View From the Cab

Farmers Assess Erratic Temps, Crop Nitrogen Needs

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
Connect with Pamela:
Farmers Kellie Blair of Dayton, Iowa, and Ryan Wieck, of Umbarger, Texas, are reporting on crop conditions and agricultural topics throughout the 2021 growing season as part of DTN's View From the Cab series. (DTN photos by Greg Horstmeier and Matthew Wilde)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Kellie Blair is hoping to give up her sweatshirt this week. Low temperatures found their way back to parts of central and northern Iowa over the Memorial Day weekend -- leaving some frosty crop casualties in parts of the state.

"We lucked out right in this area, compared to a little farther north where there have been reports of frost damage in corn and soybeans. Our alfalfa and oats were showing a few signs that they got cold, but they seem to have come through it," said Blair.

In the Texas Panhandle, Ryan Wieck was also shivering through the holiday as temperatures dipped 20 degrees below normal. While higher temperatures appear headed his way this week, forecasts for significant rainfall remain sketchy. That outlook, combined with a prolonged drought, caused him to give up on planting dryland corn acres. Instead, he's turned to grain sorghum, the water-sipping camel of grain crops.

Wieck and Blair are participating this season in DTN's View From the Cab series. This regular feature highlights crop conditions, rural issues and farm life in a diary-like format. This week the two farmers talk about erratic weather, the need to judiciously feed the crop by applying the right amounts of nitrogen and why sometimes the grass is greener.

Here's what's happening in their regions this week.


Cotton planting wrapped up for Ryan Wieck this past week, but the emerging crop had him scratching his head. "My Dad said the other day: 'Man, that field looks like we know exactly what we are doing. And then, there's this field that's making us look really dumb,'" he recalled.

Wieck blames cool weather for the variability. "Some of the fields didn't have nearly as much trash (leftover crop material), so the ground warmed up faster," he noted. "Those fields slow to emerge are coming behind cornstalks and the stalks seem to have held some of the cold in the field."

Lower temperatures may help preserve some moisture in this portion of the Texas Panhandle that has been struggling with limited rainfall for the past three years, but cotton likes warm temperatures. DTN Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson expects the area to return to normal temperatures of 80 to 85 degrees over the next seven days.

"The Texas Panhandle should see scattered light to locally moderate rainfall in coming days," Anderson added. "Precipitation through Tuesday, June 8, may total .50 inch to .75 inch."

The tornadoes that have been visiting his northerly neighbors in the Oklahoma Panhandle aren't what Wieck wants, either. "But we simply can't seem to buy a rain here," he said. "We get a chance of rain and it disappears while everyone else around us gets inches."

Right now, the odds of getting the dryland cotton through the ground are iffy enough that Wieck will wait before feeding that crop further. "The last few years have been so dry and so difficult that I usually wait to see if I have a crop to figure out the fertility needs. I hate to drop money into fertilizer and then not get a crop up," he said.

Fertility rates on all fields are based on yearly soil tests. Those tests are especially helpful to determine how beef manure is contributing.

If the dryland crop looks promising, a sidedress application of 30 to 40 units of nitrogen (N) is typically injected about 4 to 5 inches off the planted row. Irrigated cotton often needs a few more groceries, Wieck said. But again, it is fertilized based on anticipated yield and how much fertilizer is available in the soil. Wieck shoots for 2.5 to 3 bale irrigated cotton.

"Cotton has a taproot that can go down and find nitrogen that other crops haven't been able to get to," he said. "So, we use crop rotation to help manage nutrients." Cotton is typically planted into fallow wheat stubble.

Wheat is beginning to take on a golden hue and harvest is just around the corner, Wieck reported. "I'm actually anticipating that the wheat will yield better than I thought it might. I think we'll have some that makes 20 to 30 bushel per acre. I know the Oklahoma and Kansas wheat guys might not think that's good, but I really thought we might be around 10 bushel per acre given our no-rain situation," he said.

With conditions so dry, he's made the decision to swap out the remainder of his unplanted corn acres and plant grain sorghum. The sorghum seed is in the barn and he has a full month to hope for better moisture conditions before the window closes on the planting date.

"It's not my favorite crop to grow, as it just does not seem to like me," he said. "But grain sorghum can handle the dry conditions better than corn."

That doesn't mean grain sorghum, or milo, as he sometimes calls it, is bulletproof. "The last time I grew sorghum, sugarcane aphids wrecked my crop. Finding a variety that is more tolerant of aphid is important. There aren't a lot of insecticides to choose from that control sugarcane aphid and those that are available are very expensive," he noted.

