View From the Cab
Yield Prospects, Profitability and Planning
DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Reid Thompson's lone irrigated field is a 135-acre testimony to what 2020 soybean yields might have been.
"We desperately needed a measurable rain event in mid-August and we didn't get it," said Thompson, who farms near Colfax, Illinois, in McLean and Ford counties. "We've been seeing the dry conditions show in the corn crop for the past two weeks and soybeans started showing signs of stress last week."
Just when there seemed to be scant hope of changing prospects, a pop-up up shower dropped 1.2 inches on the western side of his farming territory that dwindled to .2 inches further east. "I'm hoping it might still help soybeans fill," Thompson said.
Ryan Jenkins would be happy to share some of the rainfall that seems to fall every single day on his Jay, Florida, farm. Twin hurricanes swerved and missed the Florida Panhandle this past week, but doused Jenkins Farms with two to four inches of rainfall in the aftermath.
"We've been very fortunate, especially when I consider the crop injury and other damages so many others have endured over the past weeks," said Jenkins. "I'm trying to be optimistic, but we still have a month to go before harvest with more weather events on the way. Here you learn not to count chickens before they hatch."
Jenkins and Thompson are making routine reports throughout the growing season as part of DTN's View From the Cab project -- a series that looks at crop conditions and other aspects of farm life. This is the 19th consecutive week for the feature.
Ironically, it was Jenkins who began the cropping season struggling with drought while Thompson contended with perfect early planting conditions that turned wet and cold.
August sure changed the outlook for these two farmers, noted DTN Senior Agriculture Meteorologist Bryce Anderson. Last week central Illinois was hot and dry with temperatures averaging 77 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit -- 4 degrees above normal, he reported.
"Precipitation was practically nil, less than .10 inches for last week. And for the month, central Illinois has had just over a half inch rain, down 82% from normal," Anderson said.
"Temperatures will be more seasonal to even below normal this week with some small amounts of rainfall this week. The cooler, but dry pattern, continues next week in central Illinois," Anderson said.
Parts of the Florida Panhandle received as much as 8 inches of precipitation last week, Anderson observed. "August rainfall totals for this region are at 13 to 17 inches, double the normal amount. Light rain, less than a half inch, is expected this week, which should favor drying for field activities. The following week brings a return of daily moderate shower and thunderstorm activity," Anderson added.
Read on as Jenkins and Thompson discuss the changes they are seeing in their crops this week, long-term concerns about profitability and some possible production tweaks for 2021.
RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA
"Real hurricane season" hasn't even started for Ryan Jenkins, and there have already been 15 named events this year.
Mid-September is generally the peak for hurricane activity, Jenkins reported.
"It is common to see storms sitting out there waiting -- as they are in the Atlantic right now. Some make it. Some don't. Some turn north. Some fizzle. You just never know what this time of year will bring," Jenkins said.
This week's USDA-NASS Crop Progress report indicated 77% of the Florida peanut crop to be good to excellent and 67% of the cotton fell into that condition category. Peanut digging in the state was rated at 13%, well ahead of the 4% 5-year average.
Jenkins expects his peanut harvest to start in two weeks and cotton will follow in October. Some of his crop was planted later than he desired as he waited on rainfall to get proper soil moisture. Now NASS projections have 80% of the state with adequate and 15% excessive moisture.
"We really needed a production Grand Slam this year and there's always a chance we will barely get on base," he said. "Right this very minute, we're sitting on what looks like a really good crop if we can get it harvested.
"It will take a bumper crop at current prices to break even, and after two or three tough years in a row, we need to do more than break even. We need to chip away at some debt," he noted.
"I don't know of a farmer -- even the very conservative ones -- that aren't feeling pressured this year," he said. Government price supports are not only important, but necessary in this current financial climate, he noted. "When you add what the virus has done to overall economy, well ... yeah, I'm concerned."
Thinking about the current scenario and planning ahead are important, but so is not letting the worry weigh too heavy, Jenkins said. One way he keeps his spirits up is to share information about crops he grows.
YouTube farming videos and Facebook posts (and participating in this View From the Cab project) keeps reminding him as he reminds others what's good about the products he grows and the profession he loves.
Take peanut butter, for example. "With so many people quarantined at home, peanut butter is having a moment as consumers rediscover it is a shelf stable, high protein food stuff that is also affordable," he said "How many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can be made off an acre of peanuts ... 30,000 sandwiches," he answered, quoting numbers from The Peanut Institute.
Jenkins Farms started testing high oleic peanut varieties several years ago, and they now make up the bulk of their production. Often used for peanut butter, high oleic peanuts also received a market boost when some candy companies started using them.
"We get a slight premium for high oleic and that's been really helpful, especially as the varieties and yield keep getting better," Jenkins said.
"No matter how good a variety is, it has a lifespan and that's where our variety trial work really pays off," he said. "If we aren't looking for the next thing, it will pass us by."
