By Larry Dallas
President, Douglas County Farm Bureau
There hasn’t been a lot of progress in the field in November. Some of the crop remaining in the field has been harvested, but statewide, about 6 percent of the soybeans and 4 percent of the corn is still in the field. The weather hasn’t allowed much chance for field work. Historically, November is cloudy and damp – that has held true this year.
We have one field with lime stockpiled on the end but not spread. Freezing weather will allow the spreader into the field. Although it is finely ground, the wet lime freezes. Frozen chunks of lime don’t spread very well and are hard on the application equipment. It could be applied in the spring, but there is a greater chance of causing compaction when the spreader goes through the field. So there is a chance you will see us farming around stockpiled lime on the ends of our fields next year.
Lime is not a fertilizer but a soil amendment. The calcium in the ground limestone neutralizes acid in the soil and leads to more conducive conditions for plant growth. Soil acidity is measured by testing for soil pH, the measure of soil acidity. We strive for a pH around six, which is a good average for the crops we grow in this area. Nitrogen fertilizer tends to raise the soil acidity, and we soil test every three to four years to keep track of this level, along with the important nutrients needed for plant growth.
Dry fertilizer is also being spread when ground conditions allow. This is spread routinely on frozen ground. With above freezing temperatures, the nutrients will adhere to the soil and be in place for next year’s crop. It used to be common practice to spread dry fertilizer on snow covered fields. This is a poor practice since a rapid snow melt will carry the fertilizer with the runoff. Similarly, it is unadvisable to spread the dry fertilizer ahead of a heavy rain for the same reason. Some areas of the country have gone so far as to forbid fertilizer application 24 hours before an inch of rain is forecast. They must get more reliable weather forecasts than we do.
Fall fertilization serves several purposes. It moves that operation out of the busy spring season, lessens the chance of soil compaction hurting the crop, and allows us to lock in the price of the nutrients we are adding to the soil for next year’s crop.
It is rare that fertilizer is cheaper in the spring than it was in the fall and depending a multitude of factors that can be a huge difference. The most used nitrogen fertilizer in this area, anhydrous ammonia, is made from natural gas. A cold winter that increases the use of natural gas for home heating can make anhydrous ammonia more expensive as the price of natural gas increases. The fall price may not be all that attractive but at least the farmer knows what that input will cost.
Anhydrous ammonia is different than most commodities in that prepaying for a quantity of it does not guarantee that quantity or that price. We have already heard that we will not get the fall prepay price next spring on ammonia we don’t get applied this fall. That is a good hint that anhydrous will be higher in the spring.
The agricultural press has paid a lot of attention in the past few weeks to an outbreak of African Swine Fever in China. There is no vaccine for the disease and the only control is destroying the infected animals. The disease does not affect humans and is pretty specific to hogs. China has more than half of the world’s hogs – an estimated 733 million. This is six times the number on United States farms. The actual number destroyed isn’t a large percentage, but it is a huge problem in a country that consumes all that pork. Stopping the disease is complicated by the structure of China’s pork industry. They have large producers like in this country but also have many small backyard farmers with just a few pigs.
The United States is fairly isolated from this and other animal disease, but this outbreak points out potential problems. Not present at this time, African Swine Fever or another serious disease like Foot and Mouth Disease could be brought here inadvertently by a traveler smuggling uncooked or under cooked meat products.
A plant disease could be brought here in similar fashion. Points of entry to the U.S. like O’Hare Airport confiscate tons of contraband material each year. Often the traveler doesn’t stop to think that the food item they brought can be a problem. An outbreak of a serious infectious disease of livestock could cause countless losses to animal producers and, by extension, the farmers that raise the feed those animals eat.
Similarly, as China destroys some of its herd to slow the spread of African Swine Fever, their demand for animal feed decreases. China isn’t buying much grain from us now but that still reduces the world demand for feed grains and soybean meal. China may begin to import pork so that could keep feed demand close to former levels. Our trade difficulties with China have caused a shift from old trade channels and that continues. Perhaps China will buy pork from a country that buys our feed. The largest processer of hogs in this country is a Chinese company so maybe that pork can come directly from U.S. hogs.
We have not cleaned up much of our equipment so far, hoping to get back into the field. We have made some repairs while the problems from harvest are fresh in our minds. We have two drainage tile projects going this fall. The yield maps our combines generate showed us very clearly that well drained fields out yielded those with less than perfect drainage. Tile continues to be a good investment in our view anyway, even in times of low prices and low returns. The weather is slowing that work too.
The best discounts on seed are early in the year so there are a lot of decisions being made already about what will be grown five months from now. Yield maps are a good decision aid for that planning. Our workload changes and slows somewhat from harvest to planning mode. But this time of year is just as important as the hectic harvest time. The plans we make now will play out into next year’s profit or loss. Thank you for reading about Douglas County agriculture this month.