Sales outlets for sorghum are plentiful enough, he reported. Several elevators in the area buy the grain. Feed yards are potential hungry customers. Another local facility runs grain sorghum through a machine to pop it, much like popcorn. This change in the structure of the grain increases the feed value for dairy cattle.

"If we have low quality grain sorghum, we can always feed it to our own beef herd," he added.

Every blade of grass seems to represent a lifeline these days, Wieck admitted. "We've been renovating the homestead and I have so-far kept the grass growing -- just to keep something green around to keep our spirits up," he said.

"My Granddad always said a yard had to be one of the worst for return on investment because it made no sense to fertilize it, water it and then, waste money to mow it.

"When Granddad moved to town, he would load up his grass clippings and haul them to the farm to feed the cows," Wieck recalled. These memories came flooding back this past week as Wieck fed clippings from his own yard to his cattle.

"Little things like watching those cows enjoy that grass made me think of Granddad and all the things we did together," he said.


With a week of warming ahead and clear skies predicted for the coming week, Blair Farm had mowing alfalfa on the work schedule. "It needed done last week, but you know what they say about mowing hay. When it was time to do it, we had a rain delay," Blair said.

Potato leafhoppers were just beginning to find the alfalfa a tasty target this week, so intentions were to move fast to avoid spraying and before the insect sucks valuable nutrients from tender leaves of the first cutting. Too much leafhopper feeding can also stunt the subsequent crop.

Monitoring the hay crop has become additionally important as the farm has found an additional income source in selling some hay through private sales and auctions. "We're growing more than we feed right now, so it's a nice help to the cash flow," she said.

Several years ago, the farm was purchasing hay needs and suppliers ran into shortages due to drought. "We decided we didn't want to rely on others and started working alfalfa into our rotations. We already had the baler as we were baling cornstalks off corn-on-corn fields," she said.

Oat straw is also baled and used as bedding and cattle feed, depending on needs. The best quality alfalfa hay is used to feed replacement heifers and getting new groups started. "We like having a selection of different feedstuffs to choose from and like that they are coming from our own acres," she said.

Trying, testing, tweaking is a way of life as Blair and her husband, AJ, work to find solutions that are both profitable and protective of the farm's environmental resources. This year they are trying no-till corn on a chunk of acres and trying to decide how that influences crop fertility needs.

In the past, corn has been strip-tilled and the bulk of the nitrogen applied as sidedress -- trying to get nutrients to the crop at the stage when it needs it most. "With no-till we are looking at putting more out ahead of the crop through dry fertilizers, using 32% as a carrier during spraying and the balance as anhydrous sidedress," she said.

Corn grown in a soybean rotation generally receives 150 to 180 total units of N. Corn-on-corn requires around 200 units. However, the farm works with an agronomist to pull soil nitrate samples prior to sidedress applications to see how much nitrogen is still needed. The Corn Nitrogen Rate Calculator helps determine the maximum return to N and most profitable N rate (MRTN).

Use of manure, cover crops, crop rotation, no-till, rainfall patterns and a host of other things influence how much nitrogen might be still be available, she said.

In 2013, the Blairs decided they wanted a better handle on what the crop was using and what nitrogen might be leaving the farm unused. They started taking water samples through a program with the Iowa Soybean Association working with Agriculture's Clean Water Alliance to monitor the water quality exiting the farm.

"We had a couple of drainage tile lines that we knew were coming directly from our acres, so we were able to monitor our practices," she said. Much to their surprise, the first year of measurements (the crop year following the 2012 drought) showed the water coming out of those tile lines did not meet drinking water standards and the nitrate levels among some of the highest in the state, Blair said.

Since then, use of cover crops, reduced tillage and no-till have helped keep levels consistently lower than drinking water standards, Blair said. "We were dry here last year (2020), and we could still visually see the rye crop respond where we had sidedressed. In other words, the cover crop was taking up nitrogen the crop left behind," she observed. "It will be interesting to see what those tile line measurements look like this year if we get measurable rainfall."

Blair likes to encourage other farmers to sample and benchmark water quality levels. "We thought we were doing a pretty good job and it was a humbling experience to realize that we needed to do better," she said. "I truly believe it is important to take those steps as farmers. There are many in-field and edge-of-field measures we can take to improve water quality.

"We are definitely learning as we go and testing new things every year. But without those measurements, we don't know where we are in the process," she said.

Click here to read last week's View From the Cab installment:…

Pamela Smith can be reached at

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
Connect with Pamela: