By Larry W. Dallas
Planting started early this April in Douglas County. Several people hit the field the day after Easter. The temperatures were warm and the soil conditions good. It seemed like a great chance to get started. The recent wet springs are fresh in farmer’s minds. Good weather will be taken advantage of.
We planted corn first, then some soybeans later in the month. Others followed a recent trend and concentrated on getting their soybeans planted. Only a few years ago agronomists were experimenting with planting soybeans at the same time as corn, or even ahead of corn planting. At least in this area early planting of soybeans is now widely accepted.
The soybean plant is light-sensitive. They start to flower around the longest days of the year in late June and start to mature when days get short in September. The theory is that early beans will flower longer and set more pods for a bigger yield. Plot work and farmer experience show that this will work.
Soybeans are proving to be more cold-tolerant than originally thought too. Any seed put onto the soil will begin to draw in water in preparation to germinate. If a corn seed draws in a bunch of cold water, it can damage or kill the seed. Some agronomists advised that we stop planting soybeans 24 hours ahead of the cold weather and snow the third week of April, so they are not immune to the cold-water uptake problem. Corn can be frozen off and still grow back if the growing point is still in the ground. When an emerged soybean freezes off, it is done.
Traditionally soybeans were planted almost as an afterthought when corn planting was completed. They were a rotational crop that put nitrogen into the soil and broke up the disease cycle of corn after corn. The soybeans were supposed to use the nutrients leftover from the corn crop the year before. Now we use pricey seed treatments to protect the seed and often fertilize specifically for the soybean crop.
The soybean seed we planted 30 years ago was often a public variety developed by a university and usually saved by the farmer from the harvest of the crop the previous year. Most of us plant newly purchased seed each year now. The patent protection for the traited seed we use forbids the planting of the saved seed. Our non-genetically modified soybean contracts specify new seeds each year.
We still have the small wagons we saved seed in back then. It was a little bit of a tradition to fill them each fall with a variety of soybean that had yielded well, then pull them out in late winter to have the beans cleaned to condition them for planting. Some friends from Tolono had a seed cleaner they pulled from farm-to-farm cleaning soybeans, oats, and wheat. I filled the planter with buckets then, instead of the motorized seed tender we now use. Now soybean seed comes in boxes with roughly 40 acres of seed in them.
Nationwide planting is just getting started. The southern states that ordinarily have a lot of acres planted by now have seen heavy rain that kept them out of the field. Southern farmers need to plant well ahead of our ideal time so that the corn can pollinate before the hottest weather. The upper Midwest is cold and dry. One market advisor said that in the Dakotas some farmers are seeing if they can take prevent plant. It is so dry they see no reason to even try planting. Even with normal rain the rest of the year, they do not think they can grow a crop.
That same market advisor also spoke about the variety of crops that are planted in the Dakotas up into southern Canada. We grow mostly corn and soybeans in Illinois. These fit our climate and soil types well. The less humid upper Midwest historically grew a lot of spring wheat. They also grow dry beans, pulse crops like lentils and canola. These are short-season crops that prefer drier conditions than we have. Plant breeders have developed short-season corn and soybean varieties that produce well in northern regions, so that area has a lot of choices.
The US Department of Agriculture came out with its prospective planting report on March 31. The acres for corn and soybeans came out well below the trade guesses, which expected that acres would go up substantially because of the higher prices. The report gave prices a nice boost. The world demand and stocks report in early April kept prices moving up. The stocks of grain around the world are at diminished levels and the projected planted acres are not enough to bring them back to levels the traders feel comfortable with. After dissatisfaction with government reports the last two years, farmers have some numbers they like right now.
That dissatisfaction prompted Illinois Farm Bureau to put together a working group to discuss the credibility of the National Agricultural Statistics Service numbers. Ten farmers met with representatives from the USDA, universities, and market analysis firms trying to find out why the government reports had been so inaccurate. To their credit, NASS was receptive to the discussion and the recommendations Farm Bureau made.
Guessing crop size is an inexact science and growers are aware of that. I think the statisticians do not give enough credit to weather problems. The corn hybrids we use and the soybean varieties we plant are light years ahead of what we planted when I started farming. They are not bulletproof. A month delay in planting or three weeks without rain can make a big difference in yields. The numbers people tend to make broad assumptions that do not take that into account.
Actual acres planted to each crop seem to be an elusive number every year, but we report planted acres to the local Farm Service Agency by mid-June each year. It should be simple to find out those numbers. In 2019 it was harvest time before the government figured out the upper Midwest had huge prevent plant numbers.
So, after a deep dive into crop reports, thank you for reading about agriculture this month. Remember we will still be on the roads to finish putting this crop in and watch out for us.