View From the Cab
Weather is Coming. Farmers Plan to Cover Up
DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Ryan Jenkins likes to be hospitable, but hurricanes Marcos and Laura swirling toward the U.S. from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean this week are not welcome on his Jay, Florida, farm.
"It's a little stressful when the maps show them coming right toward you and making a big turn before they reach the Florida Panhandle," he said. "The question is always will they turn?"
One hurricane is too much, but twins are historic. Armed with adequate warning of their possible arrival, Jenkins went into overdrive to get scheduled fungicide treatments sprayed ahead of the storm. The good news, for him at least, is the bullseye seems to be elsewhere this time. "It's rainy and all that, but we'll take it," Jenkins said.
Meanwhile, in central Illinois, Reid Thompson would be glad to see a few rainy days. "Corn on the hills and in droughty spots is dying. The beans in some areas are turning that telltale silvery color when they are dry. You can see it from the road," he said.
Thompson and Jenkins are participating in DTN's View From the Cab series, a weekly look at crop progress and other aspects of farm life. This week they explore the topic of cover crops in addition to weather worries.
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said Jenkins will likely dodge the worst of Hurricane Laura as she delivers 1.0 inch to 1.25 inches of rain from Aug. 26-31.
"The southeastern U.S. did get some moderate to heavy rain during the first of this week, though, from the remnants of Tropical Storm Marco. With Laura's track aiming for the Texas-Louisiana coast, the hurricane energy should stay away from the Florida Panhandle," Anderson noted.
Hurricane Laura does have a heavy rain threat for the Delta and the Ohio Valley, but Thompson's area of central Illinois will be on the edge of this rain. "He has about 0.25 inch rain during the end of this week, and then a little more than an inch during the first of next week; but the early week moisture will be due more to precipitation formation along a cool front and not because of the hurricane influence," Anderson added.
Read on to learn what's else is happening in these farming regions this week:
REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS
Reid Thompson would prefer to see green cornstalks and green leaves surrounding a drying ear as the season wends toward September. Instead, much of the corn crop has run out of readily available moisture and appears to be throwing in the towel instead of packing on more dry matter.
"I'm sure glad we upgraded and put in all this extra drying capacity," Reid Thompson said, tongue-in-cheek, regarding the storage improvements made on the farm this summer. "I guess corn will go through the grain dryer faster? Use less propane?"
Less mechanical drying may, in fact, lead to fewer stress cracks -- in the corn at least. For farmers, though, the stress is mounting as harvest nears. This pandemic year has made it more difficult to find silver linings, but Thompson keeps trying.
"Yes, it is dry now, but the thing that saved us is we got rain in July when it was hot," he noted. "We got rain when we typically don't get rain, and our farm missed a lot of the bad weather that many farmers in surrounding states have experienced.
"Still, there's nothing like pulling in a good, big crop to boost spirits, and I'm afraid we knocked off the top of our crop over the past few weeks," he said.
The U.S. corn crop's good-to-excellent rating fell last week due to significant rating declines for several major corn-producing states, USDA NASS said in its weekly Crop Progress report on Monday.
NASS estimated that 64% of the nation's corn crop was in good-to-excellent condition as of Sunday, Aug. 23, down 5 percentage points from 69% and now the fifth-highest good-to-excellent rating in the past 10 years.
Illinois slipped 4 percentage points to 72% good to excellent. Illinois soybeans decreased to 73% good to excellent this week. Still, both of those figures are well ahead of condition ratings a year ago. Illinois precipitation averaged 0.11 inch, 0.59 inch below normal for the week.
He may not have had rain recently, but the early morning dew has been so heavy over the last few weeks that it has made the gutters drip, Thompson reported. "It's hard to quantify what that means to the crop, but I think it has helped. Otherwise, we've been mostly living the rains we had in July.
"If we don't get rain this week, the corn is just going to quit," he said. While scouting, he's noticed ears on April planted corn to be dense and girthy compared to May planted. His late-planted soybeans are still blooming, but the rest of the crop has quit flowering and setting pods.
Those wet mornings are also bringing some unwanted side effects such as a bit of mold on corn ears. He's seen a few individual soybean plants exhibiting SDS (sudden death syndrome) symptoms.
"The question now is, are we going to be able to fill out the kernels we had? Are we going to be able to save those last few pods?" he pondered.
Most of Thompson's corn was denting two weeks ago. This week he still needed 300 growing degree units to reach black layer. That puts him starting corn harvest around Sept. 15 or Sept. 20.
One area he's noticed a difference is in fields that have a cover crop mat of cereal rye to retain moisture.
"The thing with cover crops is so many of the benefits are intangible," he said.
"There's no question that we've seen big benefits in erosion control, and weed control in particular. But are those benefits enough to justify a $30-per-acre expenditure, especially if there are landlords involved? The answer often is: It depends."
Some of his non-cover-crop fields that were tilled visually looked better during the growing season this year -- which makes selling the benefits of the practice more difficult, he observed.
"I can try to explain that because of cover crops this was the first year I could run across the farm at 10 miles per hour and not hit a rut every 5 feet, or that I crossed waterways for the first time ever because they didn't wash out. But, ultimately, expense and/or yield will almost always sway the decision in this land where it is flat and black, and some tillage can give the appearance of fixing an issue," he said.
He doesn't doubt organic matter improvements from cover cropping, but those are also hard to quantify, he said.
This was the first season Thompson Farms included covers in their cropping program. They planted 500 acres of cereal rye that was custom applied through a high-clearance sprayer into standing crop around Labor Day last year.
