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April chill, winter precipitation keep farmers from field

By Larry W. Dallas, president
Douglas County Farm Bureau

As I type this on April 16, there have been only a few fields planted in the area. The first part of April has continued much like March, wet and below average on temperature. The old adage is that rain on Easter Sunday means seven more Sundays of rain. I am not sure what snow on Easter means, but we have had two Sundays of precipitation so far.

The long-time guideline was to plant corn after April 15 when the morning ground temperature was at least 50 degrees. The 1991-92 copy of the U of I Agronomy Handbook I have on the shelf says the best time to plant corn in Illinois is around May 1. We have seen a slight lengthening of the growing season lately and earlier planting has been shown to be part of higher yields in both corn and beans. More days of sun should mean more yield and early planting is a good start. In recent years even late March has seen corn planted if the ground is workable and the latest thing is to plant beans as we plant corn. Improved seed treatments for corn seed and the widespread use of seed treatment on soybeans helps keep the seed viable under cold wet conditions and makes early planting less of a risk. In contradiction to all this, last year we saw the late May replant corn yield as good or better than some of the April planted corn. Many variables go into a good final yield but early planting should help. It is not yet historically late to start planting but as we approach the end of April most guys would like to be planting.

The last few weeks have been full of talk about tariffs, import duties and trade disruption. Anything that interferes with worldwide free trade is harmful to US agriculture because such a large part of our production is exported. I have mentioned some of these numbers before, but I think they bear repeating. One third of U.S. corn production is exported. China alone buys 30 percent of our soybean production. Seventy-five percent of the U.S. cotton crop goes into export channels. Twenty-eight percent of U.S. pork production and 13 percent of beef production goes overseas, all fattened on corn and bean meal raised by US farmers. The various commodity groups send out year-end reports detailing the time and funds expended to acquire and cultivate export markets. We don’t want to lose these hard won export markets. The U.S. has the reputation of a reliable provider of food to the world. The times in the past we have lost that reputation have not been good for the nation’s farmers. The rhetoric has been scaled back considerably in the last week and maybe some agreements can be forged out of the chaos of the last month or so. At any rate the ag community will watch this all closely.

Last Sunday I attended a showing of the movie “Food Evolution” sponsored by the Champaign County Farm Bureau. This is a 90-minute documentary dealing with the genetic modification of food crops and the opposition to that. I found the movie to be a factual and light-hearted treatment of a topic that is pretty controversial, or at least evokes strong feelings from people. At the outset of the movie they talked about confirmation bias, that is, I thought it was a good show because it confirmed my view of genetically modified crops. Someone against genetic modification probably thought it is grossly unfair. The main message of the movie was that both humans and animals have consumed genetically modified food and feed for 20 years with no ill effects. In two cases pointed out in Food Evolution, only through genetic modification can papaya be grown in the Hawaiian Islands and bananas grown in parts of Africa. Disease had killed all of the original strains of these food crops and made it impossible to grow the plants. I thought the movie gave opponents of genetic modification a fair chance to defend their point of view and was not all one sided. A panel of two local farmers, a Cooperative Extension dietician and a U of I professor answered audience questions after the movie. I recommend this film. If you are interested in seeing a fair comparison of the differing views on genetic modification and a good explanation of modern plant breeding, this is a good place to start.

We are in the home stretch preparing for planting. When the weather does break we would like to be able to run without interruption. There is nothing more disappointing than to have a breakdown when you need to be rolling. Our equipment is highly productive, but it is a lot more complicated than even a few years ago. I have only planted with a monitor to tell me if each row is dropping seed and feel very uncomfortable planting without that. Our current planter tells us when a row is not planting. It could be the planter controller malfunctioning, it could be that the hydraulic flow to the motors that spin the planter units has ceased, possibly a chain has broken, a seed tube is plugged or the global positioning signal is too weak to tell the planter that it is moving. Forty years ago there were fewer, mainly mechanical, things to go wrong, but there was no way for the planter to tell you it wasn’t planting. Time is money and breakdowns are costly, especially if we don’t get started planting soon.

Thank you for reading this update about Douglas County agriculture. Please watch out for us on the roads when we do get started planting. Our machinery is slow and less maneuverable than your car or pickup. We don’t want to be on the road. We just don’t have any other choice for moving from field to field.

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