Production Blog

A Cropping Season to Remember ... or Forget?

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Palmer amaranth just keeps coming. Malcolm Haigwood, of Newport, Ark., was preparing for another fall herbicide application when DTN visited in October. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- I don't know where to start. Maybe at the end -- this week I saw a tweet that some farmers in central Illinois are moldboard plowing. I personally haven't caught any of them in the act, but it wouldn't surprise me to find a few farmers have pulled their plows from the fencerow. I've seen just about everything else in this marathon of a crop year.

Certainly the early fall that is now stretching into winter is giving us plenty of time to stir things up and compaction issues stood out like a sore thumb in this droughty year. Vertical tillage has become the popular line of attack, but this blog isn't about tillage -- it's about change and uncertainty.

The best corn and soybeans crops I saw all year were in North Dakota. I have family in North Dakota and they were due a good crop after struggling through a flood in 2011. I also know bumper corn crops that far north were once considered about as likely as the Chicago Cubs securing the National League pennant.

Every farmer I talk to is scratching his or her head about how to plan and anticipate after a crop year that made no sense. Are there lessons to be learned from the roller coaster weather events? Is this the new normal?

Last Friday, I attended a meeting on corn rootworm, but almost everyone wanted to talk about the variability of this crop. One farmer asked why he realized his best corn yields in the low spots of fields that had been in soybeans -- while his worst yields were in the low spots of fields that followed corn.

Another talked about the fact that he used his cultivator for the first time in years. I saw rotary hoes working in Illinois and Indiana and plenty of southern farmers pulled out the discarded spray hoods in an effort to battle back against resistant weeds. Then, there was the farmer in Coon Rapids, Iowa that had his wells run dry for the first time in three generations of raising corn and cows.

Here on the Illinois prairie, this year we planted the earliest crop I can remember. Subsoil moisture was limited, but planting conditions ideal. We followed that up with frost, heat, minimal moisture, insects, disease and early dry down. We got just enough rain in August and September to bolster soybean yields and an early enough frost to smack late-planted/double-crop soybeans. We've already had a little sleet and finally have had enough raindrops to convince a few farmers there's enough moisture to get fall anhydrous to seal. Our subsoil moisture still isn't for spit and unless something changes, we have a third year of dry in our future.

Meanwhile, I noticed this week that my forsythia, spirea and periwinkle are blooming. Hello -- it's November. This is the greenest my grass has been all year. We had volunteer corn that was beginning to tassel before frost hit.

When I visited Malcolm Haigwood in Newport, Ark., last month, he was planning to harvest his grain sorghum the second time. New seed heads had sprung from the harvested roots and the volunteer crop was going to make it to maturity. He was also getting ready to spray Palmer amaranth for the third time this fall. Most of the Palmer pigweed was no more than two inches tall, but it was setting a seed head. Now that's persistence.

The early fall harvest allowed my brother-in-law to get creative and late-summer seed some spring oats. His corn silage was so short that the opportunity to put in a forage crop that could be grazed or ensiled seemed a good gamble. Oats are something of an oddity in central Illinois, especially in late summer. However, watching his fields for opportunities allowed him to gather in another crop to stretch his feed supply.

That field of oats and all the other things I've seen this summer came to mind as I listened to a panel of scientists talk about what the drought means long-term. Mostly these analysts confirmed the thought I've come to accept: Variability is the new normal.

Perhaps variability always has been there and the days of substituting an input or a trait for intuition momentarily distracted us. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, but the real lesson from 2012 is the need to be nimble and continue to listen to the land and understand what it is telling us.

Pamela Smith can be reached at

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