By Larry W. Dallas
Harvest drags on in Douglas County. Several acres of corn remain to be picked. More problematic are the soybeans that are still to be cut. Picking corn has been no fun in a wet November. We cut ruts in many of our fields. Beans can only be cut a few hours a day and that takes a breezy sunny day in most cases. We were happy that our last fields of beans were lower moisture than we expected, close to the 13 percent the elevator wants.
A delayed harvest is a tougher job with or without mud. Some soybean fields have areas that are flat on the ground. Every windy day pushes some more corn over on the ground. The combines have to slow down to allow lodged corn and soybeans to feed into the head. Otherwise, you drive over the crop and leave it in the field.
The weather we use says we are more than 12 inches of rain ahead of the average for this point in the year. That is 32 percent above the average. One neighbor reports 20 inches of rain since August 1st. That helped the soybean yields but has made it very difficult to get them out of the field. Many fields are rutted from running combines in less-than-ideal conditions. Cloudy 40-degree days do not do much drying either.
Unless the weather changes, it does not look like we will have any chance to remedy the damage we have done in our fields. Deep tillage to remove soil compaction or even shallow work to fill in ruts has been as hard to do as the harvest operation. The effects of a wet harvest can stretch past just the next crop. Compacted soil does not allow good root growth and hurts yields. Compaction can last multiple years.
There has been some dry fertilizer spread and a little nitrogen applied. All forms of fertilizer are higher than last year. Nitrogen is nearly three times more than a year ago. All the fertilizer can wait until spring and that is the route many will go. There is no guarantee it will be any cheaper then and having that operation to do will complicate the busy planting season.
Modern agriculture is energy-intensive. Nitrogen fertilizer starts with natural gas. We will use about 9,000 gallons of diesel fuel this crop year. Most herbicides are petroleum-based. All of it comes to us by train or truck. The higher cost of energy in all forms is driving the price of many of our inputs upward. That cuts into our bottom line.
The severity of the fertilizer price problem and the nationwide scarcity of labor was brought home to me when talking to another Illinois Farm Bureau Board member. He and his son are going to let some of their rented land go for the coming year. They have struggled to hire more help, and this will lessen their labor needs. They won’t have to buy as much fertilizer either.
Crop prices are staying up at good levels. China has quit buying corn from the U.S. but there have been very good sales to Mexico. Our other neighbor in this hemisphere, Canada, is a good corn customer as well. China is still supposed to be our best export customer for corn this year.
South America is planting soybeans right now, with pretty good conditions. They are always forecasted to grow a record crop and this year is no exception. Brazil is expected to plant 4 percent more soybeans than a year ago. When they begin harvest early next year, the US will have a rough time selling our beans until South America runs out. South American soybeans are usually cheaper than ours due to currency differences. Many countries would rather buy from anybody besides the U.S. if they can.
Many farmers have used biodiesel, a blend of conventional diesel fuel and bean oil for several years. Another renewable fuel made from almost all soybean oil is coming into wide use on the west coast of the country. It is used in both diesel engines and as aviation fuel in jets. This promises to be a boost for soybean use. The ratio of bean oil goes from 10 percent to almost 100 percent. This is an exciting new use for our soybeans.
In 2015 a coalition of government and private groups joined in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. The biennial report on this effort came out early in November. The goal of reducing nitrates and phosphorus in the state waterways continues but we made no progress in this report. Above-average river flows are being blamed.
It is not for lack of trying. An estimated $27 million was spent last year for conservation in addition to government cost-share. Illinois Farm Bureau made nutrient stewardship grants of $175,000 for practices to keep nitrogen and phosphorus in farm fields. Meetings were held around the state to tell farmers about nutrient loss and possible remedies.
The work goes on. The Illinois Farm Bureau will make another round of nutrient stewardship grants. They have added pollinator grants for 2022 as well. Agriculture is trying to keep nutrients out of our rivers and streams. These are too expensive to lose. We need some help from nature it looks like.
The NLRS reported farmers planted 1.4 million acres of cover crops in 2020. That is a huge increase over the beginning years of the NLRS, but it is still a small portion of tillable Illinois land. We put a cover crop on about 10 percent of our farm. This year it cost about $25 an acre for seed and planting. The state has some cost-share, but we don’t qualify since we have done it before. That money is for new adaptors of the practice.
Hopefully, the weather will cooperate, and harvest can be finished soon. Last year everything went very smoothly, and we were done early in the fall. It is a reminder that each year is different. Thank you for reading about Douglas County agriculture this month.