By Larry W. Dallas
Both plant progress and planting progress slowed in May. Cool weather kept emerged crops from making much growth. We had several frosts and daytime temperatures were only about 60 degrees early in the month. Soybeans came up very slowly. The corn that had emerged was mostly yellow.
We did not have a lot of rain through this time period, but it did not dry very fast with the cold. We had a couple of multiple-day shutdowns waiting on the ground to dry enough to work and plant. Some farmers are done with both corn and beans as I write this. Others are waiting to finish one or the other.
Conditions have varied widely across the state. As of May 17, it was estimated Illinois farmers had planted 86 percent of their corn, slightly ahead of average, and 71 percent of the soybeans. That is well above the average of 40 percent. Talking to farmers from around the state in Bloomington this week for Illinois Farm Bureau Board I would estimate only about half of the Board was done planting. Western and Southern Illinois have stayed too wet for fieldwork.
As planting is finished, we turn to other tasks to care for the growing crop. Nearly every field will get another herbicide application. Good control of weeds is a huge step toward a good yield. We use herbicides to accomplish the weed control we formerly did with multiple row cultivations.
Nitrogen is going on some fields. Corn is a huge consumer of nitrogen. For most of our corn, we applied the bulk of the nitrogen fertilizer last fall, with some added at planting to jumpstart the young plants. A couple of our fields and many in the county got some nitrogen at planting. The main application will be done after the corn comes up, in what we call a side-dress application.
There are advantages to both systems. Nitrogen fertilizer was much cheaper last fall than it can be purchased for right now. Nitrogen side dressed into the growing crop is applied closer to the time when the plant will need it. It is less likely to escape the soil than fall-applied fertilizer. Both methods are effective and can result in excellent yields.
The term side-dress reminds me of a reader complaint about last month’s column. I referred to some farmers in the Dakotas thinking about using prevent plant because it was so dry, they did not think there would be enough water this year to raise a crop. Prevent plant is a provision of the crop insurance most of us purchase. If planting is delayed so late into the growing season that the yield will be hurt, there is the option of not planting and taking a reduced insurance payment. I do not know if this was allowed. It does remain very dry in the Dakotas.
Farmers use a lot of terms not readily understood by the non-farming public. The terms side dress or prevent plant have instant meaning to us but may not be clear to others. We call the big folding mowers we use on roadsides batwings. That is descriptive but a mower is not the first thing that comes to mind. The narrow row planter we use for soybeans is a split row planter. It has another row unit between the ordinary row spacing of 30 inches, so it is a split row.
After a long run of higher prices, the commodities have struggled the last few weeks. Corn is a dollar off its highs and soybeans even more. The underlying fundamentals have not changed all that much. Demand has remained good. China is continuing to buy our corn and soybeans even though it appears that their hog numbers are again lower due to African Swine Fever. The South American corn harvest is late and much reduced from drought. Demand for ethanol made from corn is better as covid restrictions ease and more people are driving.
With little of the 2020 corn or soybean crop left in farmer’s hands, to take advantage of the rally we have looked at selling a portion of the crop we just put in the ground. That is traditionally hard to do for most farmers. We are a long way from having a crop to sell. We have never had a complete failure in our farming career, but any number of factors can reduce the yields this fall. It is a bad feeling to wonder if you will have enough grain to cover your forward sales. Those contracts will have to be filled by purchasing corn or soybeans on the open market, probably at a higher price than your sale price.
The 2020 crop year experience will probably limit forward selling in 2021. A lot of the 2020 sales were at pretty average prices, ahead of the recent runup. Early last year, price prospects were not that great, and forward sales were made in case prices went lower. Bad weather and unexpected demand shot commodities higher. Early sales of $4 for corn and $9 for soybeans look like mistakes with hindsight and prices that are 50 percent higher.
Most farmers pick out a forward sales level they are comfortable with and shoot to have that much sold before harvest. We know how many bushels we can store on-farm and like to have what will not fit in the bins sold before harvest. That avoids selling at harvest for usually lower prices or paying the elevator storage until better prices.
Livestock prices have been the source of much dissatisfaction, especially after the coronavirus shutdowns a year ago. Illinois Farm Bureau is participating in working groups to discuss how the price the farmer gets paid is determined. Fifty years ago, many of the cattle and hogs went to large stockyards in the major cities. Chicago, Indianapolis, and St Louis all had yards where farmers delivered their animals, and packers bid for them in an auction setting. The price was set in a transparent fashion.
Over time we have seen those stockyards close. Most cattle and hogs are delivered directly to the packers. There is no transparent price determination. Right now, at least for beef, there is a wide gap between the farmer’s price and the value of the meat in the store. The cost of processing must be figured in of course, but that spread is historically wide. It is hoped the working groups can come to some solution that lets everyone involved make some profit.
Thank you for reading about farmer slang and Douglas County agriculture this month. Drive safely when you are on the country roads.