DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- More than the calendar page turns when August enters. The nearly imperceptible, but so-familiar scents of brown corn silk and fall lawns being mown mix with hints of crisp mornings and sultry afternoons.
Reid Thompson doesn't have to breathe deep to sense the signals. The Colfax, Illinois, farmer has visual clues that harvest is coming at full throttle. This week on his family farm, there are shiny new grain storage bins nearing completion. Combines and grain wagons are being pulled from sheds for readiness inspections and repairs.
The gearing up for gathering is also underway this week, weather willing, on Jenkins Farms near Jay, Florida. The 115-day corn hybrids Ryan Jenkins planted in mid-March are mature and on the verge of being dry enough to pick. "So far we've dodged most of the bad weather and are still standing strong," said Jenkins.
"Things can turn on a dime in this part of the country, but I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll start shelling early next week," he said.
Thompson and Jenkins are participating in DTN's series called View From the Cab. Weekly reports during the crop season explore agronomic topics and other aspects of farm life.
This week their report suggests that the dog days of summer don't exist on most farms -- at least not if that definition means chores slowing down to enjoy the last bits of the season.
Thompson did take a couple of days to drive across west-central Illinois and most of the midsection of Iowa this past weekend. "The drought conditions I saw in western Iowa made me glad to get home -- those areas are hurting. Eastern Iowa and much of Illinois looked really good for the most part," Thompson said.
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson agrees that the improvement in Illinois crop conditions have been impressive. In the past two weeks since the Monday, July 20, USDA Crop Progress and Condition report, the Illinois corn condition rating has gone from 63% to 76% good to excellent -- a 13 percentage-point improvement, Anderson noted.
Illinois soybean ratings have increased 9 points in the good to excellent total from 67% on July 20 to 76% good to excellent on Aug. 3.
In Florida, the peanut crop has an 83% good-to-excellent rating total. Soil moisture has high ratings across the state, including the Panhandle. Statewide, the topsoil moisture rating is 91% adequate to surplus. The good news for Jenkins is the track of Tropical Storm Isaias stayed on the Atlantic seaboard, keeping damaging weather away from the Panhandle.
"Over the next week, the pattern looks favorable for central Illinois with a lot of seasonal temperatures and some light showers during the coming weekend. Temperatures will generally have highs in the mid-80s with lows in the mid to upper 60s.
"The Florida Panhandle will see highs in the low 90s, lows in the upper 70s and heat index values of around 100. Rainfall will be very light, less than 0.25 of an inch," Anderson said.
Read on to follow what Thompson and Jenkins are seeing in their fields this week and what's on their minds as fall starts to rev up:
RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA
Corn harvest has been delayed a few days as Ryan Jenkins, who farms in the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama, waits for a bit more dry down.
Moisture matters as the farm doesn't have drying or storage capacity and trucks 120 miles to market direct from the field.
"I grow a couple hundred acres of corn each year just to show what I can do with the crop," Jenkins said. "It's a good rotation to break up some disease cycles in our main crops, and I really like growing it." He sometimes double-crops back to soybeans, but has decided market prices don't justify the second planting this year.
Weather hasn't been the only holdup this week. The high-clearance sprayer has also been having a meltdown. "We've swapped out the flow meter, but I'm worried it may be a wiring or controller issue," Jenkins said.
While he considers himself, his father and his sons all fair mechanics, there are times when the pros need to be called.
"I still have a lot of spraying left to do. Pretty much all the cotton needs growth regulator on it -- again. There's some grass in the peanuts that needs touched up. You never know when you're going to have to spray for worms," he said.
Resistance issues have flared in some parts of cotton country, but Bt cotton is still holding its own in Florida. Plant bugs are on the scouting radar right now, and stinkbugs won't be far behind. "We're pretty lucky here in that we don't have to spray often for insects. We're scouting more for outbreaks or escapes," he said.
Diseases are another matter. A new problem on the radar is cotton leafroll dwarf virus (CLRDV). Transmitted by aphids, the virus causes a disease that sometimes causes plants to grow oddly and whip above the late-season plant canopy. Compact internodes in the terminal, leaf discoloration, tissue reddening, leaf puckering, reduced boll set and late-season vegetative growth are other clues. However, it is also possible for infected plants to have no symptoms.
Jenkins has seen evidence of the disease in his fields, but doesn't think it is causing much yield loss, yet. A large-scale CLRDV trial on his farm is aimed at screening to see if some varieties are more or less susceptible to the disease.
"Varietal resistance is always a preferred way to approach a problem," he said. He added that the symptoms seem to show up more in later-planted cotton and later in the season.
