DTN/Gro Digital Crop Tour

A Look at the Elephant in the Room

Greg D Horstmeier
By  Greg D. Horstmeier , DTN Editor-in-Chief
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This year's Digital Yield Tour will include embedded displays, which will allow readers to zoom in and out of regions of interest and see how the data changes over time. (Graphic courtesy of Gro Intelligence)

OMAHA (DTN) -- There's an elephant in the room, and the DTN/Progressive Farmer 2019 Digital Yield Tour, powered by Gro Intelligence, is getting ready to shine a spotlight on it.

Speculation about how the 2019 corn and soybean crops are coming along is probably as wide and varied as it's ever been. That's why we think this year's digital tour, which is based on yield modeling data from around the Corn Belt, will play a critical role in putting a national perspective on what's become a highly emotional environment about the health and prognosis of the 2019 crops.

The digital "tour," based on Gro's crop modelling platform, will be carried on DTN satellite, online and mobile venues Aug. 12-19.

Every year as crops hit their reproductive phases and we begin to glimpse at yields and crop quality, I'm reminded of the famous fable of the six blind men and the elephant, and of the poem of that fable by John Godfrey Saxe.

You know the story: Six blind Indian men each touch a different part of the elephant and demand that his observance represents the whole animal.

Rarely has that fable, and its moral, been more poignant to corn and soybean producers than in 2019. Everyone in agriculture is anxious to step back and get a broad view of this crop with a level of precision that isn't available with traditional crop tours alone.

That's why we're excited for the second year to partner with Gro, a leader in crop intelligence gathering, to bring you the DTN/Progressive Farmer Digital Crop Tour, powered by Gro Intelligence. Each day, DTN reporters will work with Gro experts to examine what their models are revealing about corn and soybean yields. They will add in comments from farmers in those areas, when available, to give a fuller picture of what the crops look like. That boots-on-the-ground commentary will allow us to look into current growing conditions. We'll dig deeper into growing conditions, including lesser-discussed issues such as weed competition and pest pressures and their influence on yields.

The digital "tour" will cover corn and soybean yield expectations of 10 Midwest states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Our reporting will start in the west, with stories covering conditions in South Dakota and Nebraska, then progress east through the week. During our week of coverage, readers will have rare access to Gro's live yield modelling maps, to not only look at yield estimates for their state, but to drill into yields at a county level.

This year, DTN will also be using Gro's newly launched embedded display product, which will allow readers to interact with the underlying data without ever leaving the DTN website. You'll be able to zoom in and out of regions of interest and see how the data has changed over time.

Each day's stories will be available in the news sections of our various satellite, online and mobile products. Those stories will also be stored on the Yield Tour website at https://spotlights.dtnpf.com/….

Prior to the start of the tour, that page features links to maps and stories from the 2018 Digital Yield Tour so readers can familiarize themselves with what we reported on last year.

To learn more about Gro in general, check out their website at https://gro-intelligence.com/….

At tour's end, we'll reveal national total yield expectations, and compare that with USDA numbers from the Aug. 12 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report.

This will be a critical test year for various ways to estimate crop yields, and modelling technologies, such as those used by Gro, will be no exception. Gro's modeling system is based on seven types of publically available crop and environmental data: normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) from NASA satellite imagery; land surface temperature (LST) maps; rainfall data, including that from the DTN weather station network; USDA crop condition surveys; crop calendars; planted and harvested acreage data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS); and cropland data and U.S. government soil surveys.

A challenge for all yield estimation processes, whether they happen through artificial intelligence or through walking around in physical fields, will be factoring in the record level of prevented planting acres.

Gro modelling experts said this year's prevented planting acreage is highly concentrated, with half of the combined corn and soybean prevented planting acreage in 12% of the Corn Belt's nearly 1,600 counties.

"The same areas where we saw the prevent plant numbers in the Corn Belt all look like they'll have a pretty big decline in yields," said Gro Intelligence senior research analyst Will Osnato.

One of the critical pieces Gro uses in its yield estimates is the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which essentially measures the greenness of the crop to gauge yield potential.

"The NDVI is the second lowest on record for Illinois, Indiana and Ohio at this point in the season," Osnato said. Those conditions are one of the reasons the tour will examine those three important crop production states together, and discuss their weight on overall U.S. production.

Beyond the acres lost to prevented planting, Gro experts say yield potential may also have been compromised by delayed planting. Based on those delays, USDA preemptively cut 10 bushels per acre, to 166 bpa, from its corn yield estimate in the June WASDE report and stayed at this level in the July report. Gro's Corn Yield Model as of July 24 predicted an even lower yield of 159.6 bpa. The Gro model updates daily, and up-to-the-day predictions will be revealed during the week of the digital crop tour.

There will continue to be a wide supply of information, and opinions, around the 2019 corn and soybean crops. To quote John Godfrey Saxe:

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

DTN and Gro both hope this year's digital tour creates the broader-scope view of these 2019 crops that farmers need as they prepare for harvest and consider remaining grain marketing plans. Hopefully, this elephant in the room will start to reveal itself.

Greg D. Horstmeier can be reached at greg.horstmeier@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @greghorstmeier


Greg Horstmeier