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Douglas County monthly agriculture update for October 2021

By Larry W Dallas
The harvest slowed to a crawl as we moved from September into October. Persistent rain has kept us from making much progress on soybeans and now many corn fields are soft and hard to work in. I have talked to farmers that are nearly finished with their corn but have not cut a soybean. Some bean fields even in mid-October have green leaves scattered in them. The bean is dry but the plants have not given up yet. 

It appears that the corn for the most part died at the end of August. Either from disease or the heat, the plants just gave up. After the first couple of fields, our corn was all-around 15 percent moisture, no matter what maturity the variety was. Some cornfields have obvious standability problems too.  We sprayed some fields with fungicide. These products are supposed to help with plant health but we did not notice much benefit from that. Those fields were just as dead and had about the same yield. 

As the temperatures decline and the days are shorter, it will be harder to get the remaining soybeans cut. Sun and wind make a tremendous difference. Those have been in short supply the last couple of weeks. We all have our fingers crossed for two or three weeks of good weather.

Nearly any harvested cornfield you drive past has a very good population of volunteer corn. A lot of this was shelled on the corn head because the corn was dry. When the head grabs the stalk and the ear hits the snout, kernels flew off. Two grains per square foot equal a bushel per acre. In many of our fields, we left a bushel or two per acre. There is a nice green carpet of new corn plants in many fields. The upside of volunteer corn this fall is that it won’t germinate next spring to be a weed in the soybeans. 

The rain and warm temperatures have helped us get a good stand of cover crops that we planted in some of our cornfields. We used oats and radishes this year but there are as many mixes of plants as you can think of. Each mix has a specific benefit we are told. The cover crop will help hold the soil over the winter, pull leftover nutrients into the plant, and have something growing in an ordinarily fallow time. 

I heard on the radio that food prices were going higher and one reason was that farmers were paying more for fertilizer. We will have to pay a lot more for fertilizer it sounds like. Most industries charge more when their costs go up. Agriculture is not like that. We are price takers and our input costs don’t have much to do with what we get for our production. The cost of the feed that went into an animal has no bearing on the price the producer gets. 

There are strategies to blunt the higher fertilizer prices. Soybeans don’t require nitrogen fertilizer and so are cheaper to plant. A farmer might change his crop mix to more soybeans. Many fields have adequate fertilizer levels that would let the farmer apply less and still grow a good crop. A lot of farmers will pull out the soil tests for their fields to see if they can cut back.

I had a phone call from a friend that works in the fertilizer industry last week. Among other products, the company he works for sells a sulfur/nitrogen fertilizer that we use on most of our acres. We have all seen the pictures of the horde of ships waiting to unload their cargo at west coast ports. My friend said that the catalysts they need to make fertilizers are stuck on these ships. This is more serious than not having Christmas presents, my friend said. They can’t make fertilizer for next spring. 

The United States makes a lot of its own nitrogen fertilizer. The bulk of the potassium we apply comes from Canada. A great deal of phosphate fertilizer is imported from countries as diverse as Russia and Morocco. Domestic producers complained these imports were undercutting United States production and the US trade commission has imposed countervailing duties estimated to add $80 a ton to the price. The University of Illinois projects that it will cost $50 an acre more to plant corn next year. As noted above, we don’t have any way to pass that on. 

Of course, in the long run, input costs do affect food costs. If you aren’t making money raising cattle you sell the herd. A scarcity of beef will run the price up. Areas that have trouble growing the kind of corn yields we raise in Central Illinois might grow more wheat and soybeans. Fewer corn acres will mean lower national production. 

I talk about the amount of technology used in agriculture, usually by the individual producer. That can give agriculture the same problems as every other business. This summer one of the big meatpackers had to shut down for a day when their computer system was hacked. In September a large Iowa grain cooperative had a ransomware attack, although I read they refused to pay the ransom. The computer chip shortage has left several hundred combines complete but unable to be used because they lack the chips needed to operate them. 

The Iowa company, NEW Cooperative, news release talked about the ransomware attack threatening the national food supply because of the businesses it is involved with. The sheer size of many agricultural and food companies gives them massive economies of scale. It also makes them vulnerable to disruptions like ransomware attacks or coronavirus outbreaks. We saw that up close last year. 

The wet weather has also slowed preparation for next year. We have had some fertilizer spread and there has been a little tillage work completed. We still have weeks of fieldwork left this fall. Please continue to be careful on the roads, especially since the days are shorter and farmers are more likely to be moving in the dark.

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