DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- There's something almost shocking about the way a crop readies itself for harvest. You do everything possible to keep it growing all summer and -- bam -- a switch flips and it's time to push for the finish line.
Kellie Blair is watching it play out on her family farm near Dayton, Iowa. As the milk line moves down the kernel toward black layer, and soybean leaves turn yellow and begin to drop, Blair keeps heading to the field to look for anything that might compromise the gathering.
"I've been using the push test to see if we have any standability issues and checking to make sure the crop isn't getting brittle. So far, so good," she said. Late-season rains also have her watching to make sure soybean pods aren't beginning to shatter. Again, so far, so good, she said.
Ryan Wieck is just beginning to see some bottom bolls open on the stripper cotton he grows in the Texas Panhandle. Now, Wieck, who farms near Umbarger, begins to walk a weather tightrope, watching for the right time to pick. "It's not so much a matter of when it is ready, as it is finding that balance of how long to wait to pick before something threatens the crop," he said.
Wieck and Blair have been participating in DTN's View From the Cab project this season. The two young farmers weigh in on everything from crop reports to farm issues and life on the farm. This is the 19th installment of the feature this year.
This week they discuss the impending harvest, why cotton is stripped rather than picked in Texas and why cover crops are important in Iowa. The farmers also reveal what stands out as the big thing that has defined their 2021 season so far. Read on to learn more about what is happening in their regions this week.
RYAN WIECK -- UMBARGER, TEXAS
Ryan Wieck maneuvered his highboy sprayer down a two-lane highway early Monday morning. Suddenly two silage trucks passed him in a no-passing zone just as another truck came from the other direction. "We all survived," he said. "But have I mentioned how much I hate moving equipment?"
In many ways, the affable Wieck has felt as though the 2021 crop season has already served up its share of near misses. He's still waiting to hear what the insurance outcome will be from an August hailstorm that hit several hundred acres of cotton and some milo. Earlier in the year he had herbicide injury on cotton from drifting 2,4-D.
Drought has been a lingering issue. "On one farm, I've had 5.35 inches of moisture since Jan. 1," he noted. "The drought monitor barely shows us as having a drought, and we typically average 18 to 20 inches per year."
Weeds have continued to win this year too. "It's been 100 degrees and windy and those do not make for a good spray day," Wieck said. Moving to less tillage to preserve soil and retain moisture in the soil has led to more dependence on herbicides. "We're also trying to keep fields cleaner by spraying fallow ground, which we didn't always do," he said.
Wind direction has also become challenging as sensitive acres adjoin crops. "Sometimes I need three different winds in the same field, and that makes it hard to meet label requirements, and we're trying to be extremely careful with these products," he noted.
Now that bolls are starting to open, Wieck will begin checking maturity by opening unopened bolls with a pocketknife to take a close look at the seed hidden within the lint.
"Once I start seeing a good solid seed coat -- a dark coat around the outside of the seed -- then I will know it is finished and time to spray a boll opener," he said. "Think of the boll opener as the key that unlocks those remaining bolls and lets the fiber and seed dry out and mature," he said.
He prefers to wait until 75% to 90% of the bolls open naturally before spraying. There's a wait of about four days before application and harvest.
But there's a need to constantly watch the weather. A forecast of a freeze typically sends a signal to apply the chemical boll openers immediately. Freeze damage brings a halt to further boll opening and happens when temperatures drop below 32 degrees for several hours. A freeze will cause immature watery bolls to turn mushy and eventually rot.
As cotton opens it also becomes more vulnerable. "The worst is when rain is followed by a light freeze or we get freezing rain. The cotton grows heavy and can begin streaming from the boll. Some varieties sit tighter in the burr than others, but it is always a concern."
Harvest priority isn't always given to the field that might yield best, but rather, it is often the field that might be facing the most adversity, he noted.
This is stripper cotton country. The limited amount of rainfall and irrigation and harsh weather in this region causes farmers to plant varieties with shorter plant heights and shorter fibers. Bolls often tend to be more closed or "storm-protected." Cotton strippers are used to harvest the crop, as opposed to the cotton picker spindles used in other regions.
As the name implies, the stripper literally strips the entire cotton bolls from the stalk. A stripper generally consists of two cylinders, each with alternating rows of rubberized bats and hard plastic brushes, which rotate and grab the stalks to remove the lint and the burr.
