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Douglas County Agirculture May 2018 Update: Crops off to good start

By Larry Dallas, president
Douglas County Farm Bureau

Planting in the area didn’t get a good start until the last week of April, but it went quickly for most farmers. A lot of corn was planted that week and more than a few soybeans. Traditionally farmers concentrated on planting corn and then planted beans. This year the soybeans went in right along with the corn. Even though the soil was dry it was still cool when we started in April. Some were planting beans instead of corn thinking that soybeans would tolerate the cold soil temperatures better than corn. The efficiency of modern farm equipment allows us to put a lot of crop in the ground quickly. On April 22, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that Illinois had planted only 4 percent of the corn crop. Two weeks later, on May 6, that had jumped to 74 percent. At that same time about 30 percent of the state’s soybeans were planted. Illinois is projected to plant 11 million acres of corn and 10.6 million acres of beans in 2018 so Illinois farmers covered a lot of ground in that short time. Most of the corn has a good color and has a good stand. Some beans have struggled to emerge after hard rain in early May crusted the soil. For the most part we are off to a good start for 2018.

There are beans left to plant in the county. Interestingly some of those acres are waiting for seed that is coming from South America. Seed companies have winter seed production in the southern hemisphere to gain a season of progress in genetic improvement. A small amount of a probably new variety of soybeans was planted in South America in late 2017. The increased amount of that seed will be returned to the U.S. this spring to be planted to produce seed for us for spring 2019. Seed corn can also come to us from Chile or Argentina. It might be inbreds for seed fields in the U.S. or a new hybrid that didn’t get produced in the US the year before. Modern techniques give us the genetically modified seed most of us use, but those seeds have to be increased to plantable quantities by the old fashioned method of growing and increasing them in the field. Two crops a year speeds that process.

The genetically modified seeds many of us use are usually the result of adding a gene or set of genes from some other organism to the crop seed to give it a tolerance to a disease, insect, or herbicide. The first corn resistance to the serious crop pest, European corn borer, was accomplished by literally shooting the means of resistance, a naturally occurring bacterium that kills the larvae of the beetle, into corn genetic material. The machine used was called a gene gun. This has worked well enough that corn borers have virtually ceased to be a problem in the Corn Belt. There are recent new techniques for gene modification called CRISPR and TALEN, the actual names of which are long and not that explanatory. These are best described as gene editing. One source calls them “plant breeding innovation.” No foreign DNA is introduced to the plant being modified. The plant’s own DNA is turned on to fight a disease or to turn off the susceptibility to a disease. An example I saw recently was the use of this gene editing to turn off an apple’s tendency to turn brown when cut. One objection to the first genetically modified plants was the introduction of foreign DNA to the food plant. These new methods work closer to the natural and random genetic changes that might happen in nature, to end up with a better plant. These gene editing methods have great promise in the production of food for a growing world population.

With planting finishing up, we turn to other pressing activities. The first cutting of hay needs to be mowed and baled. We are looking for a 3- or 4-day window of dry weather to complete that. Corn that doesn’t have enough nitrogen on it will be side-dressed in a planned, separate trip after the crop is up and growing. Nitrogen is the nutrient most needed by growing corn and applying some of the nitrogen in the growing crop gives the corn that nutrient closer to when it needs it. Timing of nitrogen application in corn has been the subject of many studies over the years and the answer is somewhat of a moving target. Often it comes down to personal preference. We put the bulk of our nitrogen on in the fall with an inhibitor to keep it in the soil until the corn needs it. We follow that with some nitrogen at planting. Some make that trip in the spring before planting. Other farmers have moved to split applications-one at planting and a second application in the growing corn. The time and labor demands of each system vary. Nitrogen comes to farmers in 3 forms; gas, liquid and dry. This variety gives us several possibilities in handling and application. There are also cost considerations. The gas version, anhydrous ammonia, is the precursor to the other forms and therefore the cheapest form to use. The other forms have their place as easier to store and use.

Almost all fields have an application of herbicide to come in this growing season. Neither corn nor soybeans cope well with weed competition, and we strive for the cleanest fields we can obtain. Before the advent of nonselective herbicides and herbicide resistant crops, mechanical weed control was the only option. Any farmer over the age of 40 has spent many hours on a row cultivator, digging out the weeds between the crop rows and trying to throw dirt onto the bottom of the crop plants to cover weeds in the rows. This was sometimes repeated until the crop shaded the middles and kept weeds from germinating. Modern herbicides give us excellent weed control, as good as the old days when we walked beans all summer cutting weeds.

We will still be on the roads completing our spring work so keep an eye out for farm machinery as you travel. The farm traffic will change from tractors and planter to sprayers and mowers, but we are still much slower than your car or truck. Thank you for reading this report on Douglas County agriculture.

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