By Larry W. Dallas
August was mostly uneventful for Douglas County agriculture. Mowing and preparation for harvest occupied most of our time. We mowed our hay the third time and started to think about improving a hayfield that is mainly grass and weeds. For us anyway, alfalfa is hard to get started and it is hard to keep the stand pure. Alfalfa hay goes for premium prices and is worth the trouble.
The west end of the county is a little dry. We have been several weeks with just light showers. We fixed a large tile that drains several acres a couple of weeks ago. It had no water running in it. The corn is maturing rapidly with high temperatures and dry weather. The plants are brown and the ears are turning down. A few soybean fields are showing yellow leaves reminding us the harvest is not far off. The heat and lack of moisture cannot be helping the yields.
Douglas County Farm Bureau did its long-running yield check early in the month. Because of the coronavirus we were not as organized as we like to be. We had fewer checks and didn’t hit all parts of the county the way we ordinarily would. With 20 samples we came up with an average of 202.7. That is 20 bushels better than last year. That estimate was made using 85,000 kernels per bushel. Larger kernels will give a better yield. 80,000 kernels to the bushel would raise the yield to 215. A good rain as the corn matures would help tremendously.
We didn’t try to estimate the soybean yields but the plants seem to be well podded. As in corn, a rain would influence the ultimate size of the beans and increase the yield. The Pro Farmer yield tour that is watched closely estimates corn but for soybeans just count the number of pods in three square feet. That is related to the preceding year and the long term average, but they don’t guess the yield.
The August US Department of Agriculture nationwide corn yield estimate was 184 bushels per acre, a record. Pro Farmer was less at 177. This was still a record. The USDA report had the curious effect of firming corn prices. Even though they forecast a record crop, it was less than the trade expected, mostly because of fewer acres planted. Reports of good export sales to the Chinese had been mostly ignored ahead of the report. China has purchased corn, soybeans, wheat, and pork in the last couple of months even as the rhetoric between the two countries is less than cordial. Our commodities are cheap compared to the rest of the world and the dollar has gotten cheaper too. The Chinese recognize that bargain.
The Pro Farmer yield survey was made after the devastating windstorm that swept through Iowa and into Northern Illinois. You may have seen pictures of flattened cornfields and farmsteads blown apart. A farmer I know north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa sent pictures of several farmsteads. It was hard to tell what the buildings had been except the remains of the machine shed usually still had the tractors and combines sitting in the wrecked building. This farmer was north of the worst damage.
The wind wrecked both commercial and on-farm grain storage as well. The crops these farmers can harvest might have a hard time finding a home. That damage extended into Northern Illinois. Entire grain setups were wrecked and just completed bins destroyed. The area around the Illinois River already faced a complicated harvest because the river is closed to barge traffic while much-needed repairs are made to the lock and dam system. There is no time before harvest to rebuild on the scale of the damage. Piling corn on the ground is not a preferred method of storage. There could be a lot of piles north of us.
There was a lot of speculation about the possible harvest of the down corn. In pictures I saw from late in the week the corn was dying, either broken off or tipped out of the ground. It will be a total loss in most cases and there are millions of acres of that. Many farmers were waiting for insurance adjusters to let them begin tillage to get rid of the dead corn.
Coronavirus fears have led to the cancellation of nearly every fair, exhibition and farm show in the Corn Belt. The big Farm Progress Show was to be in Iowa this year the first week of September. They held out a long time but decided to go virtual about a month ago. A lot of guys will participate in the online presentations but it won’t be the same as looking at the new equipment in person. Illinois Farm Bureau had a series of environmental stewardship days scheduled around the state. These are being held but they will be online. This pandemic would be much harder to cope with if we didn’t have the computers and phones we depend on so much.
Thinking of the Illinois River locks and dams reminded me of a project being undertaken on the lower Mississippi. The shipping canal is presently 45 feet deep. It will be dredged to a depth of 50 feet. This will allow ocean-going ships to load heavier and make each trip more cost-effective. The estimate I saw was that shippers would save 13 cents per bushel of grain going to New Orleans. That is a tremendous savings. That will work in reverse too for fertilizer coming upriver. Our rail, river, and road infrastructure lets us move commodities cheaply and safely. Other countries are struggling to build the type of transportation network we pretty much take for granted.
The dredging of 256 miles of the river was projected to cost 110 million dollars. That seems incredibly cheap when Congress is talking about trillion-dollar stimulus legislation. Some of the spoil from the dredging is going to be used to rebuild nearly 1,500 acres of coastal wetlands. The silt that built the delta of the Mississippi no longer reaches that delta. This will repair some of the marshland that protects the coast.
We have our grain bins to prepare for harvest and we are glad to have those available. We can’t store our complete harvest but it gives us alternatives when it doesn’t all have to go to town in the fall. One drying setup is getting an updated control. I would feel better if that was already done. Harvest will be here all too quickly. Thanks for reading about Douglas County and Midwest agriculture this month.