Fieldwork Roundup

Farmers Eye Harvest, Dry Weather and Cover Crops

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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The road to harvest is growing shorter, particularly in areas that have seen drought conditions, like these Illinois fields. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Farmers are gearing up for harvest across the Midwest, particularly in areas where rain has been short.

Between dusting off combines, cleaning out bins and readying cover crop seed, many farmers are ready to put this season behind them.

"Because of poor yields, I expect the corn harvest to go very fast," predicted Illinois farmer John Werries.

DRY CONDITIONS EXPAND

Shaped like a fiery finger jutting from the parched Dakotas, drought conditions have crept south and east through the heart of Iowa and Illinois this summer, brushing Indiana and Missouri in the process. Parts of western Nebraska and central Kansas are also a little thirsty. (See the U.S. Drought Monitor here: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu)

In these areas, the corn crop is showing the toll, but soybeans could still be revived by late-season rainfalls, farmers said. After nearly two months with no significant rainfalls, Werries welcomed 1.3 inches this week on his farm in west-central Illinois.

"This won't help the corn much, but I can't imagine how much this will help our soybeans," he said. "They were hurting." Werries expects great variability in the corn crop, from 230-bushel-per-acre corn on his best soils to 130 bpa and below on lighter soils.

In northeast Missouri, Clayton Kline was equally grateful for weekend rains that brought 3.5 to 4.5 inches of rain to his area. "Everyone I have talked to seems to believe the rain will really help the beans," he said. "It has been a godsend for the pastures also. Some believe it will help the corn too, but the jury is out on that."

Central Illinois farmer Cory Ritter found a silver lining in the uncharacteristically cool August weather this season.

"We normally start harvest the Tuesday after Labor Day, [but] this year we will be at least a week later than that," he predicted. "Cool temperatures have slowed corn down maturing. I am glad it has been cool, because it is very dry!"

The dry weather is starting to get to his beans, he added: "The beans have really been showing stress, lots of light green coloring and leaves flipped over."

WHERE WATER IS PLENTY, CROPS STILL VARY

For growers in better-watered states, some crops look better, but not perfect, farmers reported.

After a planting season of fits and starts, Kansas farmer Doug Zillinger is still in awe of the lush season his region has seen -- the best in five years, by some accounts, he said.

Soybeans look good in south-central Ohio, as well, added farmer Keith Peters.

But despite plentiful moisture, the corn crop is underwhelming, he added. Fields with poor stands tend to have huge ears, but not enough to make up for their low population. And while replanted areas have solid stands, the ears are small and deformed kernels are easy to find, Peters said.

In Minnesota, Jeff Littrell's son experimented with malting barley in late July and was rewarded with a beautiful crop. His vegetable crop, grown for a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, is also thriving. The warm, cool season has produced 10-inch sweet corn ears and loaded tomato plants, he reported.

But commodity crops in the area haven't fared quite as well, Littrell added. The state's plentiful moisture has allowed disease to sneak in.

"Most of the corn in southeast Minnesota is starting to get riddled with disease from top and bottom both, and a lot of soybeans everywhere are starting to show signs of health issues of disease as well," he said.

COVERING UP AFTER HARVEST

Harvest is right around the corner. Werries expects to start cutting corn shortly after Labor Day in Illinois and will likely be joined by Indiana farmer Scott Wallis. Ritter expects corn harvest to start in the second week of September, as does Ohio farmer Keith Peters.

For many, that means more planting.

"We have sown every acre to cover crops since the fall of 2012," Werries said. "Our air seeder will be running the day after the combine, if not the same day. We sow annual rye grass until about September 25th, then switch to triticale."

The practice has been essential in this year's dry conditions, he added: "The cover certainly helped to conserve moisture this year. We don't have cracks in our soil like some of the pictures I've seen on Twitter."

Improving his soil's water capacity is on Peters' wish list for cover crops, too. "My main goals are to give microbes something to live on, build soil tilth and organic matter, break compaction and hold water next summer," the Ohio farmer said.

He aims to seed 300 to 400 acres with cover crops. Much of it will be cereal rye "spread on right behind the combine."

The rest of the acres will see a familiar old legume. "I lost some beans to flooding, and I'm going to spread some leftover soybean seed on that ground next week," he said.

Kansas's Zillinger, who owns cattle, is going to start experimenting with cover crops to supplement the low income from the crop side of his operation.

"I am looking for something to turn cows on as I need more pasture, and I can't see my most valuable crop acres doing much for the bottom line with $3 wheat and still sliding," he explained. "My hope is that the cows will do well enough to make a profit per acre at or better than crops in an average-to-good year."

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Editor's note: The DTN agronomy editors routinely poll growers scattered around the country to get thoughts on crop conditions. If you'd like be considered, reach out to Pamela.smith@dtn.com.

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com.

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee.

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Emily Unglesbee