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IFB District 12 Director’s Douglas County Agriculture update for May

By Larry W. Dallas 
Planting has gone slowly in both Douglas County and the rest of the nation. According to the May 16 crop progress report, Illinois farmers have planted 55% of their intended corn acres, compared to a five-year average of 70 percent. Nationally, just 49 percent of the corn is planted, as opposed to 67 percent on average. Soybean planting is behind as well. 38 percent of the soybeans are in the ground, compared to the 45 percent five-year average.

Late planting does not mean poor yields. We can still raise good crops this year. But the chances of bumper yields decrease every day. One source says the corn yield goes down about half a bushel each day after May 20. Ultimately, the weather dictates what our corn and soybeans will yield this year. A favorable summer could still give us decent crops.

Planting soybeans ahead of corn continued to gain popularity this spring. Some farmers planted all their beans before they planted any corn.  Soybeans mature when the day length shortens in the fall. They can get more hours of sun when planted in April. No one ever planted soybeans before corn until just the last few years. 

We planted some beans then switched and planted our corn. We wanted to get our corn planted as early as we could. Hopefully, it will mature and dry down normally. Whatever late-planted corn yields, it is likely to be high in moisture and expensive to dry to a safe moisture level.

Unfortunately, part of our early planted beans do not have a good enough stand and will have to be replanted. It was a timing issue. The soil crusted and the soybeans couldn’t force their way through the ground. Fields planted before and after these are fine. 

What is considered a good stand of soybeans has evolved through the years as well. When we cleaned beans that we saved from the year before and planted them without any treatment, we tried to plant 10 or 11 beans to the foot or row, something like 190,000 to the acre. Now we plant around 140,000 to the acre and end up with a final population of 120,000 plants. 

The United States needs to raise good crops to make up for shortfalls around the world. South America grows most of its corn as a double crop after soybeans. Hot dry weather has hurt that crop this year. France, the European Union’s biggest grain producer, is undergoing a long-term drought. They are the 6th largest wheat producer in the world and the world’s fourth largest exporter of wheat. Recent forecasts cut the French wheat crop by 10 percent.

There has been a lot of speculation about how many acres of crops Ukraine farmers may plant. I have heard from 30 to 50% of last year. They cannot export the crops they have in storage from last year as well. Most of that grain goes out of the country through the Black Sea. Those ports are in ruins and sown with mines. 

Railing the grain west would seem to make sense, but there is another problem with that. Ukraine railroads are a different gauge than Western Europe, a relic of the Soviet Union period of history. The railcars must be switched to running gears to match the other rails or unloaded onto cars that match the rail gauge. It is a problem I would never have thought of. 

The very warm weather in mid-May brought both corn and soybeans out of the ground quickly. We saw corn emerge in 5 days. That would seem preferable to struggling for two or three weeks under cold conditions. The calculation to determine how long it will take a plant to emerge uses a base of 50 degrees. A day when the high is not 50 means no growth. April had several days with a high of 50 degrees or less.

As we plant the crop for 2022, we are always thinking about next year. I think that the wet weather most of the Corn Belt experienced spread out planting and prevented any shortages of fertilizer and herbicides so far. This fall may be a different story as we all try to apply nutrients for next year. 

The Federal government is making $500 million available in a fertilizer production program. That amount would not build one nitrogen plant, and it would be years for it to produce anything. The Illinois Farm Bureau submitted comments to the US Department of Agriculture recommending that money could be used to expand fertilizer storage, both on farms and for small fertilizer outlets. This would not increase fertilizer supplies, but it would make that fertilizer more readily available during the crush of spring and fall application. 

The dry fertilizers we use are easily handled and stored. These can be purchased at any home center in bags. The liquid and gaseous nitrogen that we use is another matter. The liquid products are corrosive and need to be stored in plastic or stainless-steel tanks, with containment to catch any spill. Anhydrous ammonia must be stored under pressure. A tank rated to store natural gas is not rated to store anhydrous. There are unique problems and expenses to fertilizer storage. 

I was part of the early discussions about the proposed nitrogen plant at Tuscola. The people we were dealing with were Eastern European and Turkish companies. They planned to produce urea, a dry nitrogen granule that is the last product in the manufacturing process of natural gas into fertilizer. You can store it in a bucket if it is kept dry and spread it by hand. 

One of the principles commented to me that there is a lot of direct injection of anhydrous ammonia in the US. I told him they might want to set up to sell anhydrous too. Our larger-scale agriculture has the equipment and expertise to handle that product, and benefit from its relative cheapness compared to other more manufactured forms of nitrogen. A small European farmer would be more likely to require a dry product easily handled and spread. 

We were able to put a lot of corn and soybeans in the ground in about ten days of running time. We need some more good weather to finish planting and move on to the next operations. We have nitrogen to go on several acres and a lot of herbicide needs to be sprayed. An extended nice spring would have been nice, but a late wet spring is what we were dealt. This kind of year sells a lot of farm equipment. Bigger stuff covers the ground faster. 

Thank you for reading about Douglas County Agriculture, and fertilizer, this month.

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