DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- When the weather turns wicked, sometimes all you can do is hang on and hope things don't look too bad when it is over.
Wild weather battered several crop production areas this past week, and Ryan Jenkins and Reid Thompson were counting themselves lucky. Jenkins, who farms in the Florida Panhandle, and Thompson, from central Illinois, are reporting in each week as part of DTN's weekly View From the Cab series, a look at crop conditions, agronomic decisions and other aspects of farm life.
"We had some decent-size hail, but it didn't last too long or do much damage," said Thompson, Colfax, Illinois. "However, I don't have to drive far to find some significant crop injury and wind damage to crops and property."
Hurricanes actually have their own season where Jenkins farms, and weather is a constant worry. So Jenkins was also counting himself fortunate to have gotten rain without any punishment attached this past week. "We got about one-half to an inch of rain that really hit us about right," Jenkins said. "Our crops are looking really good."
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson reported that the past week was favorable for both Illinois and Florida. Parts of the Florida Panhandle had rainfall of 2 to 4 inches and locally heavier. "The soil profile has filled up, with 87% of the Florida soils rated adequate to surplus on topsoil moisture," Anderson said.
For the next week, the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama areas will have some light to locally moderate rain, 0.1-0.5 inch, during midweek and then will have scattered light showers, according to Anderson. Temperatures are expected to range from the upper 80s to low 90s for daytime highs with nighttime lows in the mid-70s.
Illinois temperatures have been running 3 to 5 degrees above normal. Anderson noted that a swath of rain formed in north-central Illinois over the weekend to send from 0.5 inch to 1.5 inches, locally heavier, to some farms. However, McLean County, where part of Thompson's operation sits, remains rated abnormally dry on the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Some chance of a thunderstorm exists this week for the region, but sultry conditions remain in the forecast. "Temperatures will increase from the mid-80s during Wednesday through Friday into the mid-90s during the weekend for daytime highs with the nighttime lows in the low to mid 70s during this weekend into early next week, so the rainfall will be important with corn silking and soybean flowering underway," Anderson said.
Read on to learn more about how crops are faring in these areas, some of the technology these farmers deploy to increase efficiencies, what tools they'd like to see in the future and how weather influences everything.
REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS
The 1970s central Illinois rock band REO Speedwagon was singing "Ridin' the Storm Out" long before Reid Thompson was born. Still, the severe weather that blasted through the region over the weekend made for an explosive concert.
"We've got some corn leaning -- some tasseled and some not," Thompson said. "But we missed a lot of the damage. Five miles east of where we live, where we don't have a lot of fields, you can see more hail damage on the corn leaves."
Soybeans seem to have weathered the storm better. Farms in nearby Livingston and Champaign counties had corn flattened and some structural damage to farm bins.
The hot weather and lack of rainfall had become worrisome, so at least the moisture was welcome. "We had three rain events at the main farm last week. So, we're up an inch to an inch and a half at the main place and at least three-quarters to an inch across all our growing areas. We really lucked out," he said.
Crop conditions have already dramatically improved, he noted. "It's still July, but this rainfall was accompanied by slightly cooler conditions, particularly at night.
"I finally got to shoot off fireworks without fear of setting the yard on fire," he said.
A few days being out of the sprayer was forcing him to spend some time behind the desk to catch up on paperwork.
Thompson spends a lot of time thinking and figuring out how to do things differently, particularly with regard to shaving input costs and streamlining operations. For example, several years ago, the farm moved to tram lines in soybean acres to avoid running over crop when applying postemergence inputs.
"When we purchased a second planter for beans, we added tram lines as a convenience. With precision equipment, it is as easy as switching off sections through individual row controls," he said. It takes three passes of the 15-inch-row bean planter to equal 120-foot sprayer boom, so the middle of each three planter passes is left to make a 30-inch row for the sprayer tires to travel.
Thompson has not seen any increase in weed pressure in that tram line. He did try increasing population along the tram lines to encourage a faster canopy but didn't detect yield differences from the effort.
"This may be a year when that row doesn't fully canopy -- given our cool start to the season and slow soybean growth pattern. We do think there's a little more branching in the row along the tram line. Most seasons you can't see the tram line by the end of the season," he said.
Thompson Farms has also moved to strip-till in corn, which only has a small foothold in the area. They are trying cover crops. They've moved to multiple nitrogen applications based on testing.
"This area is still a lot of all fall nitrogen or others are some fall with some spring weed and feed. Others may do spring weed and feed with one sidedress, but very few are coming in late season with N through Y-drops like we are," he said.
Variable-rate fertilizer is a common theme in the area, but variable-rate nitrogen and seeding is not yet a widely accepted practice, he said. "There are some flat, black farms that are 100% across the entire farm, but that's not us.
"We are really pushing to adopt variable rates based on zone creation," he said. Thompson sees these technological advances as works in progress. "We've created the zones, but how do we fine-tune this to match the reality," he said.
Thompson figures the farm has spent between $6 to $7 per acre in soil-sampling fees to build fertility zones. "We don't necessarily spend less in inputs as a result -- but it has allowed us to understand our farms better and is changing how we manage each acre and reallocate those dollars across the field," he said.
