View From the Cab

Farmers Get Testy

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Farmers Reid Thompson of Colfax, Illinois, and Ryan Jenkins, of Jay, Florida, are reporting on crop conditions and agricultural topics throughout the 2020 growing season as part of DTN's View From the Cab series. (Photos courtesy of Reid Thompson and Ryan Jenkins)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- The struggle is real when planting gets derailed. Weather is testing many farmers this week as the calendar closes the window on planting for optimum yields.

A weekend deluge turned waterways into rivers on parts of Reid Thompson's east-central Illinois farm with accumulated totals reaching 6 to 7 inches on portions of his farm. While most of his seed is in the ground, he's likely looking at some replant acres and more rain is in the forecast.

Meanwhile on Monday, Ryan Jenkins continued to idle planters in the Florida Panhandle, waiting for more moisture before he tucked in the rest of his cotton and peanut crop. While he's no fan of the hurricane season, Jenkins was hoping Hurricane Arthur might spit a few drops his way. Instead, it spun and spewed northward without delivering much relief to his immediate area.

"We've had what I call 'fool's moisture' here at the farm," said Jenkins. "We got maybe one-tenth and it made things look better temporarily. Dig down with a shovel though, and it is just barely wet beneath the surface."

Jenkins and Thompson are reporting from their farming regions as part of DTN's ongoing View From the Cab series. Find updates here each Wednesday through the crop season.

DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson could only find a dribble of hope for Jenkins in the forecast with predicted rainfall totals ranging up to a half-inch or less over the next seven days. "Temperatures should ease back into normal brackets instead of the recent hot pattern though," said Anderson. The Florida Panhandle moved to Moderate Drought (D1) on the U.S. Drought Monitor this week.

By contrast, additional rainfall is likely headed to the already soggy Midwest. "Rain continues in the Midwest forecast going forward through the end of May with 0.5 to 1.5 inches with central Illinois in line for some moderate-to-heavy rain this weekend," Anderson said.

This week, both farmers give an update on crop conditions and planting progress and explain why the word "testing" plays a very important role in their farming operations.

Here's what's happening in their farming worlds:

RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA

Wheat and oat harvests were in full swing this past week on Jenkins Farms in Jay, Florida. Those seeds will be socked away to be used for cover crop seed this fall.

The remaining stubble is valued for the nutrients it gives back and an ability to hold moisture when those valuable raindrops do fall. "We have a neighbor who occasionally harvests some square bales off as wheat straw, but mostly we just spread the straw and strip till right back into the stubble," he said. "That stubble really helps hold the weeds back too."

Showers were indeed scattered this past week. Jenkins received slightly more rainfall near Allentown, the location of his largest contiguous block of land. "We had 0.5 inch on the south end and 0.3 inch on the north. We will plant some cotton there this week, but the rest of our fields remain so dry that we'll hold for a while longer," he said.

Small rains that merely wet the top of the soil spell trouble for the cotton crop, he said. "It will be enough to make the seed sprout, but as soon as those baby roots hit that dry underneath layer, they die, and we get into a mess of needing to replant."

Companies generally waive the technology fee on replanted cotton seed. Still, cotton seed is expensive and depending on the traits within can run $700 to $800 per bag, which can seed around 8 acres, he estimated.

As planting slows to a snail's pace, an invasion of garden snails seemed to carry a certain irony. Jenkins said the small, hard-shelled snails started showing up about four years ago and they've not been slow about multiplying.

"There are a lot of studies trying to decide what to do about them and trying to determine how much they are damaging crops," he said. "They seem most problematic in peanuts, mostly because you do not want them to get into your sample. No one wants a chocolate-covered snail in their peanut M&M's."

With a University of Florida experiment station down the road, Jenkins willingly works with researchers on such problems. He immediately started working with researchers when cotton leafroll dwarf virus (CLRDV) appeared in his fields two years ago.

"We have variety trials for nearly every crop we plant," Jenkins said. "This year our cotton trials are nearly all experimental varieties from different companies, which gives me a chance to see what's coming through the pipelines and on my soils and in my environment.

