By Larry W. Dallas, President
Douglas County Farm Bureau
March in Douglas County has been cool and windy. There hasn’t been a lot of rain, and a little fieldwork has been done. Nitrogen fertilizer was being applied March 15 in the Decatur area. I saw one field cultivator leveling ground off probably to prepare for herbicide application. This is the time of year the nitrogen is applied to wheat fields and that has been done in many cases. It is too wet in Southern Illinois for ground equipment, so some of the dry nitrogen has been flown on by airplane. The wheat is breaking dormancy and needs that essential element to grow and get ready to head out. Grain prices have been up and down in response to weather reports, weather forecasts and government reports. Grain continues to move off the farm to elevators and processors.
Another thing I saw March 15 was the white smoke of Conservation Reserve Program fields being burned. CRP is a program to remove fragile or erodible land from agricultural production. The ground is planted in a perennial cover to protect it and make it useful to wildlife. The black stubble is unattractive but those fields will soon green up with rain and warmer temperatures. The burning is prescribed in the CRP contract signed by the farmer for its beneficial effects. The fire will kill trees and shallow rooted plants if hot enough. Desirable deeper-rooted grasses and plants survive the heat and regrow. Thinning the mat of plants and straw with fire reveals bare dirt and makes it easier for small ground birds to move around. The thick sod of a field not disturbed by fire or tillage is hard to maneuver for a newly hatched quail chick the size of your thumb or a pheasant chick not a lot larger.
We have finished work on our planter units, and they are ready to plant corn. The original moving parts were removed and replaced with components designed to give more even spacing of the kernels no matter what their size. To confirm that the units are working properly, they were run on a test stand with an electric eye to read the kernels coming out of the unit. The test stand spun the unit at about the speed we will plant at and gave a readout of the spacing obtained. The units were adjusted to give as close as possible to the right population and spacing. A field of corn planted at a 35,000-kernel population in 30-inch rows will have a plant every 6 inches. If two of those plants are two inches apart instead, neither will have the right size ear needed for a good yield. The right population needs to be at the proper spacing.
Modern planters are an engineering marvel in the tasks they perform. A 16-row planter moving 5.5 miles per hour plants about 17 acres an hour according to a Purdue University study. At a population of 35,000 seeds per acre, each row is turning out about 620 corn kernels per minute. The planter spaces these seeds at the proper interval in the row and puts them at the depth the farmer has set. The planter might also be applying insecticide in the planter furrow or liquid fertilizer off to the side of the furrow. If the planter has global positioning it can shut off the planter rows when they reach an area that is already planted. Some planters are equipped to vary the population according to a prescription the farmer has developed, higher in productive soils and thinner in less productive areas. A developing technology puts two different corn hybrids in the same planter and plants one or the other depending on which is better suited to that part of the field. All of this is monitored by 3 or 4 screens in the tractor cab reporting and recording the actions going on behind. One of my uncles talked about planting corn in the late 1930s riding on a two-row planter behind a team of mules. The seed spacing was controlled by a wire that stretched from one end of the field to the other and ran through the planter. Buttons or knots on the wire tripped the planter to spit out 3 or 4 seeds in a hill. The driver got off at each end to move the wire over and re-attach it to the planter. This particular team of mules helped out by turning around and facing back the other way on their own.
March 15 was the deadline for farmers to sign up for federal crop insurance. The coverage is based on yield history of a particular field and average prices established in February. The current insurance is a way for the farmer to insure against both yield and price risk. It is a risk management tool we are grateful to have. The federal crop insurance available 30 years ago only covered yield and only worked if you lost your entire crop. For the most part only farmers in flood plain areas bought it. The present insurance is subsidized by the government to keep the cost for us down. However, farmers pay substantial premiums for the insurance too. In 2016 Illinois farmers insured 10,130,175 acres of corn and paid an average of $19.19 per acre. The indemnity from insurance claims that year averaged $6.36 per acre, far below the premium paid. Like the insurance you buy for your car, we buy this and hope we don’t have a claim.
With planting season looming, we are working on planters, tillage tools, sprayers and tractors to prepare for the spring rush. Usually days with good soil conditions are scarce and we need to be ready when the weather is suitable. The many kinds of technology we use add another dimension to getting ready to plant. Software has to be updated, wiring and connections checked. We will soon be on the roads moving from field to field. We ask that you slow down and look out for us when we are moving. Thank you for reading this update on Douglas County Agriculture.