Working with a minimal number of workers means Jenkins is always trying to streamline and avoid downtime. Preseason checks of cotton and peanut harvest equipment have already been conducted, for example.
Lack of labor force also influences how he plants cover crops. "Ideally, if it looks like we're going to be able to dig peanuts and get them picked without getting rained on, we'll broadcast cover crops before we dig. The digging process actually plants the seed," he explained. "You'd be surprised how beautiful that works and how much time it saves."
Typically, peanuts are dug and dry on the ground for about three days before being picked. "Cloudy weather, big vines or a late season can turn those three days into four, or five or six or more," Jenkins said.
"The trick is you don't want the cover crop coming up before you can get the peanuts picked. So, we watch the weather forecast closely."
He doesn't want to drive on that tender, newly emerging wheat or oat cover crop. "I've also had it where it started to rain and that cover crop is 6 inches tall. If you have to go out and re-shake the peanuts, it really makes for a mess," he said.
For cotton ground, he hopes to purchase a KMC (Kelley Manufacturing Company) stalk shredder puller this year. Pulling stalks soon after harvest helps hasten the breakdown of crop debris and is important to disease management.
"I'll broadcast cover crops and let the action of that tool incorporate the seed," he noted. If the shredder puller isn't available, he'll use a vertical till disc already in his machinery lineup, but it is more labor intensive.
Wind and water erosion control is his No. 1 reason for using cover crops. "I also think it keeps some of the nutrients tied up closer to the soil surface. We've really seen cover crops help with weed control. They help hold moisture.
"Cover crops are just really working for us now that we've gone to a strip-till system," he said.
REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS
Reid Thompson had a whole new appreciation for the health of his Illinois crops this week when he saw corn firing 2 feet off the ground near Dallas Center, Iowa on his crop tour. "It was a clear indication that there was nothing moving in those plants. There may be ears there, but it was hard to tell how well they would fill out even if they got a rain at this point," he noted.
Thompson's fields finished off July gathering a total of 3 to 5 inches of rainfall. A nice, gentle half-inch soaker came this past weekend. With fungicide on every corn acre and a late shot of nitrogen, he's hoping for grain fill to continue on a positive path.
"We're going to see some tip back in some fields where pollination had already occurred before we got those rains. We also had some stand establishment issues where big rains came early in the season," he said. Late-emerging plants are at a competitive disadvantage and will often have smaller ears with more tip back.
"We don't look as good as we did in 2018 -- it seems closer to a 2016 kind of year," he said. Those calling for a 180-bushel-per-acre or better crop aren't accounting for the variability in stands, he figured. "I'm thinking we're closer to 170 bpa," he said. He noted that some surrounding areas were harder hit by hail, large rainfalls and winds.
So far, checks for disease have uncovered only a small amount of gray leaf spot, and the lesions are small. "We also see a bit of common rust, but everything I've checked so far has shown minimal disease pressure," he said.
Soybeans are always a wild card, but Thompson has never seen soybeans pod as heavy as they have this year. "Even our late-May-planted beans have closed the row, and we were concerned about them early in the season because of some cool temperatures.
"We get some rains in August, and we could see some big bean numbers," he said.
After 350 hours in the sprayer this spring and summer, Thompson wasn't sorry to park the machine for a bit.
The big push now is to finish the expansion of the farm's grain system, which will double storage and through-put capacity. New electrical service was necessary, which required a new transformer and new main power breakers, but so far, installation (knock on galvanized steel) has been going according to plan.
Thompson is looking forward to being able to store more this fall, especially since he figures basis could be painful if the crop comes on strong.
"By adding another combine and more drying capacity, we have hopefully eliminated the two big bottlenecks we've had at harvest," Thompson said.
Twice the machinery can also mean double headaches. To head off potential problems, the farm takes advantage of a well-check for combines offered by the local John Deere dealer. Technicians inspect, clean and present the farmer with a list of recommended repair measures and replacement of wear items such as bearings.
"It may be the best money we spend each year. It doesn't take long to eat up the $800 to $1,000 cost of this checkup if harvest grinds to a halt while you wait on a repair in-season," he noted.
"Grain carts, trucks and trailers are also pulled out and gone over to make sure they are buttoned up and ready," he said.
Meanwhile, Thompson has been busy locking in LP and evaluating input needs. "We got some lime recommendations and are starting to work on fall fertility plans. The next 30 days is all about getting everything ready so we can rock and roll when harvest starts," he said.
Last week Thompson also put in a late planting of sweet corn. That's one harvest season that he's willing to prolong as long as possible.
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.Smith@dtn.com
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