As he looks back over the season so far, he anticipates one major change in his farming operation for 2021. "We really need a dedicated sprayer for our peanuts," he said. Cotton is extremely sensitive to many of the products used in peanuts. Complete clean out is time consuming and nearly impossible.
"We have no extra man hours available in this operation. When you combine the need to be timely and our variable weather, it adds up to a practical move if we can find the dollars to do it," Jenkins said.
While getting more efficient is important, the one thing he hopes is that the uncertainties and challenges are never quite removed from farming.
"If I knew exactly what was going to happen every single day, I'm not sure I would like farming like I do.
"Lately, I can hardly sleep at night because I'm so excited to get started digging peanuts. I absolutely love it. But, I also know that by the time we get toward the end of that season, I will be ready for it to be over," he said.
REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS
"I'm not sure I'm ever going to learn not to plant in front of a cold spell," said Reid Thompson, after he pulled a yield check last week on some corn planted April 9. That particular field had two snow events and took five weeks to emerge, yet it was still showing some impressive yield potential.
"It's also one of the few fields we have that got a couple of inches of rain in early August," he noted. "But I was really surprised to find it coming in around 60,000 kernels per bushel adjusted for dry weight."
Grabbing some samples from lighter soils showing obvious signs of drought stress, he found kernel weight per bushel to be 30% less.
"We're going to see yield variability in the fields this fall for sure," Thompson said. "However, my random checks tell me that we still will have good yield potential even in our May planted corn. We were far enough past dent when the heat hit that I think we're going to be OK because we got planted early enough.
"There was a fair amount of June planted corn in this area and it could really struggle," he added.
Soybeans generate more concern. "Our plants are loaded with 100 pods or more in the lower two-thirds of the plant and the majority of those being three-bean pods that look to be well filled," he said.
"However, the upper third of the plant is not filled out. The question is what does that upper third represent in terms of yield? Was this last splash of rain enough to help?"
Every year dishes out lessons and planting date is one place Thompson will be focusing in 2021. "Next year come April, it will be how hard can we go on beans," he said. "There's no question our April-planted beans will be 5- to 10-bushels per acre better this year and there's plenty of research to show that having more sunlight on a bean plant is just better."
He's looking at dropping soybean planting populations from 120,000 to an average 110,000 seeds per acre. Using full variable rate prescriptions, the hilltops and other drought-challenged areas will likely be planted closer to 160,000 population. "Bottom lands may be more like 100,000 where I have moisture and can canopy quickly," he said.
With corn, this year convinced Thompson that soil conditions are more important than a 72-hour weather forecast.
"If that seed bed is right, we'll be planting next year," he said.
What comes with early planting though is the need to do a better job of managing weeds, especially in soybeans, he noted. That means a fall burndown followed by a spring program of full residuals that does not have a plant-back date.
"I want a program that I can spray either right before or right after planting. Then, we follow four to six weeks postemergence that also contains residuals. That post application must be on a schedule -- whether we are planting or doing other projects. We can't afford weed pressure like we saw this year," he said.
Waterhemp is a driver weed, but Thompson said grasses and some older weeds such as butterprint (velvetleaf) have returned to the landscape. Using different sites of action and full rates of chemistries is on his mind as he determines weed control programs for next year.
"The main thing is making a commitment to a scheduled post spray, regardless of what we see in the field," he noted. "Depending on how early we plant, that may mean an additional spray pass in soybeans because waterhemp just keeps coming."
Managing chemistry costs and seed costs are also top of mind as he moves into 2021. Lack of rootworm pressure has him eyeing trait packages that aren't as pricey as the fully loaded hybrids. Moving to some non-GMO corn acres would trim $30 per acre off seed costs.
More concerning though are the implications of the drought expanding across the Midwest. While the 2012 drought began much earlier in the year, the need to replenish subsoil moisture during the coming winter months is real, Thompson noted.
Sales to China, carryout numbers, Iowa derecho damage, supply-demand reports and many other market factors are constantly buzzing through the young farmer's mind this fall.
"This time last year, we all knew we were getting $80 to $90 per acre MFP payments. Those dollars got many farmers to break even," Thompson said. The Market Facilitation Program (MFP) was designed to aid farmers hurt by trade disruptions.
"Prices have come back a little, but they still aren't at levels that are truly profitable," he noted. "A second round of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments may be in the works, but those dollars aren't comparable to the other assistance."
Seed production has helped Thompson and his family farm offset some of the downturn. "We're looking at $1 per bushel premiums on soybeans, less seed costs, less interest because of the way you pay for seed and some other benefits that make profitability possible on those acres."
But not all farmers have the option to grow specialty crops and uncertainties of all sorts seem to abound in 2020. "Crop insurance is not likely to trigger this year in this area. There's ARC (income support tied to historical base acres), but that doesn't come until next October.
"I don't want to be doom and gloom, but I think this year our industry is facing the reality that farm payments have been keeping us in business," he said. "It's easy to say we want markets to dictate, but we only want that when it doesn't cost us the farm."
Pamela Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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