Top 10 Ag Stories of 2023: No. 3

The Crop Year of Surprises

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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A good start to planting helped the corn crop hang on when many parts of the country got thirsty in May and June. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

Editor's Note: Each year DTN publishes our choices for the Top 10 ag news stories of the year as selected by DTN analysts, editors and reporters. This year, we're counting them down from Dec. 18 to Dec. 29. On Dec. 31, we will look at some of the runners-up for this year. Today, we continue the countdown with No. 3: A look at how while myriad crop disasters such as drought, wind and hail took a toll on crops in some areas, the overall harvest was surprisingly good thanks to resilient crops.


DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Pick one word to describe the 2023 crop year and most of the farmers would say resilient.

Early in the season, the U.S. Drought Monitor charts formed rickrack lines of red that spiked uncomfortably close to 2012 drought levels. By June 20, 90% of the corn acres were in a drought scenario of some magnitude. Still, farmers found bushels of surprises as they nosed combines into corn and soybean fields.

DTN Lead Analyst Todd Hultman said that except for producers in Nebraska, Kansas and northeastern Iowa, the nearly universal response he heard this year in the Western Corn Belt at harvest was: "The corn yields weren't records, but they were much better than we expected to get from such little rain."

Hultman noted, "In the Eastern Corn Belt, there were some dry patches, but many in Illinois and Indiana reported record crops, and even Wisconsin did better than expected after a long dry stretch in the early summer."

"The other comment that I heard from several areas of the Corn Belt was: 'In late June, we were one or two weeks away from losing our crop.' The demonstration of how rains in July and early August not only saved this year's U.S. corn and soybean crops, but led to a record corn harvest, is still a bit mind-boggling and offers strong proof of how valuable modern seed technology has become," Hultman said.

Purdue University agronomist Daniel Quinn said good planting conditions put farmers in Indiana on a good track to endure. "The soil temps were good. The air temps were good, and the crop got established well throughout most of the state," Quinn said, noting exceptions in northern Indiana.

"That's really what carried us when it got really dry in late May and into June. The root systems were great, and this year we were a little bit lower in average temperatures, and that helped at pollination. We didn't have a lot of moisture, but we got it when it needed it," Quinn added. He said adequate moisture and moderate temperatures during grain fill helped packed on the kernel weight.


Conditions were a bit tougher in much of Nebraska, but many areas made remarkable recovery when rains finally materialized, said LG Seeds sales agronomist Mark Grundmayer, whose territory covers the eastern side of the state. "In my area, dryland crops were nearly done on June 30," he said. He remembers dryland corn seedlings resembling brittle onions wavering in the breeze. Soybeans, if they had emerged, were small and very short, he said.

Then, on July 1, it began to rain. "Most areas picked up anywhere from 5 to 15 inches of rain between July and the first week of August," Grundmayer said. "That made a surprising difference in our irrigated (crop) as well, because we literally had no subsoil cushion between irrigation passes to buy us time.

"There were a lot of growers that pumped more water by July 1 this year than they ever have in their careers," he recalled. "Had July not been as cool and that rain had not arrived, it would have pretty much been a train wreck." Those that missed the restorative rains stand as proof that drought remains a real threat to crop producers, he said.


"A lot of people have said the corn hybrids are different today than they were 30 years ago. And, they are," Grundmayer agreed. "But almost everyone had fertilized for a decent crop. Although some growers talked about cutting back on inputs or not spraying because they weren't sure the crop was there early on, most went ahead and took the chance and were glad they did because it paid off," he said.

Grundmayer remembers thinking ears could be 12 to 14 kernel rows around this year since that development is mostly determined between what was a stressful V5-to-V7 growth stages. Instead, he was surprised to find many 16- to 18-row ears.

"I think what we learned this year is to pay attention to making sure we place products that we know do well in dryland or stressful situations," he said. The importance of spreading risk by planting different maturities and genetics was also apparent, he added.


Soybeans, on the other hand, didn't respond as favorably to those tough early conditions in his area. White mold took a toll. Plus, that early dry period stacked the first 5 to 6 nodes of the plant tight, Grundmayer said. "Plants took off and grew fast after those July rains, but it wasn't all productive growth," he noted. "You could pull up plants and see where the rain caused it to begin to stretch out. But a lot of energy went to the foliage instead of yield."


DeKalb/Asgrow technical agronomist Lance Tarochione, who is based in Illinois, would love to take all the credit for the remarkable recovery the crop made in his territory. "There's definitely a message that relates to the work that's been done to make corn and soybeans more able to handle stress.

"But we can't overlook the weather message. We were super dry (in Illinois) in May and June. July and August were above average rainfall for much of my territory. And it rained just in time," Tarochione said.

"It's not that the plant ever really benefits from stress," he said. "But there are times stress doesn't hurt it." He observed that plants in vegetative stages have a built-in safety mechanism that allows them to slow growth and delay reproduction. That defensive move worked to the benefit of some corn this year by pushing pollination into a rainfall pocket, he explained.

Not every region prospered the same. Nor did every region prosper. There were pockets in northeastern Missouri, for example, where corn yields suffered, but had best-ever soybean yields.

Some of those areas were also quick to get corn in the ground this year -- another trend that's worth discussing, he noted. It's generally accepted that early planting of soybeans boosts yields, but Tarochione said the rush to plant corn may be overstated.

"Obviously, no farmer is going to wait to plant corn if they have perfect planting conditions in mid-to-late April. However, corn yields are telling us that farmers should quit living in fear of not being done planting corn by mid-May," he said.

Another thing that is changing, in Tarochione's view, is the number most growers (and agronomists) consider a yield failure. "I would argue that 100 (bushels per acre) is the new zero if you consider the cost of land, equipment and inputs it takes to raise corn today," said Tarochione.

And, the influence weather has on the crop should never be discounted, he added. "If we had 5 inches of rain in June and a half an inch in July, it could have whacked quite a chunk off the state average corn yield," Tarochione observed about Illinois.

"I don't think people appreciate fully how fortunate we were -- how close we were to the edge. Our good central prairie soils can hold about half of what it takes to raise a good crop, but we still need rain in the right time slots," he said.

See more stories about this year's corn and soybean crops at:…


To see more about our DTN countdown, see the Editors' Notebook blog at….

To see the other top stories of the year:

No. 10: "Livestock Producers Lean Into USDA's Livestock Risk Protection Coverage (LRP),"…

No. 9: "Supreme Court Rules on Two Major Ag Cases,"…

No. 8: "EPA's Plan to Protect Endangered Species From Herbicides Draws Criticism,"…

No. 7: "The High Cost of Some Inputs Fall, But So Does Farm Income,"…

No. 6: "Ongoing Drought Slows Cow Herd Expansion During Year,"…

No. 5: "King Corn Gives Up Its Crown as US Export Share Remains in Decline,"…

No. 4: " 2023 Wild Weather Caused by Quick Change in La Nina to El Nino Ocean Temperatures,"…

You can find No. 2 in DTN's Top 10 list on Dec. 28.

Pamela Smith can be reached at

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Pamela Smith

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