This fall they plan to save $10 per acre by having the cover crop seed spread at the same time as fertilizer -- which will mean seeding later in the season.
"The highboy didn't get to the field edges and corners very well compared to what I anticipate an airflow spreader will," he said. They plan to make a pass with a vertical tillage tool to incorporate the seed.
This means breaking away from no-till on soybeans to a minimum-till situation. "Granted, it's not free to run that tractor and tillage tool across those acres either," Thompson said.
"But with the highboy, we could see every place the grain cart and combine ran. Those thin spots allow weed breaks.
"The idea is we're going to spend the same money as we would doing it with the highboy, but we'll have better incorporation, better stands and we may be able to lower the seeding rate," he said. The other positive is they already own a vertical tillage tool.
This year they'll be trying cover crops on acres going into corn, instead of only using them in fields destined for soybeans. The new way of seeding is requiring multiple passes over the field and still depends on custom application. Eventually, Thompson would like to whittle seeding down to one pass by doing everything through their strip bar system or with their vertical tillage tool, but that's down the road.
"This year we'll be seeding to acreage coming out of corn that will be harvested in October. That's a bit later in the optimum seeding window, but I think we'll still have enough warm weather to give it a good start.
"We will likely be moving through this crop fast this year too, because the corn is going to be dry," he said.
RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA
Hustling to outrun twin hurricanes last week meant Ryan Jenkins spent almost every waking hour in the sprayer.
"One difference between our hurricanes and what Iowa farmers endured this month is they barely had any notice.
"We typically know one to two weeks in advance of when something is brewing," he said. When news came that the weather systems were developing in the Gulf, his peanuts were a week away from needing another fungicide application. Cotton was also fixing to need another dose of growth regulator. Stink bug levels had also built enough in cotton to require an insecticide treatment.
"I worked really hard to get everything sprayed ahead of that storm in case we got weathered out. The path has changed drastically, and I maybe didn't have to rush quite so hard, but timely application of these products is so important late in the season, and I didn't want to take chances," he said.
Only a few months ago, Jenkins stalled planters, waiting for rain as his area glowed abnormally dry on the U.S. Drought Monitor. Monday's NASS Crop Progress report showed Florida's moisture levels at 81% adequate and 14% surplus. Cotton in the state was rated 75% good (0% excellent), and peanuts were 80% good and 1% excellent.
"Everything still looks really good here," he said. "But it can change on a dime."
Jenkins may be caught up spraying, but there's no rest for the weary. This week he is rebuilding peanut diggers in preparation for harvest. He's also doing some last-minute maintenance checks on the peanut picker and the cotton picker.
And it's almost time to "sandblast" peanuts.
"Soybeans, corn, cotton -- all the things that grow on top of the ground, you kind of know what your crop is going to do because you are looking at it while you are running the sprayer or walking through the field.
"But peanuts are super cool in the fact that they grow below the ground. When you start digging, it's like Christmas morning when you open up the package to see what Santa Claus brought," he said.
One of the methods to determine peanut maturity is to shell the peanuts and look at the color inside the shell. The darker the color, the more mature the peanut.
Jenkins, and other peanut farmers, use a method of sandblasting the outside of the hull to separate the results into maturity colors to determine the optimum time for digging to begin.
"Peanuts are tricky because they are always putting on more peanuts. Waiting to dig the peanuts at the optimum time can increase yield, but waiting too long will cause them to sprout or fall off in the ground when dug," he said.
"We never just go by days to harvest because the grade is where you make your money," he explained.
Once peanuts are dug, they have to sit on the ground to dry a minimum of three days before they can be harvested. Cloudy days or even a wind in the wrong direction can add days of delay to harvest.
Watching the forecast plays into the decision on how Jenkins proceeds with cover crops, too. "If we have a good forecast and don't expect delays, we'll go ahead and spread cover crop seed prior to digging and let that operation incorporate the seed. That's the easiest way to seed, and we get the best stands," he said.
However, if weather delays intervene between digging and picking, an actively growing cover crop can cause the picker problems if it starts actively growing. "We watch the weather and try to make the best decision," he said.
Planting covers after cotton involves a few more steps since cotton stalks need to be destroyed after picking and before cover crop seeding.
Jenkins uses mainly oats and wheat for cover crops and saves seed back each year from his own production. "I know that seed costs me something, but I grow enough and sell enough of each crop as a commodity to cover costs," he said.
"Seed cost seems to be the biggest deterrent to others using cover crops -- but that just isn't the case for me," he said.
Jenkins has a combine and enough grain storage to keep seed, which is unusual for his region, he said. Sometime in February each year, he evaluates fields to whether they will be killed as just a cover crop or receive additional nutrients and be taken to maturity as grain and seed.
Keeping soil in place and weed control are his two biggest reasons for covering up. The spreader missed a strip last year right in the center of the field -- inadvertently leaving a control study.
"I can see to the row where that happened. I've had the hardest time controlling the grass and weeds there this year. I can show you to the row where that happened," he said.
Before cover crops came onto the scene, March was often a dust bowl. "Dirt would be flying every day. Today, it's rare to see any of that here," he said.
While the practice actively conserves moisture in his soils, cover crops can also suck the soil dry if not terminated promptly, he added.
However, rather than viewing termination and seeding as being tedious to manage, Jenkins sees cover crops as time savers when he compares to the past when farmers would disk, break land, disk again and run a field cultivator ahead of planting.
"Sure, we have some spraying to terminate and tending to fertility needs, but we'd be doing that anyway. Aside from that, the only thing we do is run a strip-till rig across it before we plant.
"Cover crops are allowing us to farm more acres with less equipment and people. They sure do work for us," he said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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