"But the biggest benefit to working with companies and universities is the access to researchers coming to the farm. I try to be there every time they come to evaluate the plots because the information you can tap into is so incredible," he said.

Jenkins, who tries to stay optimistic, admitted he's had to work on keeping a positive attitude this week. "I'm worried. We need a good year this year. We know we've got to make optimal yields to be able to breakeven with prices the way they are.

"We've had a couple of bad years in a row and we need more than a home run, we need a grand slam. Yet, things have already started out rough in 2020," he said.

For the first time in his farming career, he had to spray for grasshoppers on the cotton he does have up. "The stand was already skippy due to dryness and then the grasshoppers took their share.

"They got right after the plant as it was starting to kick out of the ground. They gnaw around the stem almost like a beaver just as the plant emerges, clipping it off at the soil surface," he explained.

The challenge of farming is you don't know each morning what the challenge is going to be for the day, he added. "Farming definitely isn't for the faint of heart. You need a strong will and a strong faith.

"I have a Bible verse [Matthew 6:34] hanging up in the barn that I look at every day. 'Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient to the day is its own trouble.'"

REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS

Central Illinois crops underwent transformation this past week -- the corn greening up with additional heat units and soybeans benefiting from showers that softened crusted soils.

However, ponding and flooding were an issue where Thompson farms south of Bloomington, Illinois. "That's the second 6-inch rain those fields have had since April," he said. "We had two 18-inch culverts running full in one field."

Not all his fields were hit that hard and he's still assessing how much and if there's been damage. "Some of the fields where we were hit the hardest have a fair amount of roll to them and they drained fairly well. We have some ponding on the flat black land, but I've been surprised how good the stands look now that soil temps have started to warm.

"We're going to have some replant on some of our earliest planted corn, but if we're over 5% of the farm, I'll be surprised," he said.

His father, Gerald, is a pilot and taking to the air instantly reveals what land is tiled. "It's not just getting the water off, but also how much soil is saved by having tile up those draws.

"When these big rains come, it doesn't matter what you do, there will be some water standing. But being able to get it off the ground in a timely manner is huge," he said.

Convincing a landlord to make tiling investments is tough in the current economy, but Thompson said technology and the numbers being collected today makes showing the value of the investment easy, particularly in flex rent situation where landowners are benefiting from the yield enhancement.

"Working with the landlord helps. We might work a deal where they buy the tile and we put it in, for example. Every relationship is different and important to assess before making that investment."

While the farm still has some seed beans to plant, corn planting is complete (except the possible replant), pre-emerge nitrogen has been streamed and cover crops have mostly been terminated. Post-emergence corn herbicide application is next up on the job list.

He'll also watching for signs of nitrogen loss on corn. Three to five years of replicated nitrogen rate and stabilizer studies on the farm in cooperation with the University of Illinois have helped fine-tune nitrogen plans.

"Especially in these tight-margin situations, there's real economic incentive to avoid applying anything that doesn't pay," Thompson said. "There are tons of products out there with a lot of claims and I can't afford to haphazardly try them."

Instead, he prefers to work with companies to get a first-hand look. This year the farm will run a fungicide trial that involves aerial imagery and prediction models. Trials of new biological products are also in the works. Jazzing up soil enzymes to fix or better utilize nitrogen is getting a look.

The low price of nitrogen makes products that stabilize or improve nitrogen efficiency a hard sell right now, Thompson said.

"But it's important not to do things just because that's what worked 10 or 20 years ago. Having data really helps us weigh these inputs," he said. Having enough to make comparisons is also important -- when products show some promise, he likes to do larger, split-field trials to get a broader look than might be evident in a small plot.

The rain delays that have stalled planting haven't gone wasted. "We went fishing!" Thompson exclaimed. With two toddlers in the house and day care still closed with COVID-19 concerns, the rain gave him a chance to better share child-care duties.

"I don't have to look far to find perspective beyond the field," he said. "The boys have been so much fun to watch playing in puddles. One day we had the mini excavator out cleaning out culverts and my Dad started using it to throw and splash some water."

Wet, muddy and silly can equal pure joy, he said.

Pamela Smith can be reached at pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

Pam Smith