There's still a lot to learn, particularly when it comes to varying populations of both corn and soybeans. "Our soybean seeding rate trials have come back with results all over the board. We're still learning," he said.
In corn, prescriptions that utilize multiple hybrids to spread flowering and pollination periods are also part of his risk-management strategy. But he sees multi-hybrid corn planters to be part of the future for addressing areas of low and high productivity within a field.
What additional technology would be on his wish list? "Some instant way to tell me what my crop needs right now," Thompson said. "Tissue testing works for what it is, but it takes time to do the sampling and get results. I'd like some kind of rapid test that would allow me to monitor crop and soils, determine how it is doing and tell me what it needs so I can adjust.
"I see the next big thing providing my crop exactly what it needs, when it needs it -- both so the plant is never needing to search for a nutrient and so we are only adding what is absolutely necessary as we try to continue improving our environmental footprint," he said.
RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA
Ryan Jenkins hasn't even rubbed the sleep from his eyes before he checks the weather radar each day.
"Typically, in the morning, if you see some storms out over the Gulf, it's going to be raining that afternoon because they come in with the sea breeze," said the Jay, Florida, farmer.
"I'll bet I check the weather 100 times a day. The chemicals we use today all have different timeframes as to how long they need to dry before they are effective. So I am constantly trying to predict when a shower is going to pop up and where."
Last Friday, he was headed to the field to spray, and it was an expensive mixture that needed to dry about four hours. "When I checked, the storms were about 100 miles to the northwest of us moving southeast right toward us.
"I made a judgement call -- it wasn't an emergency application, and I decided to wait and let the storm blow through. Of course, I wasted the day because the storms broke up, and we just got a sprinkle here and there.
"The weather information we have today is so much better than what we've had in the past, and it is at our fingertips. But there's still someone else in charge," he said.
This week, Jenkins was hoping the weather allowed him enough of a window to apply the cotton growth regular, Pix (mepiquat chloride). Pix is an anti-gibberellin, meaning it reduces the production of gibberellin in the plant, which normally would enlarge plant cells.
Cotton can get rank if growth is not controlled. Pix takes energy away from leaf and stem development and directs it toward boll development and retention. However, weather and individual field conditions determine when and whether it should be used, Jenkins said.
"We're watching how fast the plant is growing and how far apart the joints are. Right now, we have the perfect conditions to use Pix. We've got a lot of nitrogen out there, and it has been getting rain, sun and heat and it's growing.
"So, we need to slow the plant down so the internode length shorter. We like to use our fingers to measure and keep the node length three fingers or less.
"If we didn't put it on under current conditions, this stuff would be 6 feet tall," he said.
The taller a cotton crop is, the harder and less efficient the cotton harvest, he said. "With our humidity, controlling growth is also important for disease management. Rank cotton promotes things like boll rot because air can't penetrate the canopy. A more compact plant is better suited to what we do."
In Florida, keeping cotton 3-foot tall or approximately waist high is preferred since it is spindle-picked, he added.
For the past few years, Jenkins has also been doing trials with a growth regulator in peanuts called Apogee (prohexadione calcium). "We've seen around a 700-lb.-per-acre yield increase from using it, but it costs $50 per acre to use.
"If we continue to get rainfall and it's looking like there's a potential for a good crop, I'll likely put it out in a few weeks" he said. Jenkins added that many of the peanut varieties being grown today have more foliage growth.
In the past, peanuts were dug and inverted, and the sun would dry them in three days for picking. "With these real rank varieties, it might be five days before you can run the machines through for picking. If it comes an afternoon thunderstorm that dumps several inches of rain during that time, your grade and yield just decreased," he said.
He's doing more research this year to see if those faster drying times are real and what that means to the bottom line. "Less days in drying time would mean a lot in our next of the woods.
"But I have other questions I want answered with regard to the yield increases we are seeing. Are we getting more pods or the same number of pods with bigger, higher-grading peanuts?" he asked.
A yield monitor for peanut combines would be his dream tool that is not yet available. "We don't have that final layer to overlay on our maps to see if what we are doing is good or bad. Yield monitors are an important piece of the precision puzzle that is needed to determine if changes made to increase efficiencies are working. It is the only crop that we raise that we don't have this tool," he said.
Farmers are constantly questioning and face storms of uncertainty every day. Jenkins often ponders if farmers don't have a built-in rugged advantage in times when life seems more uncertain than normal.
"That's farming every day. Nothing ever turns out exactly like we think it will, and it is typically due to stuff that is nearly always 100% out of our control. There are so many variables in farming that you have to respond to. We are constantly adapting and overcoming," he said.
That doesn't mean current prices are pleasant and making a profit isn't a challenge, he noted. "You do always have to have a plan. But there are a million things that change every day for a farmer, and that's also literally why I love it as much as I do. I would hate everything going smoothly and every day being the same type of day," he said.
Having said that, his big wish for agriculture is the industry could be more united in explaining what it is farmers do.
"I wish more people got a chance to see there are real people growing all these commodities and that we try to do the right things for the environment, for the crop, for our fellow man.
"I wish people could really see the heart of the farmer," he said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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