down 37.6% from year-ago. That's also down 37% from the three-year average ear population for South Dakota.

Several things came into play on the sharp reduction in ear counts from last year and the three-year average. But one of the most common was a "stacking of the leaf nodes." Leaves unfurled so closely together that they basically suffocated the ear shoot. I stripped some of the plants down leaf by leaf and I eventually found a tiny ear that was hugging the stalk. This ear was a mutant... only about 2 inches long, normally curved along the stalk and covered in green silks. It stands no chance of making a single kernel of corn.

Another problem with ear counts was stalks that shot an ear, but the ear simply didn't pollinate. We count only the ears that will make grain... but we count ears that will make even a small amount of grain. It's easy to tell... grab the ear with a tight grip and you can feel the kernels through the husks. If the ear failed to make any kernels, the "ear" feels like rolled-up tissue paper. We saw way too many of those "ears" today.

The reasons these ears didn't put on any grain are numerous. But the only thing you have to understand is that it was way too hot when these plants pushed out the ear shoot and tried to pollinate. The heat either left the silks unreceptive to pollen or left the pollen sterile. Either way, the result is the same: A completely unpollinated ear of corn.

It really was heartbreaking. We'd drive past miles of brown and dead corn, get to the spot that it was time to make a stop and slow down next to a field that actually had some color left in the plants. From the road, we assumed that field held some yield potential. But after getting past the end rows and walking 35 paces down the main rows, we'd find very few ears that will actually make grain.

The next sign of crop stress on corn is revealed in the length of grain. We measure the length of grain on each ear in inches. Last year, the average grain length in South Dakota was 6.5 inches. This year, grain length was 4.56 inches, down 30% from year-ago.

Another sign of crop stress can be detected in the number of kernel rows around the ear. Last year, South Dakota averaged 15.54 kernel rows around the ear. This year, the average was 13.44, down 13.5% from last year.

Low ear counts; short length of grain; and a low number of kernel rows around the ear does absolutely nothing to isolate the source of yield-cutting stress to the crop. When all three of these critical yield factors are down sharply from year-ago and from the three-year average, it simply means the crop was under stress from start to finish in the growing season.

The end result was a South Dakota average corn yield estimate of 74.26 bu. per acre, down 47.4% from last year. Yep... that's a disaster.

Those of you that have been following the Crop Tour for years know that if we find a "poor" corn crop in a state, we often find a "good" soybean pod count. Conversely, if we find a "poor" soybean pod count, we often find a "good" corn yield. That's because the two crops really are different. Stress corn at any point in the plant's like, and yield has likely been cut. Stress soybeans at just the right time and with just the right amount of stress, and some "harsh" growing conditions can actually help improve yields. (Don't tell me you don't remember "burning beans" with herbicide and then being amazed at how many pods were on each plant!)

Now look at the percentage changes on soybean pod counts and corn yields in South Dakota compared to year-ago: Pod counts down 47.1%; corn yields down 47.4%. That's got to be evidence of season-long, severe stress that came at the wrong time and lasted too long for both the corn and soybean crops.

Unfortunately, the poor dryland conditions continued into northeast Nebraska. Traveling south out of Yankton and then turning west meant we traveled by acre after acre of chopped corn with the "check strip" left down the middle of the field. Check strips are left for the crop insurance adjuster to sample after a field has been harvested for forage, rather than grain. We had about 350 people at the evening meeting (which turned into a "night meeting") in Grand Island and everybody agreed that corn harvest in the cattle country of northeast Nebraska will see a significant increase in the number of corn acres harvested for silage. And if an acre is harvested for silage, it isn't harvested for grain and those acres come off the harvested acreage tally for the state.

So... the question is, "How many more acres are going to silage than in a normal year?" One farmer-rancher in Grand Island explained, "If it took 10 acres to fill my bunker with silage last year, this year it's taking 50 acres." That's five times the acres going to silage on his farm/ranch.

That, however, is probably an extreme case... many in attendance at the meeting agreed corn acres cut for silage likely increased 20% over year-ago (and over normal). If correct, that will take another bite out of harvested corn acres. These are obviously lower-yielding dryland acres in northeast Nebraska. As these 20 bu. to 30-bu.-yielding fields are taken out of the harvested acreage equation, it should actually result in a higher average corn yield for the state, but lower total output.

Again... as long-time followers of the Crop Tour know, Nebraska is a tough state to call after one day. Today we sampled the area north of the Platte River and east of Grand Island. Tomorrow (actually, later today), we'll be south of the Platte River and head east to Nebraska City. A couple of routes actually head west before turning east to Nebraska City to get into some of the dark, black, irrigated soils of central Nebraska. Many times over the year, what we found in northeast Nebraska on Day 1 of the Tour has been reversed on Day 2.

There has been much-better and more consistent rains in southern Nebraska this year, so we might be able to replace some of the lost dryland bushels from today with much-better yield potential in the southern part of the state tomorrow. When we wrap up tomorrow night in Nebraska City, we'll have final results for Nebraska. Last year, we wrapped up Nebraska with an average corn yield of 153.7 bu. per acre. The current three-year average Crop Tour corn yield for the state is 156.94 bu. per acre.

The average soybean pod count in a 3'X3' square last year was 1286.5 and the three-year average pod count in the state is 1277.24.

It's late... I'm coming down from the "high" I got from talking with a great group of area growers at the Grand Island meeting tonight... and I'm on the road again at 6:30 this morning. It's time to wrap up and head to bed.

One more thought: Crop irrigators can do battle against drought conditions by pumping water, but you can't fight heat with water. It's the heat that probably had the biggest negative impact on this year's crops than did the dry conditions.

With that said, there are more than a few western Corn Belt farmers that are worried about what today's dry soils mean for 2013 corn and soybean yield potential.

But that's a conversation for another day... and another Crop Tour.

We'll talk from Nebraska City Tuesday night.