Once stripped from the plant, the bolls are separated from the burr within the machine. Immature green bolls are also segregated. For the first time this year, Wieck will use a cotton stripper that also bales the cotton. The system eliminates the need for a boll buggy, tractor and driver; a person to run the module builder and someone to tarp the modules.
A cradle on the stripper baler allows him to carry one harvested bale as another is building within the machine. This carrying helps stage bales in the field to be retrieved. If for some reason he might have to drop a bale, they are plastic wrapped and protected until a tractor can come to move them. The plastic wrap costs about $30 to $35 per large round bale.
"Given the labor situation this year, I feel like it was a good year to make the shift to this system," Wieck said.
"We often don't get started picking until later in the day until the winds settle down. With 35 miles per hour winds and humidity in single digits, any kind of spark results in a fire that will be out of hand before you can do a thing about it.
"Getting workers to commit to working late afternoon and evening hours is really a challenge," he added.
Still, when the calendar rolls over to another year, Wieck says it will be supply chain shortages that likely define 2021 for him. "We can't get chemicals. I'm left wondering what the situation will look like next spring and how to plan for next year when I'm not sure how the chemistries I can get will line up with my seed technology choices.
"Do I hang on to equipment and hope to find parts to repair? Or do I trade? I feel the need to plan further ahead than ever before on everything.
"I suppose we've been spoiled by the convenience of getting what we want when we need it. But this year has made me wonder if this is how our grandparents felt when they had to make do and use whatever they could get their hands on to get the job done," he said.
KELLIE BLAIR -- DAYTON, IOWA
Kellie Blair is still trying to get over the fact that Blair Farm is poised to harvest an average to above-average crop this year. "We went into this spring so dry, and I really feared it would be a bad year," she said. "There was a time this spring when I wasn't sure the soybeans would ever shade the row."
Webster County, where Blair Farm is located, remains in D1 moderate drought status, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor. She feels fortunate that every time the crop started to gasp, a timely drink seemed to arrive. Decent August rains moved the needle to help fill both corn and soybeans for her farm, but drive 10 miles and conditions are rougher, she reported.
Cover crops are a big part of the system that sustains the farm. Whether they helped the droughty soils be more resilient is difficult to prove in hard numbers, but Blair thinks there is a visual difference between fields with covers and those where conventional tillage was deployed. The yield monitor should tell the story if there is one, she said.
She's looking forward to crunching the numbers of the many trials the farm did this year to measure covers in different environments. "One thing we saw this year was how cereal rye suppressed waterhemp in soybeans," she noted.
"We had some difficulty getting our rye killed this spring when it was cold and cover crop didn't take up the herbicide as we wanted," she said. "Frankly, we worried about the fact we killed so late. However, when it comes to weed control there's a definite line in that field to the row where the covers were established. On the other side of the line (without cover crops) there's a very robust waterhemp populations," she said.
"We're seeing waterhemp in non-GMO soybeans that can't be controlled with chemical. I'm really excited about the possibilities cover crops present because we got suppression not just in the row, but also between the rows. Yield maps should tell us a lot more, but I'm hopeful because one of our goals is to find these more sustainable answers to address agronomic issues."
This past week, cereal rye was seeded into standing corn with a high clearance sprayer converted to distribute seed on a portion of their acres. The farm used a custom crew to get the job done. Blair said conditions are good for that seed to emerge and see growth before the combine rolls. The remainder of covers will be direct seeded with a drill after harvest.
Early beans are still a week or so away from harvest, she reported. The farm also grows non-GMO seed beans and harvest happens when the company gives a thumbs up.
This week Blair planned to walk more corn fields. Planting date and relative maturity aren't enough information, she said. She prefers to assess stalk integrity and prioritize suspect fields for early harvest. A few corn fields in the areas have been harvested, so that puts a push behind the need to get the corn head put back together that is still torn apart in the shop, she said.
A few trees are starting to drop leaves, too. "Unfortunately, many of them are ash trees due to emerald ash borer," she noted. "That's another project on my list. I don't know if it was the early drought or the trees just finally gave up, but this year we have several trees that need to be replaced."
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
(c) Copyright 2021 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.